Dinamo Minsk is currently tied for second place in the Tarasov Division. This is quite the turn around for a team that finished dead last in their division last year with only 65 points. They have nearly half that many points now in only 16 games. Quite the turn around indeed, especially since this team is basically the same as last year’s.
Yes, they lost Jonas Andersson and Byron Ritchie, but they gained Jozef Stumpel and Hannu Pikkairanen. The reason they are winning right now is solid, fundamental team play. They are passing the puck around well and they are playing smart hockey.
On top of that they have now addressed their main weakness, backup goaltending, by signing Robert Esche. The fact they had this problem at all is a little bit surprising though. Minsk brought in Mika Oksa to backup Mezin, and it seemed like a great move during the off-season. Oksa was a rock for KalPa last year posting career bests in GAA and save %. But this season he is a much different player, surrendering 13 goals in four games.
Now that Minsk has Esche they need not worry about games that Andrei Mezin doesn’t start and this will also allow Mezin to get more rest and be well prepared for the playoffs and playoff push. The way this team has played so far this season they may be starting the offseason a little later than usual.
Now while Minsk has been great, they are far from the best team and they also aren’t the most improved or biggest surprise so far. Two things jump out when thinking of surprise teams in the KHL this year. First, SKA St. Petersburg and how poorly they are playing. Second, is Sibir Novosibirsk and how unbelievably well they are playing.
Let’s start with St. Petersburg as it’s truly baffling how bad a team that, on paper, is arguably the most talented team in the league, can be. So, how can they be playing so bad that they only have four wins in regulation? Well, let’s start with Evgeni Nabokov.
Nabokov’s transition to the big rink has not been good at all. He’s not reading pucks as he should be, his judgement is off, and he just hasn’t been himself. This can of course turn around instantly for SKA as a goalie of Nabokov’s caliber will surely be able to make the necessary adjustments and become elite again.
Jakub Stepanek has been doing a very capable job as Nabokov’s backup and soon may take the number one spot. Stepanek and a win over the Carolina Hurricanes are the only true bright spots in this season so far for the team. This team is a veteran squad and they may need a little more youth to add some life.
That life may come from defenseman Johan Fransson, who the club recently acquired on loan from the Los Angeles Kings. The season is early though, and there should be no doubt that this team will turn it around enough to make the playoffs. Nabokov, Yashin and Sushinsky have to show up to play at some point and when they do this team will start winning on a regular basis again.
Novosibirsk, on the other hand, has done everything right so far this year. Bringing in both Ville Nieminen and Jonas Enroth has turned out to be genius moves. Successful linemates for Tappara last season, they have both continued right from where they left off.
The play of Vladimir Tarasenko (picked 16th in the 2010 NHL draft) should not go unmentioned either. His play so far this season shows that he gets minutes based on ability and not because he’s the coach’s son. This team has also benefited from very strong play in net from their split-time duo of Stefan Liv and Yuri Klyuchnikov and an impressive young blueline highlighted by Alexander Kutuzov’s strong play. All the pieces are in place for this team to continue their great play and make a run at the Gagarin Cup.
Lastly, let’s look at who is the better team right now, Dynamo Moscow or Metallurg Magnitogorsk? Both teams have played strong so far. Moscow has done well utilizing a balanced attack and running their offense through their defense. Magnitogorsk has relied on the scoring of Denis Platonov and Juhamatti Aaltonen. Both teams feature premier goaltenders, in Michael Garnett and Ilya Proskuryakov. It’s tough to say which team is truly better right now. They won’t meet each other until November 7th, in what should be a very exciting game.
The problem that Moscow has is that they are too reliant on Garnett right now– if he falters the team will falter. Magnitogorsk doesn’t rely on goaltending, and they’re better because of it. Proskuryakov is just another weapon on a potent team that has a whole lot of trouble losing. We’ll know for sure who’s better come November 7th.