The Zhenskaya Hockey League’s (ZhHL) 2019–20 season begins on Sept. 13. Of course, the biggest offseason news for Russia’s professional women’s hockey league was the addition of the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays, formerly of the CWHL. The addition of Shenzhen is significant not only because the ZhHL is now an eight-team league, but also because there now are new stars in the mix who could reshape league’s power structure.
The defending champions enter the 2019–20 season as the team to beat, until proven otherwise. Agidel has a deep roster led by captain Olga Sosina, Slovakian power forward Nicol Čupková, and veteran Czech winger Alena Mills. Sosina led the team in scoring last season with 69 points in 31 games and scored eight goals in six playoff games to help secure Agidel its championship. As always, she remains the player to watch.
Earlier this month @HCAgidel (ZhHL) signed Ulyana Trigubchak (@Uly_3gubchak), a former KHL "ice girl" turned sports presenter, to a try-out contract. She has over 53k Instagram followers.— Mike Murphy (@DigDeepBSB) August 22, 2019
Sounds like she'll be given a chance to try-out for Agidel after some individual training.
It’s also worth noting that Ulyana Trigubchak, a former KHL “ice girl” turned sports presenter, is currently with the team on a try-out contract. Whether or not she’ll crack the roster for the regular season remains to be seen. Agidel believes that having her on the team will give the ZhHL more exposure.
Dynamo St. Petersburg
According to the league’s site, there haven’t been many changes for Dynamo — and that’s a good thing. St. Petersburg finished second in the standings last season with a record of 22-11-3. Unfortunately for the young club, they fell in the final to Agidel. It would be a massive disappointment for Dynamo to finish anywhere lower than third in the standings.
“The girls are tuned, charged, they are doing what they love, they missed games and hockey,” Dynamo head coach Julia Karpova shared after a preseason game against Agidel. “The mood is only to win ... New girls got used to the team, and soon we will show our best result. Of course, I don’t want to lower the bar and at least confirm my status — the appetite comes with eating, I always want to go higher!” (translated through Google)
Dynamo’s greatest weakness last season was their offense. They finished fifth in the league in goals scored, with 107 in 36 games. However, Dynamo also had the second-fewest goals against. The key for St. Petersburg will be finding a way to get more production out of their forwards without sacrificing the team’s exceptional overall defense.
Biryusa lost some of its depth scoring over the offseason after up-and-coming forward Tatiana Shatalova signed with the Metropolitan Riveters of the NWHL. But 5-foot-10 star forward Valeriia Pavlova hasn’t gone anywhere. As long as Biryusa has its captain, they should be a playoff team. Her 33 goals last year were more than twice the number that Biryusa’s second-highest goal scorer amassed.
The deciding factor for Biryusa this season will be how far they can go with limited depth on a team that is dependent on Pavlova and national team goaltender Nadezhda Morozova to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. It is because of this lack of depth that Biryusa looks like a prime candidate to slip down the standings. On paper, the teams around them seemed to improve while Biryusa seemed to stand pat.
SKIF Nizhny Novgorod
SKIF will be a different team this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will fail to return to the postseason. In addition to adjusting to a new head coach, SKIF will also have to find a way to win without Finnish veteran Karoliina Rantamäki, alternate captain Alexandra Vafina, and defender Alexandra Kapustina, who retired. Fortunately for SKIF, they added defender Yekaterina Ananyina from SKSO Yekaterinburg and Belarusian forward Lidiya Malyavko, who scored 10 goals last season for Biryusa.
While it’s true that SKIF squeaked into the playoffs last season, they proved their quality by taking the first game in their semifinal series against Agidel. Teenager Oxana Bratishcheva nearly doubled her production from the 2017–18 season last year. If she continues to develop into the player that SKIF and Team Russia are counting on her to become, we should expect another big year from Bratishcheva.
Tornado fell well short of expectations last season by missing the playoffs — finishing in fifth place with a record of 20-15-1. Talent has never been the question for Tornado, but last year the team’s lack of depth and lackluster defense proved enough to spoil the campaign. It was a tremendous disappointment for a team that features some of Russia’s most talented skaters.
Superstar Anna Shokhina is at the very top of that list. Shokhina was the league’s leading scorer last season with 76 points in 33 games. It’s hard to believe that a team led by a player who averaged over one goal per game could go from having a record of 17-6-1 in 2017–18 to missing the playoffs the following season, but that is exactly what happened. Tornado needs more structure around Shokhina. especially in the defensive zone. The team also needs its captain to stay out of the box — she finished the 2018–19 campaign with 65 PIM.
It will be tough sledding for Tornado to get back to the top of the mountain in the ZhHL. They will be without national team goaltender Nadezhda Alexandrova, who has retired, and star center Yelena Dergachova, 23, who is out of the lineup on maternity leave. The 51 points Dergachova scored last season were good for fourth in the league and third on her team. Needless to say, that caliber of production is going to be tough to replace. Whoever replaces her on that top line with Shokhina and Alevtina Shtaryova will need to step up their game if Tornado wants to return to the playoffs.
SK Gorny Ukhta
Hayley Williams is back for a second season with SK Gorny, but Tatiana Rafter has decided to hang up her skates and will be coaching in Europe this year. Rafter, a ZhHL [and NWHL] All-Star who won an Isobel Cup with the Riveters in 2018, was the team’s third-highest-scoring skater last season with 21 points in 31 games. She will be difficult to replace. Fortunately for Gorny, rising star Fanuza Kadirova remains in the picture.
Kadirova, 21, scored 20 goals and led her team in points for the fourth consecutive season. With Rafter out of the mix, opposing teams will turn more of their focus into slowing her down this year. Ultimately, Gorny will go as far as Kadirova, Williams, and high-scoring defender Liana Ganeyeva are able to take them. This remains a young club that will likely finish outside of the playoff picture.
What is there to say about SKSO outside of bringing up their dismal record of 1-33-2 from last season? This was a team that was outscored by over 200 goals last season and had only four skaters put up double digits in points. Ananyina, SKSO’s highest-scoring skater from last season, has left the team to play for SKIF. In other words, things look even more grim than they did at the onset of the 2018–19 season.
SKSO will once again be at the bottom of the standings at the end of the regular season.
Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays
Given the star power featured on Shenzhen’s roster, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that they could immediately challenge Agidel as the heavyweights of the ZhHL. Remember, it was only two years ago that Kunlun Red Star made it to the Clarkson Cup Final. And while it’s true that elite center Kelli Stack is no longer in the picture, the Rays still have some serious international talent on the roster, including Alex Carpenter, Noora Räty, and Kimberly Newell.
Newcomers to Shenzhen this year include Harvard alumna Kaitlin Tse, a defender who scored 51 points in 120 career NCAA games, and 5-foot-10 Minnesota State alumna Rebekah Kolstad. Kolstad could help fill the role that was once occupied by Stephanie Anderson, who left Shenzhen to sign with the Minnesota Whitecaps of the NWHL.
Much like it was in the CWHL, the story for Shenzhen will be how much the team can get out of its Chinese-born players. In previous years, China’s professional teams have been held back by an overdependence on imported talent. Now that KRS is playing in a league that is decidedly less competitive than the CWHL, the coaching staff have an opportunity to test their Chinese players by giving them larger roles and more ice time. Look for Xin Fang to bounce back after an underwhelming final season in the CWHL.
All data courtesy of whl,khl.ru, eliteprospects.com, and the author’s own tracking.