The Belarus Extraliga consists of 14 teams, representing not only Belarus but also Latvia and Ukraine. Although the caliber of play does not match up to the level of the top European leagues, the league compares favorably to some elite country minor leagues and is a step up from the top leagues featured in many of the secondary hockey countries in Europe.
In recent years, especially since the promotion of HC Dynamo Minsk to the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League, HC Yunost Minsk has been the dominant club in the league, which is also known as the Open League.
Yunost has captured four of the last six championships in the league, including last season. As clubs prepare for the playoffs, the team has run away with the top spot during the regular season and appears to be a virtual lock to make it five championships in seven years. Yunost has racked up 123 points, 22 points ahead of second-place Shahter Soligorsk. Beyond its own borders Yunost (which previously captured the 2004 IIHF Continental Cup) was runner up to Austria's Red Bull Salzburg in this season's Continental Cup tournament.
The club is being led offensively by left winger Aleksandr Materukhin. The former ECHL and AHL player has racked up 30 goals (including 11 on the power play) and 69 points, to go along with a plus-35 rating at even strength. Those totals lead the entire league. Materukhin, a 28-year-old Ukrainian who played his junior hockey in the QMJHL and the USHL, had 17 goals and 41 points a year ago.
Last season, two Yunost players topped the league in scoring. Forward Oleg Timchenko (26 goals, 58 points in 46 games) and linemate Roman Romanenko (24 goals, 58 points in 47 games) ran roughshod over the opposition during both the regular season and postseason. This season, the 31-year-old Timchenko ranks second in the league to Materukhin, with 30 goals and 66 points. Romanenko is now with Metallurg-Zhlobin after tallying a somewhat disappointing 12 goals and 23 points in 30 games with Yunost.
On defense, the club is anchored by Aleksandr Ryadinsky. The 31-year-old backliner has been a regular on the Belarusian national team since 2003 and averaged over 22 minutes of ice time per game at the World Championships in Switzerland this past spring. The 6-foot-2, 207 pound defensive defenseman plays with a bit of a physical edge to his game and is arguably talented enough to play in the KHL.
Yunost no longer has the ageless Oleg Leontiev on the roster, after he moved on recently to Metallurg-Zhlobin. The 39-year-old Leontiev is a former regular in the Russian Super League (the predecessor of the KHL) with Metallurg Magnitogorsk and SKA St. Petersburg, Leontiev played for Belarus in the 2007 and 2008 World Championships. This season, he led all defensemen in the Belarusian league in scoring for much of the season, tallying seven goals and 29 points in 36 games. With Leontiev's departure, Sergei Erkovich (four goals, 17 points) becomes the club's top point-producing defenseman.
In goal, Yunost is backstopped by 36-year-old Sergei Shabanov. A frequent member of Team Belarus who has Russian Super League experience with SKA St. Petersburg and other clubs, Shabanov leads the Belarusian Super League in every major goaltending category, including goals against average (1.55), save percentage (.938) and shutouts (10 in 39 starts).
Before returning his focus to capturing another Open League title, Yunost head coach Mikhail Zakharov will take on the task of coaching Team Belarus at the Olympics. Although there are no current Yunost players – or any Belarusian league players –on the country's Olympic roster, its World Championship roster typically has several players from the club. Zakharov estimated to IIHF.com that he has previously worked with 95 percent of the players on the Belarusian national team.
In the long term, it is possible that Yunost Minsk could be added to the KHL, making it the second Belarusian team (along with Dynamo Minsk) in the league. If this happens, the club may relocate to Bobruisk. There are only two KHL-worthy rinks in Belarus, with Dynamo occupying the one in Minsk and an 8,000-seat arena in Bobruisk being the other. Located 74 miles from Minsk, Bobruisk has its own airport.