The European season is entering the final phase as leagues begin to hold playoffs. The Russian Women’s Hockey League is in the midst of semifinals right now, with Kunlun Vanke Rays facing Tornado in one and Agidel facing Biryusa in the other.
The league faced an issue with the Chinese team making the playoffs, and they have decided to play all the games in Russia, which also eliminates one of the toughest travel scenarios in hockey. In the KHL, brother club, Kunlun Red Star did not make the playoffs, so they were spared dealing with that issue.
But fears and precautions over COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus outbreak that began in China, may severely affect other European playoffs. The Swiss Hockey League is struggling with a measure announced by the government to limit events to 1,000 spectators from now to March 15. The Swiss league chose to play their remaining quarterfinal games without spectators, but they haven’t decided how to handle the rest of the playoffs. Needless to say the economic impact on teams will be severe.
Also worrying is that the IIHF Men’s World Championships is scheduled to begin in Switzerland on May 8. The organizers have to be concerned that either restrictions on travel or fears of the virus that causes COVID-19 might cause players to opt out. There are no travel restrictions into Switzerland at this time, and their official report says 15 cases of infection have been confirmed.
The IIHF Women’s World Championships begins on March 31 in Halifax-Truro, so that is unlikely to be affected in any way.
The KHL has finished its regular season and the other major leagues are almost finished, so let’s have a look at the Maple Leafs prospects playing in Europe.
D - 19 years old - shoots left, but plays right - third year pro, second in Liiga
Mikko Kokkonen, coming off his disappointing WJC returned to play in the Liiga to a fairly disappointing performance by his team Jukurit.
Note: Jukurit =/= Jokerit and the two teams are not linked in any way beyond a similar spelling.
In his nine games since coming back from the WJC, Kokkonen has zero points, and the team has gone on a horrible losing streak, winning just two of 12 games since his return. This comes after a worse one that ran from the end of November to mid-January with two wins in 16 games. Quite a few of their earlier wins were in shootouts, and they’ve been in overtime a lot. They are, in short, a very bad team.
They’re currently in second-last place at time of writing. With eight games left, it’s hard to imagine they’ll rise much. The Liiga does not have relegation anymore so there’s no incentive to get out of the bottom of the league at the end of the year.
Interestingly, a Canadiens prospect who was playing on another bad Liiga team has already come over to play in the AHL:
I just spoke with Jesse Ylönen, "I am super exited [to join @RocketLaval]. I haven't spoken with Jesperi Kotkaniemi, but I will before I get to Montreal. #EuropeanProspectReport for @HabsEOTP#Habs pic.twitter.com/ZFr0w9fcTG— Patrik Bexell (@Zeb_Habs) February 28, 2020
Kokkonen is under contract to Jukurit through next season, and Ylonen, who is older, is not, but it is still very possible that Kokkonen could be loaned to the Marlies on a PTO at some point.
Right now he’s playing a lot of top-pairing minutes, often on the left side, which is unusual for him, so he’s getting good ice time. We’ll find out in time if he’ll be coming over this year or if they think next year is soon enough for him.
D - 20 years old - shoots right - second year in the KHL
After a well-travelled season where too much of it was spent in the press box, Räsänen got in some games on Jokerit as the KHL regular season wound down. He finished the regular season pointless in 17 games, with an average time on ice of 9:43.
Jokerit finished third in the West, and play old friend Lokomotiv in the first round. Jokerit should be favoured to win it, but it won’t be easy. Will Räsänen play? I very much doubt he plays much unless the game is meaningless. Last year he got 4:10 in one playoff game.
His Jokerit contract runs out at the end of this season, and I don’t know what the future holds for him, or if the Leafs are interested still, but I doubt Jokerit renews him as he’d be ineligible to be dressed as a designated junior next year. He’d need to be a real roster player. They’re going to have a VHL team soon, and if that’s going next season, he could play there.
W/C - 20 years old - shoots left - second SHL season
With six more regular season games to go, Holmberg’s team Växjö are holding onto the last playoff spot by a very slim margin. The SHL playoff format sees the teams that finish seventh to 10th playoff in the first round. The losers go golfing, the winners play the rested first and second place teams in the quarterfinals. They usually get smoked.
Växjö has a negative goal differential, terrible goaltending and a low rate of goals scored.
Holmberg, meanwhile, has been playing a little more centre lately, moving around the bottom-six, and playing both wings as well. He has six goals and seven assists in 46 games so far, which is a modest increase on his points last year when the team was less horrible.
He’s a Corsi darling, though, and his Corsi is staying above 50% on a team where the offensive zone isn’t a place anyone but the top line get into very often. He has a terrible on-ice shooting percentage largely driven by quality of teammates, and usage. So don’t write him off yet based on box cars.
His contract is up this spring, and it looks like his season won’t last very much longer. He is the most interesting prospect to potentially join the Marlies. If he comes over, we may get a better idea of how he fits in on the depth chart.
RW - 20 years old - shoots left - second year in the VHL
Kizimov has played his entire season in the VHL where he’s struggled to score. He just turned 20 last month, though, and is one of the youngest players in the league.
His regular season ended on a more positive note with a smattering of points in his final games where his ice time climbed back up to middle-six levels again. He ended up with five goals and eight assists in 45 games, which is in line with his production last season, only in about three minutes less per game.
Lada finished second in the VHL and have played three playoff games where they are 1-2 vs Neftyanik. Kizimov has been pointless in all three so far, but his ice time has climbed to 18 shifts per game.
Winger/C - 21 years old - shoots left - third pro season, second with KHL time
As Ak Bars has moved into playoff mode this season, Kara has moved to the VHL again. He finished the KHL year with four goals and four assists in 27 games played on the fourth line.
Ak Bars finished first in the East and is a favourite to win it all, so as they begin their playoffs against Neftekhimik, they might not have room for a prospect. That first game is March 2. Meanwhile in the VHL, Bars finished fifth and is in the middle of the first round of the playoffs.
Kara finished the VHL season with seven goals and 14 assists in 25 games played at top line minutes and 27 shifts per game.
He has two goals in two playoff games with Bars winning both. It seems likely he will finish out the year in the VHL for however long Bars keeps going.
Kara’s contract runs another season with Ak Bars, and he’s at the age where you’d like to see him get a more serious look on the big club, but that may depend on how they retool this summer. If they’re rebuilding, a prospect might get to play more.