The annual Karjala Tournament begins in Helsinki on Wednesday, with national teams representing Finland, Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic taking their first steps toward the IIHF World Championship this spring. Last year, Finland broke Russia's four-year tournament winning streak. In three of the last four years, the country that won the Karjala went on to take gold at the Worlds.
With the senior national-team season under way, the top four European leagues -- Russia's KHL, Sweden's Elitserien, Finland's SM-liiga, and the Czech Extraliga -- are on short-term hiatus until next week. Here's a look at the league leaders and biggest surprises in each league to date.
KHL muddling through tragedy
The global hockey world remains devastated by the Sept. 7 plane crash that killed the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl roster and all of its coaches who were on board en route to its regular-season opener in Belarus against Dinamo Minsk. The tragedy has cast a pall over the entire hockey season, and although the 2011-12 KHL season has gone on, the grief remains fresh, and there are constant reminders of all who were lost.
Leaders of the pack:
Representing the Bobrov Division, SKA St. Petersburg leads the Western Conference and tops the league standings with 48 points in 20 games. Dinamo Minsk sits atop the Tarasov Division with 42 points. In the Eastern Conference, Traktor Chelyabink (leading the Kharlamov Division) and Amur Khabarovsk (first in the Chernyshev Division) are tied atop the conference with identical records and 44 points apiece.
Briefly a member of the Carolina Hurricanes
(two games in 2008-09), Czech right winger Jakub Petruzalek
has bounced around various North American and European leagues before signing with Amur Khabarovsk this season. Coming off a 20-goal campaign in Finland with Lukko Rauma last season, Petruzalek is off to an even better season so far in the KHL, leading the league with 11 goals and 27 points in 22 games. To no one's surprise, Petruzalek was named to Team Czech Republic for the Karjala Tournament.
Petruzalek's Amur teammate, Finnish defenseman Mikko Maenpaa
, has been one of the better offensive-minded defensemen in Europe in recent seasons. Coming off a somewhat disappointing season in Sweden in 2010-11 with the Frölunda HC Indians, he joined Amur in the offseason. To date, he is tied with fellow Finn Janne Niskala
of Atlant Moscow for the league scoring lead among defensemen with 15 points (6 goals, 9 assists). Niskala was named to Finland's Karjala tourney roster, while Maenpaa was not.
SKA St. Petersburg goaltender Jakub Stepanek has not been tested much in many of his starts, as the team in front of him often dominates puck possession. When the team has needed him, however, he has stopped most everything fired his way. To date, he boasts a league-leading 1.30 goals-against average and .952 save percentage. Stepanek is scheduled to start in goal for the Czech Republic in its Karjala Tournament opener.
Biggest disappointment: Nikolay Zherdev
has remained an enigma after returning to the KHL this season following one season with the Philadelphia Flyers
, totaling just 3 goals and 10 points in 19 games with Atlant Moscow. Signs of frustration have been evident in recent games, as Zherdev collected four misconduct penalties -- including a game misconduct -- over a three-game span. He broke a three-game point drought with an assist in his last game, but Zherdev has just 1 goal in his last 8 games.
Elitserien trying to crack down on questionable hits
As in the NHL, there has been considerable early-season focus in Sweden on imposing harsher punishments for high hits and checking from behind. The league recently imposed a month-long suspension (11 games) for Linköpings HC left wing Sebastian Eriksson for a check to the head of Frölunda's Magnus Kahnberg
, who had to be helped off from the ice. Kahnberg sustained a concussion and lost several teeth. Earlier this season, Brynäs IF defenseman Simon Bertilsson
was suspended seven games for a charging penalty in which he made contact with the head of Luleå HC's Jonas Berglund.
The Swedish hockey community lost one if its most illustrious members this fall. Known as the "Swedish Gordie Howe
," Sven Tumba passed away at age 80 on Oct. 1. Born Sven Johansson, Tumba was the country's biggest hockey star in the 1950s and 1960s, and many believe he would have been an NHL standout had he come along a few years later, when European players started to come to North America. Over 500 mourners attended Tumba's funeral.
ACROSS THE POND
Nearly 40, Nedved still going strong
Bill Meltzer - NHL.com Correspondent
More than four years removed from his last NHL game, veteran forward Petr Nedved
remains active and a highly productive player in the Czech Republic's Extraliga. READ MORE ›
HV 71 Jönköping sits atop the 12-team league, but few are excited about that. The team learned the hard way last season that finishing first in the regular season may not mean much come playoff time. Winners of the Swedish championship in 2008 and 2010, the club took first place last season for the second straight season. However, the club fell victim to a stunning first-round playoff sweep by lightly regarded AIK Stockholm.
Växjo Lakers forward Mike Iggulden
continues to lead the league scoring charts, leading Elitserien in goals (11) and points (23) in 20 games. Second on the list is AIK's Robert Rosen, who has been hot of late and has 10 goals and 21 points. Linköping defenseman Magnus Johansson
leads all blueliners in the league with 10 assists and 13 points. Hard-shooting Växjo defenseman Ilkka Heikkinen
has 10 goals (8 on the power play).
