Kunlun Red Star has started the 2019-20 Kontinental Hockey League season with a 3-4-0 record, but this is not as bad as it may first appear.
After opening the season with an impressive shootout victory against Salavat Yulaev Ufa, the Middle Kingdom club has been unable to string together a number of positive results. They currently sit just under a .500 record. While this may concern a number of people, the reality is that the league’s only Chinese club isn’t expected to perform much better and, actually, one more win would put them in an ideal position to be in moving forward.
The ultimate aim for Kunlun Red Star this season is to make the playoffs, something that they haven’t been able to do for the past two years. After a strong inaugural season, which saw Red Star reach the postseason, the KHL’s sole Chinese club has largely struggled to keep pace with the majority of the league.
American coach Curt Fraser has been entrusted to help change the young club’s fortunes, having taken over part-way through the 2018-19 season. His approach to recruitment has seen a number of former NHL and AHL players head to the middle kingdom, with all of them playing a key role for the team already.
With this level of recruitment, comes the expectation that reaching the playoffs is a realistic goal – adding further pressure to Fraser and his coaching staff moving forward. The need for a successful top tier team in China is crucial to the growth of the sport in the country.
Early results have been largely mixed for the club, who have a losing record after seven games – with the latest coming in a closely fought 3-2 loss on the road against Salavat Yulaev Ufa. But recent history appears to be on the club’s side, with a .500 record potentially being what is needed to tip the club into the postseason again.
History on Their Side
In the 2018-19 KHL season, a .500 record would have seen Fraser’s side make the playoffs thanks to the Eastern Conference having performed particularly worse than their Western counterparts. Traktor Chelyabinsk, for example, claimed the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a 27-31-4 record. This record was good enough for 58 points and saw Traktor face Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg in the first round.
Despite being swept by Avtomobilist, Traktor can still claim pride from the fact that they were in the playoffs and, at the very least, had a shot at progressing towards the Gagarin Cup Finals.
Should Kunlun Red Star pick up a win in their next game, they will have a 4-4-0 record after eight games. If the Chinese club can average that throughout the season, finishing with a 31-31-0 record, then they would finish with 62 points – which would have been more than enough to secure them a spot in the playoffs last season.
Then if the Eastern Conference maintains the same level of performances as last season, Kunlun Red Star would have a legitimate opportunity of pushing themselves into the postseason, despite having fairly mixed results on the ice. A loss in the first round is to be expected if the club can only sneak in, but it would be a step forward for an organisation that is still trying to make its mark on the largest league outside North America.
Goaltending a Factor
For many teams around the world, goaltending will be what determines how successful their season in. Kunlun Red Star could certainly be in that same situation after seven games, with the team seemingly spreading out the minutes between Jeremy Smith and Simon Hrubec fairly evenly.
At the time of writing, both goalies have exceptional save percentages with Smith currently at .939 and Hrubec at .926. Smith has a lower GAA (1.63) compared to his Czech counterpart (2.27) and also has a better record (2-1-0 compared to 1-3-0).
Fraser will need to determine which goalie he feels most confident with having in the net for the majority of the season, allowing them to grow into the season and become a stable hand between the pipes. Having such high save percentages is a strong foundation to build from and Fraser will need to quickly decide if Smith should be given the majority of starts over the next few games.
Having consistent, high-quality goaltending can make or break a season for any club and if Kunlun Red Star truly hope to reach the playoffs, with a .500 or more, then they will need to have their very best performer between the pipes every night.
Feature Image Credit: (Photo by Kirill Kukhmar\TASS via Getty Images)