ON THE ATTACK: In a change of tack, head coach Pekka Rautakillo wants the team to get more on the offensive.
RIGA - With off-season trading and preseason tampering completed, it is now time for Dinamo Riga to turn their focus to the real goal: navigating the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) regular season to guarantee they are still competing come playoffs in spring.
On Friday evening Dinamo Riga will travel to Ufa in the Russian Republic of Bashkortostan to begin their eight month, 56 game journey through the regular season as they aim to finish as one of the top eight of 12 teams in the Western Conference, in order to see their journey continue into the playoffs.
In the three previous KHL seasons, it is a goal that Dinamo Riga has always managed to achieve, tending to pick up one of the final playoff spots available before seeing their season come to an end in the opening rounds of the playoffs.
Given the size of their budget, compared to a number of the cash-heavy Moscow clubs, making the playoffs has in the past been recognized as a fine accomplishment on its own, leaving both fans and owners content. And, taking a precautionary look at the roster for 2010/2011, it would be premature to suggest that fans will be expecting anything more.
Not for the first time, Dinamo Riga has been a victim of its own success from a season previous, as the clubs with the bigger check books have been busy in the offseason picking off the best talent from the Riga club’s roster, producing contracts that Dinamo Riga simply cannot match.
Arguably the two biggest blows dealt to Dinamo Riga ahead of this season are the losses of Coach Julius Supler, who will this season be heading CSKA Moscow, and last season’s leading goal-scorer Lauris Darzins, who will this season play for Ak Bars Kazan.
New head coach, Finland’s Pekka Rautakillo, has brought a new style of play with him that, going on preseason games, appears to have a bigger emphasis on offense. Despite losing a number of these preseason games, the main talking point has been about the number of genuine goal scoring opportunities that Dinamo Riga has been creating. Now the team just needs someone to step up and add the finishing touches that Lauris Darzins, and before him Marcel Hossa, have been able to provide. It would appear that 25-year-old Martins Karsums is best suited to that role, dominating scoring for Dinamo Riga during their warm up matches.
In a change from the past, Dinamo Riga has also looked in a different direction to fill their international player quota. In the past the Dinamo Riga roster has included a number of forwards from Slovakia and North America. This season, however, the team appears to be looking in a different direction, picking up a Finn, a Swede, a Swiss and just one North American in Canada’s Jamie Lundmark. But even Lundmark comes with a Scandinavian connection, having last season played in Sweden.
If there is one constant in the team it is on defense, with the team featuring an unchanged defensive lineup, which is once more highlighted by veteran captain, Sandis Ozolins. Having celebrated his 39th birthday in August, Ozolins is certainly no spring chicken, but was able to show last year that he still has the ability to match it with players nearly half his age, making the KHL All-Star game as well as being one of the leading defensemen in the league before injury hit him midway through the season. During the offseason, Ozolins suffered another injury – this time to his back – and it now remains to be seen if he can get back to the level at which he was performing last season.
Perhaps Latvia’s biggest area of concern comes in goal, with returnee American Chris Holt lacking a genuine backup. With Sweden’s Mikael Tellqvist not re-signing with the team, Dinamo Riga have instead opted to look closer to home, signing Maris Jucers from their farm club, Liepaja Metalurgs. But at age 24, Jucers is still raw and untried at this level, leaving him earmarked as a work in progress.
Following their opening match of the season against Salavat Yulaev on Friday, Dinamo Riga will remain on the road for another three games before returning home for a four-game stretch, beginning on Sept. 19, when they take on CSKA Moscow in what is expected to be a sellout match at Arena Riga.