Frölunda has played suffocating defense this season, and Danish goaltender Frederick Andersen has erased most of the shots that have gotten through. He leads the league with a 1.51 GAA, .946 save percentage and four shutouts. Former Philadelphia Flyers
prospect Joacim Eriksson
(1.52 GAA, .941 save percentage in 11 starts) appears to be on the brink of supplanting veteran Andreas Hadelov as Skellefteå AIK's primary starter.
The season got off to a disastrous start for defending champion Färjestads BK. However, the team has come on of late and now is in seventh place. Meanwhile, Djurgårdens IF Stockholm has tumbled to ninth place, and would miss the playoffs if the season ended now. The return to DIF of Ottawa Senators
2011 first-round pick Mika Zibanejad
drew national headlines, although the move was not all that unexpected and only will be for the rest of this season. He has 1 goal in three games to date.
SM-Liiga searches for more offense
Over the last decade in Finland, there has been much consternation over a presumed decline in offensive creativity and entertainment value in the league compared to the early to mid-1990s. There often is talk about ways to inject more goal scoring back into Finnish hockey. The bottom line, however, is that defense and goaltending still are what win championships.
The highest-scoring team in the league, the surprising Pelicans of Lahti, also is the stingiest defensively so far. The first-place Pelicans have scored 3.23 goals per game while allowing just 1.81. Meanwhile, the clubs with the second-, third- and fifth-lowest goals-against per game -- KalPa Kuopio, Ässät Pori and the Espoo Blues, respectively -- also roughly correlate to their place in the standings.
KalPa's Matti Kuparinen has been a fabulous addition since leaving his hometown Pori squad to come to Kuopio. He leads the league in scoring with 22 points (7 goals, 15 assists) in 21 games. Kuparinen is just one point ahead of top Minnesota Wild
prospect Mikael Granlund
, and two ahead of Ässät's Tomas Zaborksky. Kuparinen and Granlund both will play for Finland in the Karjala tourney.
defense prospect Sami Vatanen
(JYP Jyväskylä) and 31-year-old veteran Ville Uusitalo (Ässät) share the league scoring lead among defenseman with 15 points apiece. Officially, Vatanen is ahead based on scoring 4 goals to just 1 by Uusitalo. Vatanen also is slated to play in the Karjala.
Veteran KalPa goaltender Ari Ahonen
is the league's statistical leader in GAA (1.48) and save percentage (.941). However, the general consensus is that Philadelphia Flyers
' prospect Niko Hovinen
(1.78 GAA, .936 save percentage, four shutouts) has been the league's most valuable goalie so far. The towering Hovinen, who stands 6-foot-7, was named to Finland's Karjala Tournament team, where he will back up Karri Ramo
(Avangard Omsk of the KHL) in the opening game and start the second.
Defending champion HIFK Helsinki thus far has fallen victim to the dreaded championship hangover early the next season, sitting 10th in the 14-team league. Goal scoring has not been a significant problem, but the club has given up too many goals (54 in 19 games). Meanwhile, last season's individual scoring king, former Dallas Stars
' center Perttu Lindgren
of Lukko Rauma, has been limited by injury to nine games. He has 4 goals and 6 points in those games.
Veterans reign supreme in Czech Extraliga
The problems that Czech hockey has had in developing talent matching the caliber of past generations has been discussed and debated in recent years. In the meantime, the top teams and players in the Extraliga often are older players who have returned home to the Czech Republic to finish their careers or younger veterans who were unable to make it in higher-paying leagues abroad. That has been the case again during the 2011-12 season.
The Liberec White Tigers (Byli Tygri Liberec) sit atop the 14-team league with 39 points in 20 games. Right on their heels are HC Sparta Prague and HC Mountfield Ceske Budejovice. HC Kladno, which is owned by Jaromir Jagr
, got off to a hot start early, but since has leveled off, and was hurt by the pre-planned departure a few weeks ago of former NHL forward Jan Hlavac
for Swedish team Linköping.
Soon to be 40 years old, former NHL standout Petr Nedved
(Liberec) leads the Extraliga in scoring, with 11 goals and 29 points in 20 games. In one of the more interesting subplots to the Karjala Tournament, Nedved, who defected from then-Czechoslovakia, will suit up for the Czechs at Karjala Tournament. Nedved only has previously represented the land of his birth at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and otherwise played for Canada.
Among those chasing Nedved in the Extraliga scoring race are 34-year-old HC Vitkovice forward Jiri Burger (11 goals, 25 points), 38-year-old Sparta forward Petr Ton (9 goals, 22 points) and his 34-year-old teammate, Petr Tenkrat
(8 goals, 18 points). Meanwhile, 34-year-old HC Trinec defenseman Lukas Zib
leads the blue line scoring race with 14 points (2 goals, 9 assists) and a plus-10 rating in 19 games.
Liberec goaltender Marek Pinc owns the league's lowest GAA at 1.88 and the highest save percentage at .937. Meanwhile, iron-man goalie Jakub Kovar
of HC Ceske Budejovice (2.17 GAA, .931 save percentage) was named to the Czech roster for the Karjala, where he will back up Petruzalek.
Almost nothing has gone right so far for HC Slavia Prague. There has been talk of massive changes coming to the 12th-place club, perhaps even including the removal of the iconic Vladimir Ruzicka
as coach if things do not improve. Slavia has been a defensive disaster so far this season, and when they've managed to keep the opponent's score down, they have come up short on their own attack, especially on the power play.