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European Report: A strange new face graces the report

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With the WJC well in the past, it’s time to catch up on the league play of the prospects.

Kontinental Hockey League: Ak Bars Kazan vs Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod Region
Who’s this interesting fellow.
Photo by Yegor Aleyev\TASS via Getty Images

The European seasons are winding down, and most leagues head to the playoffs next month or early in March. There will be one more break for some national team play, and then the important part of the season will be here while the NHL is still considering who should trade for Alexandar Georgiev.

Mikko Kokkonen

D - 19 years old- shoots left - third year pro, second in Liiga

Since the last European Report, Mikko Kokkonen played in the WJC and turned 19. His WJC was not all that great, to be honest, so I hope his birthday was better. Jokke Nevalainen covered the WJC and assembled some stats on the Finnish team, and none of their defenders looked fantastic, but Kokkonen was particularly weak.

Kokkonen has only played four games since coming back to the Liiga, averaging 18 minutes per game. He’s been scoreless in those four and sits at two goals and one assist on the year. This comes after his first full season in the Liiga last year where he had three goals and 16 assists in 56 games, so to say this season is a struggle is an understatement. His Corsi % this season is also abysmal in the 40% range, and he’s the worst on his team amongst regular roster players.

He did score two goals at the WJC, both long bombs from the blueline, so he has had something good going on in January. Oh, and just one note. There was some surprise expressed during the WJC at Kokkonen playing on the right side. He always does. Jukurit has limited right-shooters, and he’s made of a career out of playing his offside.

Eemeli Räsänen

D - 20 years old - shoots right - second year in the KHL

Eemeli Räsänen is on the cusp of something. I just don’t know what. He’s either going to move down to a much lower-level league next season, or, well, the alternative looks unpleasant to that. He turns 21 this March, and is about to finish a second lost season. Last year the excuse was injuries, and this year it’s a contract limbo not really of his making.

Two years ago, coming out of two good seasons in the OHL, Räsänen was signed by Jokerit of the KHL. This was a bit surprising because nothing about his play said he was ready for top-level play. And he wasn’t. Even accounting for his injury last year, he has 26 games total in KHL play over almost two full seasons where he has averaged 10 minutes per game. He has two points.

At the same time, he’s been loaned out to Jokerit’s affiliate in the Mestis (one level below the Liiga), and has shown to be too good for that sort of league. He has 13 games there, where he plays as a top pairing defender, and four points in total.

Jokerit tried something different (and odd) this season, by lending him to the Danish league for a time. He played in seven games there, notched one point, and left again, not the conquering hero perhaps everyone had a right to expect, given that the Danish league is absolutely a steep step below the Mestis.

In amidst all this, he played five unimpressive games on the Marlies last year on a PTO.

Since his return from Denmark this month, Jokerit has played him in three KHL games, where he gets 10 or so shifts per game. They have 14 more games to play before the playoffs, and they currently sit fourth in the West, which won’t make for an easy first round, so it’s hard to picture Räsänen getting in playoff action.

It’s past time to put this guy on one team and leave him there. And again, the problem is Jokerit doesn’t have a VHL team, which is likely where he belongs in a European context. Or the Liiga. Or the Swiss league, or even the SHL.

Because the KHL allows teams to dress extra junior-age players, they sit, they watch, they don’t play much, and there is a point (and age 21 is well past that point to my mind) where a little bit here and a little bit there is not in the player’s interest.

We’ll see where he ends up next year, but this year sure looks, at a distance, like a waste of his time. I hope the Jokerit practices and skills training have been worth it, because that’s all he’s gotten out of it. Aside from the pay cheque.

Pontus Holmberg

W/C - 20 years old - shoots left - second SHL season

While the juniors were having fun, old men like Pontus Holmberg stayed home and got some games in. He turns 21 this year soon as well, and he’s not a kid anymore, he’s an SHL veteran depth player, who has locked in a fourth-line winger job for Växjö. He hasn’t made any inroads up the lineup, however.

