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2020-21 ZhHL Season Preview

Get ready for the Russian women’s hockey season with our preview of the teams.

(SP)RUSSIA-UFA-ICE HOCKEY-2019/2020 WOMEN’S HOCKEY LEAGUE CHAMPIONS Xinhua/Mao Siqian via Getty Images

The 2020-21 Zhenskaya Hockey League (ZhHL) season was set to begin on Sept. 19. But on Sept. 18, the league announced the start date would be moved back to Oct. 3, as a result of various issues.

The biggest ZhHL story last year was the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays, formerly a CWHL franchise, joining the league. The Rays went on to win the championship after finishing second in the standings in the regular season. Shenzhen swept Agidel Ufa in three games after making quick work of the once mighty HK Tornado in the semifinals. It was a fairy tale ending for Shenzhen.

The big story heading into the 2020-21 season is far more doom and gloom.

The stability of the league is now in question as a result of the economic strains created by the coronavirus pandemic. Dynamo St. Petersburg has already folded and there are dire concerns about funding and sponsorship for Agidel Ufa and SK Gorny. A new team, the 7.62 of the Moscow region, will fill the void left by Dynamo.

How to Watch

Last season, the ZhHL streamed games on their YouTube channel. Hopefully it will be the same this season.

A schedule of the games should be on the league’s website, but was removed at some point recently.

Teams

Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays

Until proven otherwise, Shenzhen are the favorites heading into the 2020-21 season.

The Rays’ core of international stars, headlined by Alex Carpenter and Noora Räty, are back for another season of pro hockey in Russia. Last year, Carpenter led the league in scoring with 21 goals and 32 assists in 27 games playing on a line with with the versatile and relentless Rachel Llanes.

Gillian Kemmerer has reported that Alex Carpenter, Noora Raty, and Megan Bozek will all be back for another season with KRS in the ZhHL. She also reported that Lindsay Agnew is joining the squad. On Sep. 4, Minttu Tuominen, of the Finnish national team, also signed with the team. So has Canadian forward Lindsay Agnew, who played at the University of Minnesota and Boston College during her NCAA career.

On Sep. 17, KRS announced the addition of veteran Czech forward Alena Mills, who has played the last two seasons on Agidel Ufa’s top line. She should infuse the lineup with speed, skill, and depth scoring, but it’s hard to say who her linemates will be. If she gets to play with Carpenter and Llanes, expect career highs for Mills.

Agidel Ufa

Agidel, led by Olga Sosina, finished first in the 2019-20 regular season with a record of 22-5-1-0. To state the obvious, they will be the KRS Vanke Rays’ biggest competition this year. If anyone can bring the league title back to a Russian team, it’s Agidel.

Darya Beloglazova, who was second on Dynamo in goals last season (10), is a big addition to Agidel. Beloglazova will be 20 by the time the season starts, so she is still filled with potential. She has scored 20 career goals in the ZhHL in 85 career games for Dynamo and Tornado.

Of course, the focus in Agidel will be on Sosia, who finished tied for fourth in the league in scoring (38) last year. Sosina, now 28, is coming off of her lowest-scoring ZhHL season, so there will be a lot of pressure on her to produce now that Alena Mills is out of the picture. Keep an eye out for Slovak forward Nicol Čupková and rising star Polina Luchnikova stepping into bigger roles with Mills landing in Shenzhen.

HK Tornado

The once mighty Tornado finished third in the regular season standings last year. Tornado came to hate tight games in 2019-20; they lost five games in overtime and finished the season with a +0 goal differential. When stars Anna Shokhina and Lyudmila Belyakova were kept out of the box score, the secondary scoring rarely came through.

Belyakova was a revelation in her return from maternity leave. She scored 12 goals in just 14 games in the regular season and two more goals in two postseason games against Shenzhen. If she’s back this year, she’ll be a player to watch for Tornado. The same is true of Shokhina, who finished the 2019-20 campaign with 38 points in 28 games — exactly half of what she put up in 2018-19 in 33 games. This team really wants Yelena Dergachyova back from maternity leave.

