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KHL Eastern Conference preview

With the Kontinental League season under way, the league released a preview of its upcoming season. Here is the outlook for each of the teams in the Eastern Conference.

Admiral Vladivostok

Head coach: Hannu Jortikka

Last season: Did not compete

Prospects: Is Vladisvostok ready for the big stage? One of the newest teams in the KHL this season, Admiral has a tough opening month – they don’t hit home ice until a Sept. 27 tilt with powerhouse CSKA. The seven-game road trip to start the season will either make or break this team. Much will depend on Jortikka’s wizardy, as he returns to Russia following a stint with Amur. On the ice, Enver Lisin will need to prove he’s more than a novelty signing.

Ak Bars Kazan

Head coach: Valery Belov (continues from last season)

Last season: Conference Finalist (lost 3-4 to Traktor)

Key arrivals: Alexander Burmistrov (Winnipeg), Tim Stapleton (Dinamo Minsk), Alexander Svitov (Salavat Yulaev)

Prospects: It’s the end of an era in Kazan, with the departures of top scorer Alexei Morozov and Danis Zaripov. Their dynasty brought three championships – will the new-look team be as competitive? The revamped offense has potential: Burmistrov is looking to develop into the star the Winnipeg Jets thought he would be, Stapleton has been prolific in Belarus, and Svitov was a key cog in Ufa last campaign. But the play of returning goalie Konstantin Barulin will be vital. If he can recapture the form that took Atlant to the 2010 final, Ak Bars will be a top contender again.

Amur Khabarovsk

Head coach: Evgeny Popikhin (replaced Hannu Jortikka last season)

Last season: Failed to reach the playoffs, runner up in the Nadezhda Cup

Key arrivals: Jan Mursak (Detroit), Jakub Petruzalek (Dynamo Moscow)

Prospects: After helping Amur to a rare playoff appearance in 2012, Jortikka was fired for failing to build on that success last season. The arrival of Mursak, a Slovenian forward who starred for Grand Rapids in their AHL title run, is significant, while Petruzalek returns from his short time at Dynamo. Questions remain over coach Popikhin, who is still looking to settle with a club after four failed stints elsewhere.

Avangard Omsk Region

Head coach: Petri Matikainen (continuing from last season)

Last season: Conference semifinal (lost 1-4 to Traktor)

Key arrivals: Sergei Kostitsyn (Nashville), Teemu Lassilla (Barys), Denis Kulyash (Ak Bars)

Prospects: While Avangard is looking to secure its first Gagarin Cup, some are shocked Matikainen is still around after his squad meekly bowed out of the playoffs last season. The departure of Kari Ramo hurts, but Lassilla impressed with Barys. In front of him it’s a revamped defense, while ex-Pred Sergei Kostitsyn is their big addition up front, whose offensive abilities could push Avangard over the top.

Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg

Head coach: Anatoly Yemelin (appointed in the summer, from Metallurg Novokuznetsk)

Last season: Failed to reach the playoffs

Key arrivals: Jan Kovar (Mountfield, CZE), Eric Belanger (Edmonton Oilers)

Prospects: The Yekaterinburg club is under new management, following the arrival of GM Leonid Vaisfeld from Metallurg Novokuznetsk. Chris Holt’s skills between the pipes couldn’t carry Avto last year, so they’ll turn to Czech international Kovar this season after a stellar campaign back home. The other prized newcomer is NHL veteran Belanger, who has 820 NHL games under his belt. He’s looking for redemption after an off year in Edmonton.

Barys Astana

Head coach: Ari-Pekka Selin (appointed in the summer)

Last season: First round playoff (lost 3-4 to Traktor)

Key arrivals: Nik Antropov (Winnipeg Jets), Ari Ahonen (Metallurg Mg)

Prospects: Barys will undoubtedly feel the loss of head coach Vladimir Krikunov, who returned to Neftekhimik. Other departures include a pair of Kazakh internationals - Vadim Krasnoslobodtsev and Alexei Troshchinsky. There’s some good news as Nik Antropov comes home after a few seasons with the Jets, while the overseas line of Dawes-Boyd-Bochenski remains intact. The question is whether the little-known Selin can match what Krikunov achieved.

Metallurg Magnitogorsk

Head coach: Mike Keenan (replaces Paul Maurice this summer)

Last season: First round of the playoffs (lost 3-4 to Salavat Yulaev)

Key arrivals: Vasily Kosechkin (Severstal), Danis Zaripov (Ak Bars), Evgeny Timkin (Vityaz)

Prospects: Another season, another North American coach. Paul Maurice’s arrival last season was supposed to start a long-term plan to rebuild the club. After a first round exit in last year’s post-season, Maurice was let go, replaced by the fiery Keenan. They’ve also brought in the crafty Zaripov, 23-year-old Timkin and new netminder Kosechkin.

