Now that the awkward first date is out of the way for the men’s hockey clubs at the Olympics, we’ll start to learn more about their true personality in the ensuing days.
It’s difficult to read much into Team Russia’s performance against Slovenia, for example. The host nation was electric in the first few minutes of its opener against a mammoth underdog, before mellowing and seeing its opponent get to within a goal, at 3-2 in the second period. The eventual 5-2 triumph featured both long stretches of dominance and unfocused play from the Russians, which isn’t surprising given the short window of time the players have to gel.
For Russia, the challenge is complicated by another layer of unfamiliarity – about 40 per cent of its roster plays in the KHL. Finland has a similar scenario with eight of its 23 participants plying their trade in the world’s second best league.
All told, the KHL has sent 48 players to the Games, with Latvia leading the way at 14. Some of the KHL faces are very familiar to fans of the NHL, such as Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov. For others, we need a program and scouting report.
With that in mind, we turned to Austrian-born Bernd Bruckler, a 2001 Philadelphia Flyers draft pick who spent three seasons in the KHL tending goal for Nizhny Novgorod and Sibir Novosibirsk. We asked him to identify five KHL players whom we should know and watch closely. Here are his picks:
1. Jori Lehtera, RW, Sibir Novosibirsk, (Finland)
One of the top-playmaking centers in the KHL, Lehtera has been near the top of the league’s scoring race the past few years. At 6-foot-2, 190 pounds he has good size and brings leadership qualities and excellent passing skills to his team. A St.Louis Blues prospect, he has turned down numerous offers to go to North America and instead stayed in the KHL.
2. Viktor Tikhonov, RW, SKA St. Petersburg (Russia)
He is a lanky, highly skilled forward who decided to return to the KHL after spending time in the Phoenix Coyotes system. Tikhonov has developed into an offensive weapon for his team and is also very useful on the power play.
3. Leo Komarov, LW, Dynamo Moscow (Finland)
Komarov played one season in the NHL with Toronto, but opted to return to the KHL. He has been a mainstay with the Finnish national team and is an aggressive power forward. He’s one of the best skaters in the league and doesn’t shy away from the dirty areas. As Maple Leafs fans can attest, he’s an effective agitator who gets under the skin of his opponents.
4. Lars Haugen, G, Dinamo Minsk (Norway)
A smooth goalie with a dynamic butterfly style who has worked his way up the depth charts in Dinamo Minsk’s organization over the past few years. He has been a big part of the resurgence of Norway’s national team and will have to play a big role for them to have success and pull off an upset.
5. Arturs Kulda, D, Salavat Ufa (Latvia)
An offensive defenseman who brings good size and mobility to his game. He had brief stints with the Winnipeg Jets, but spent most of his North American career in the AHL. He is a promising defenseman and likes to join the rush frequently. He has a big shot and likes to play tough in front of his own net.
Bernd Bruckler’s book, This Is Russia, co-written with Finnish journalist Risto Pakarinen, is available at Amazon.com.