Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in 2016-17
Oft-overshadowed by mighty regional rivals Ak Bars Kazan, the Republic of Tatarstan’s “little” team in Nizhnekamsk had a 2015-16 season to remember. Though severely lacking in star power, Neftekhimik played their way to a first post-season appearance since 2012-13, and nobody would have minded too much that their stay in the playoffs was brief. Is a repeat performance on the cards? Read on…
Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in 2015-16: 20 W — 7 OT/SO W — 12 OT/SO L — 21 L
4th in Kharlamov Div., 8th in East Conf., 16th in KHL. Lost in Conf. QFs.
Head Coach: Yevgeny Popikhin
In: G Rafael Khakimov (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); D Mikhail Churlyayev (Buran Voronezh [VHL]); D Ivan Lekomtsev (Avangard Omsk Oblast); F Stanislav Alshevsky (Admiral Vladivostok); F Yaroslav Alshevsky (Admiral Vladivostok); F Artyom Garifullin (Zauralie Kurgan [VHL]); F Gadel Gumerov (Kristall Saratov [VHL]); F Richard Gynge (Växjö Lakers [SWE]); F Kirill Kabanov (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); F Sergei Konkov (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl); F Dmitry Makarov (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); F Konstantin Makarov (Admiral Vladivostok); F Tomi Sallinen (Djurgårdens IF [SWE]); F Bogdan Yakimov* (Bakersfield Condors [AHL])
Out: G Alexander Sudnitsin (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl); D Alexei Bondarev (Spartak Moscow); D Alexander Yevseyenkov (Severstal Cherepovets); F Marek Kvapil (Kometa Brno [CZE]); F Ryan Stoa (Spartak Moscow); F Jeff Taffe (Slovan Bratislava); F Mikhail Zhukov (Ak Bars Kazan)
*=on loan from the Edmonton Oilers [NHL].
First, the bad news: small teams that do unexpectedly well are vulnerable to bigger teams plucking away the key actors, and so Neftekhimik have said good-bye to Sudnitsin, whose goaltending (.933 sv% in 44 games) was so key to that playoff appearance. The good news: all may not be lost. Ville Kolppanen started 2015-16 brilliantly (.940 sv% in four games — small sample alert) before suffering a season-ending injury, and the 23-year-old Finn is back and healthy. And Ivan Lisutin, who came in as Sudnitsin’s backup mid-season and posted a .944 sv% in 17 appearances, also returns for 2015-16. Now, both goalies have had poor stretches in their careers too, but cautious optimism is warranted here I think. Khakimov is a decent third choice should either falter.
Neftekhimik’s 2014-15 defence was a fairly workmanlike, defensively-minded group, and with very few off-season changes, the same will hold for 2016-17. The team lacks a real playmaker at the back, and will not get many points thence (Kirill Lyamin led the defencemen last season with 13 in 56 games). On the other hand, the likes of Lyamin, Andrei Sergeyev, and Denis Kuzmin, to name but three, are solid protectors of their own zone, and newcomer Lekomtsev is another of that ilk. There is nothing particularly special here, but not much to worry about, either.
Up front, the team lost its two top scorers of 2014-15 in Zhukov (59 gp, 16-20-36) and Taffe (56 gp, 12-14-26), which is usually a bad sign. However, Neftekhimik can hope for a healthier season from Dan Sexton, who went 33 gp, 7-15-22 after being close to point-per-game in 2014-15. A bounce-back season from the usually reliable Yegor Milovzorov (50 gp, but only 7-15-22 in 2015-16) would help massively as well.
And the club has added a slew of promising characters. Space precludes in-depth discussion of all of them, but I would note Konstantin Makarov, who led Admiral in scoring last season (55 gp, 18-17-35). Another newcomer to watch is Konkov; a useful sniper during his career, he could prove an excellent addition to the Neftekhimik lineup, but at 34 years old it is equally possible that last year’s massive drop-off in production (55 gp, 6-5-11) was the beginning of the end.
The most intriguing new arrivals, however, are Kabanov and local product Yakimov. Controversial former Islander prospect Kabanov signed with Salavat Yulaev in October of last season (we noted it here, with more details of his story), only to have injury restrict him to eight games and zero points. As for Yakimov, a giant at 6’5″ and 231 lbs., he spent the last two seasons in the Oilers’ system, but never really found the scoring range (93 gp, 17-26- 43 in the AHL). He actually came to Neftekhimik on loan for the stretch run last season, going 3-1-4 in 11 games before returning to the Condors. In any case, Kabanov is 24, Yakimov only 21, so there is ample time for those two to turn things around.
Neftekhimik will face a huge challenge from Traktor Chelyabinsk, Barys Astana, and perhaps others in the quest to hang on to that last playoff spot in the East. If all goes right, the team from Nizhnekamsk could pull off another post-season appearance, but until we see how the goaltending and the new batch of forwards work out, that remains a very big “if.”
Next up: Slovan Bratislava.