Växjö has made some inroads on the standings over the last month. They have crawled up to tenth place, safely out of the basement where they spent the first half of the season, but not yet in a stable playoff position. If the playoffs started now, they’d be in the group of four teams who play in the first round, to decide who joins the top six who get a bye to round two. They have 18 more games to solidify that position.

In 34 games played so far, Holmberg has three goals and five assists and averages 12 minutes per game. To compare that to someone we have an understanding of, Pierre Engvall, in his one SHL season, played 31 games, had seven goals and 13 assists in 13:38 minutes. Engvall got more time with better teammates, and also has more individual scoring skill.

The SHL has retroactively added Corsi data, so we can now know that Engvall’s Corsi % was a team-leading 62%, and Holmberg’s this year is a modest 51%. Big differences in Corsi within and between teams is much more common in the SHL and the Liiga, so applying NHL-trained attitudes to raw numbers isn’t wise. Engvall was on a very good team, and Holmberg is not. However, it is clear, Holmberg’s play-driving is his main skill.

Semyon Kizimov

RW - 20 years old - shoots left - second year in the VHL

Semyon Kizimov’s character-building season of struggles after a hot year last year continues. He’s just turned 20, and has remained stuck in a depth role in the VHL. He has four goals and three assists on the season so far in 36 games, while Lada remains in second place in the league. Playoff glory might yet come.

Lada has 10 more regular season games, so the playoffs are nearly here.

Vladislav Kara

Winger/C - 21 years old - shoots left - third pro season, first in the KHL/VHL

Vladislav Kara, the man on this list who is having a great time this season, got called up to the KHL before Christmas and ran with the opportunity. So the question on my mind last time was if he’d stick there.

Stick, he has, but the points have dried up and he’s taken on a role that’s very like Dmytro Timashov on the Leafs. He plays almost no minutes against good teams. He gets some ice against bad teams, and the scoring opportunities aren’t plentiful.

All that shakes out to four goals and four assists in 25 games played in the KHL with 8:25 per game played. The achievement is cracking the roster of the top team in the East, and keeping the spot through the trade deadline when teams seek to shore up their roster for the playoffs.

Ak Bars has 15 games left to play, and then we’ll see if there’s any more glory for Kara this season.


We finally have a person of interest to talk about this season, and handily, he plays with Kara on Ak Bars.

Timur Bilyalov, half of the Ak Bars tandem this year has many, many rumours swirling around him. He is said to be interested in trying the NHL, and he is being pursued by the Leafs and other teams.

Ak Bars is a team that seems to always have good goaltending, and they are a team that plays very well, and in a style that makes being their goalie easier than on many teams. I shouldn’t even tell you Bilyalov’s save % because you’ll place it on a scale with NHL numbers, your eyes will pop, and you’ll have totally the wrong idea.

Bilyalov is 24, and he turns 25 this spring. He was born in Kazan, so Ak Bars is his home club, and he’s come up through the ranks there, with a sojourn to another club’s VHL team for one season, and then a full pro season on Dinamo Riga last year when Ak Bars’ better goalies blocked his path to the KHL.

He is 5’10” and 174 lbs, and the goalies in the NHL of his size at the moment form a very short list.

Okay, his save %: This season he has a .950 in 23 games, and last year in Riga (a very, very bad team), he had a .930 in 38 games.

While gaudy numbers are not uncommon in the KHL, Bilyalov, leads the KHL this year, although as a tandem goalie who has 15 fewer games than some starters, that’s an easier trick for him than it is the busier starters.

As an example: Ilya Sorokin, the CSKA starter, and the king of the top team in the league, drafted by the Islanders in the third round, has a .931 in 32 games, but his backup, Lars Johansson is better with a .935 in 18 games.

The more meaningful result is Bilyalov’s Riga season, where he was 11th in the KHL with a .930 on a team that wasn’t helping him out much. His tandem partner there was old friend Kristers Gudlevskis, who had a .910 in 31 games.

So is Bilyalov going to wow the NHL? Sure, why not? Maybe he wasn’t drafted because he’s short, and maybe he’ll be one of the very few goalies his size to make it. Maybe he’s Jaro Halak and not Jhonas Enroth. Maybe he’ll even be on the Leafs.