Metallurg Novokuznetsk

Head coach: Alexander Kvitov (replaced Anatoly Yemelin this summer)

Last season: Failed to reach the playoffs

Key arrivals: Raymond Giroux (Ambri-Piotta, Switzerland), Niko Hovinen (Oklahoma, AHL)

Prospects: Financial problems dogged Novokuznetsk all last season which had them limping to the last game. The team has never clinched a playoff berth and it’s hard to see that changing in 2013-14. Changes in management haven’t made the club any wealthier, so it’s another year of letting the kids play. French-Canadian defensemen Giroux returns to Russia after a season in the Alps, while Finnish goalie Hovinen will get a ton of work.

Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk

Head coach: Vladimir Krikunov (arrived from Barys this summer)

Last season: First round of the playoffs

Key arrivals: Mikhail Anisin (Severstal), Branko Radivojevic (Spartak)

Prospects: Krikunov, an immensely popular and respected figure in Nizhnekamsk, leads the underdog team. Anisin and Radivojevic are the new guys; Anisin is as controversial as he is clutch, after his dominating post-season with Dynamo helped the Moscow team to the 2012 Gagarin Cup. If Krikunov can utilize the talented but unpredictable forward, Neftekhimik will be dangerous.

Salavat Yulaev Ufa

Head coach: Vladimir Yurzinov Jr (replaced Vener Safin during the previous season)

Last season: Conference semifinal (lost 3-4 to Ak Bars)

Key arrivals: Anton Babchuk (Calgary Flames), Teemu Hartikainen (Edmonton Oilers)

Prospects: The dark horses of the East, Salavat Yulaev had a relatively low-key summer compared to their rival clubs. Steadily improving as the season progressed, the team gets stronger on the backend with Babchuk and his blistering shot. He joins Brent Sopel and Vitaly Proshkin, both of whom were stellar last season. Up front, things are less encouraging. Several forwards have left after the team budget was slashed, most notably Alexander Svitov. Their replacements are largely unproven with guys like Edmonton Oiler’s sixth-rounder Teemu Hartikainen.

Sibir Novosibirsk

Head coach: Dmitry Kvartalnov (since 2012)

Last season: Playoff first round (lost 3-4 to Avangard)

Key arrivals: Jarno Koskiranta (Tappara, Finland), Vyacheslav Belov (Traktor)

Prospects: The departure of two key players – goalie Jeff Glass and defenseman Nikita Zaitsev – will hold back Sibir from joining the conference’s big boys. The current “big five” won’t become a “super six” this year – it’ll be more of a building year for the middling squad. Finnish forward Jori Lehtera, along with Koskiranta, will be leaned on for a playoff push.

Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod

Head coach: Peteris Skudra (appointed this summer)

Last season: Failed to reach the playoffs, played in the Western Conference

Key arrivals: Jarkko Immonen (Ak Bars), Georgy Gelashvili (Metallurg Magnitogorsk)

Prospects: Former NHL goalie Skudra is taking on his first head coach job this year with Torpedo. He’s coming in with big expectations, refusing to be content with scraping into the playoffs. The offense has been remade, with Immonen’s arrival somewhat off-setting the loss of Matt Ellison, Dmitry Makarov and Martin Thornberg. They had a strong pre-season, particularly at the club’s home tournament, but a surprise defeat to Medvescak and a moderate showing in the Donetsk preseason tournament suggests there’s work to be done.

Traktor Chelyabinsk

Head coach: Valery Belousov

Last season: Runner-up (lost 2-4 to Dynamo Moscow in Gagarin Cup final)

Key arrivals: Anton Kuryanov (Avangard), Renat Mamashev (Neftekhimik), Lauris Darzins (Ak Bars)

Prospects: The Traktor production line of talented young hockey players has lost two of its rising stars – but they’ve kept prized star Evgeny Kuznetsov for at least another season. It’s likely that he’ll be off to the NHL next summer, so this may be his last chance at a KHL title. Last season’s run to the final was impressive, but Kuznetsov knows his playoff form wasn’t as good as his regular season, where he scored 11 game-winning goals. Darzins and Kuryanov replace Maxim Yakutsenya and Vladimir Antipov, while the defense gets a new look. Deron Quint will be missed, but Mamashev could be an astute addition.

Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk

Head coach: Sergei Shepelev

Last season: Failed to reach the playoffs

Key arrivals: Veli-Matti Savinainen (Assat, Finland), Guntis Galvins (Dinamo Riga)

Prospects: The action in Yugra is equal on and off the ice with a new GM in Khanty-Mansiysk. Andrei Belmach expects a playoff berth and after struggling to keep several of their top guys, the pressure is on returnees like top scorer Igor Skorokhodov to produce. Savinainen will relieve some of the burden: he scored 36 points in 46 games to help Assat win the Finnish title, earning himself a spot on the World Championship team. Latvian defenseman Galvins is looking to reinvigorate his career after several years in Riga.


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