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2011-12 KHL Season Begins with Cup Rematch

Well, the pre-season activity is now over, and we're staring down a 672 game regular season schedule for Europe and Asia's top professional hockey league.  The KHL is back up to 24 franchises, avoiding a team failure for the first offseason while adding a new expansion market in Poprad, Slovakia, the league's first venture outside the former USSR.  Lev Poprad will see their first regular season action on Saturday, home to one of the KHL's true powerhouses:  Avangard Omsk. 

There's been a decent amount of change over the past offseason, particuarly amongst the coaching staffs.  The KHL is highlighting this change, issuing a press release which plainly points out that none of last year's quarterfinalists are returning their head coaches from last year.  The new faces behind the benches include Sergei Mikhialyov (Salavat Yulaev Ufa), Bengt-Åke Gustafsson (Atlant Mytishchi), Alexander Barkov (Metallurg Magnitogorsk), Vladimir Krikunov (Ak Bars Kazan), and Milos Riha (SKA St. Petersburg).  SKA St. Petersburg, in a move typical of their high budget ways, poached Atlant's head coach Riha after Riha won the Western Conference, bringing a few players along for the ride as well. 

While it's a new year, with a lot of roster change, it does seem like it'll be a similar tale for a lot of teams.  Five clubs exceeded the salary cap last year and had to pay a 30% overage penalty as a result, and to be honest those five clubs probably budgeted for that penalty again this season.  The money is still flying around St. Petersburg, Ufa, Magnitogorsk, Kazan and Omsk, and Atlant may not be far behind them after forking out big contracts for Nikolai Zherdev and Alex Kovalev to come over from the NHL. 

The league's also rans don't seem to have improved much:  Metallurg Novokuznetsk gained long time NHLer Brent Sopel but lost Dmitri Orlov.  Amur Khaborovsk posted amazing attendance again last year but don't look any better on paper from the team that had to fire their coach before the fifth game of the year.  Vityaz Chekhov ditched all of their goon squad from last year (Chris Simon, Darcy Verot, Josh Gratton) and replaced them with a fresh new goon squad of Jon Mirasty, Kip Brennan, and Jeremy Yablonski.  

Still, there's hope.  CSKA Moscow is undergoing a youth movement, and seem to be bucking the trend of the KHL being a veteran first league.  Poprad is definitely an exciting enterprise, a small market European city that has access to a lot of local talent.  The league is bringing in referees from Finland and Slovakia this year, committing itself to improving on that front. 

The season starts today with the traditional Opening Cup, a rematch of last year's final between Ufa and Mytishchi in the champion's arena.  Despite the changes, Salavat Yulaev still look like the team to beat in the league this year, returning key players at every position and finding a strong replacement for Patrick Thoresen (who signed with SKA) in Maxim Sushinsky.  The team is still largely composed of players in their late 20's, so repeating seems very possible.  Atlant, meanwhile, will still need another strong team game to reach the Finals again, despite their high profile pickups in the offseason.  They remain dependent on Konstantin Barulin's goaltending for much of their success.

The game (and season) starts at 3:00 PM Central European Time, or 9:00 AM EST.