Tornado, which has long been defined by its young talent, also scooped up free agent defender Irina Tsatsyna. Tsatsyna played with Dynamo last season and is now 18 as she enters her fourth season in the ZhHL. She could help Tornado keep pucks out of the net, which would be a big step towards closing the gap on Agidel and Shenzhen.

Biryusa Krasnoyarsk

A case could be made that Biryusa deserved better than a fourth place finish in last season’s standings with a +13 goal differential, but they simply lost too many games in regulation.

The big story here is captain Valeria Pavlova, who is one of the best natural goal scorers in the world right now. She led the league with 24 goals in 28 games last year after scoring 33 in goals in 35 games in 2018-19. Interestingly enough, she is one of the few Russian stars that didn’t see a big drop in her production in 2019-20. To give you an idea of just how valuable she is to Biryusa, Pavlova had more goals than the team’s second and third-highest goal scorers combined and just 14 fewer goals than the entire SKSO roster last year.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 10 - Canada v OAR Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

The good news for Biryusa is that much of its core, including Pavlova, is 25 and under. If some of the youngsters around her continue to develop and step into bigger roles with Oxana Tretyakova gone, it will take a lot of pressure off of Pavlova to carry the team.

If you’re looking for a fun wildcard team to follow this year, look no further than Biryusa.

SKIF Nizhny Novgorod

Katya Smolina is back in the league with SKIF after missing a year on maternity leave. She’s won championships in Russia and the SDHL and has two bronze medals in Worlds competition with the national team, so she brings a bevy of experience to a young team that finished sixth in the standings in 2019-20.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 10 - Canada v OAR Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

SKIF’s biggest problem last year was winning games in regulation. In 28 games, they won just eight games in regulation and five games in extra time. The big question this year will be whether SKIF can improve enough on defense and in the goal crease to take the pressure off of Smolina and the young forward trio of Landysh Falyakhova, Oksana Bratischeva, and Viktoria Kulishova. We’ll soon find out.

SK Gorny

No team absorbed more castaways from Dynamo St. Petersburg than SK Gorny. However, there’s no guarantee they will be competing in the league this season. Per Hayley Williams’ Instagram, SK Gorny’s sponsor dropped their support, leaving the team with an uncertain future with the regular season just days away.

If SK Gorny is back on the ice this year, the big focus for them will be to keep pucks out of the net and to build two scoring lines centered around youngster Fanuza Kadirova and veterans Williams and Alexandra Vafina. Last season, SK Gorny

SKSO Yekaterinburg

SKSO finished dead last in the standings last year. They had just one win (overtime) in the regular season and finished with a -121 goal differential in a 28-game regular season. That’s rough — and things could be almost as rough this year.

The bottom line for SKSO is that they need more talent, but there have been no major signings announced heading into the 2020-21 season. No team needed DSP’s castaways more than SKSO, but, as of this moment, it appears that they were unable to recruit any of those players. That is a devastating blow to a team that had just one player — Yulia Vasyukova — finish last season with at least 10 points.

Don’t expect miracles out of SKSO this year.

7.62

The season preview for 7.62 can be summed up by this comment (translated through Google) made by head coach Alexander Syrtsov:

Nobody from our team has ever played on a professional level. Only in the first days of September Valeria Dryndina from Tornado with experience of playing in ZhHL moved to “7.62”. It is too early to give any estimates. Of course, we know what players in the Women’s Hockey League are capable of. We are preparing to compete with any rival from the League.

So, the most experienced player at this level on 7.62 is Dryndina, who turned 18 in June. Take a minute to soak that in.

It appears that 7.62’s roster will consist of several members of Russia’s U18 national team, including the soon-to-be 16-year-old defender Anna Sviridova. Sviridova and company took bronze at the 2020 U18 Women’s World Championship in Slovakia. It should be noted that a few of the biggest names from that squad — Kristi Shashkina, Anna Alpatova, Kristina Glukharyova, and Polina Luchnikova — have already signed with other teams for the 2020-21 season.

All signs point to this being a long season filled with hard-earned lessons for 7.62. Expect them to finish in the bottom of the standings.