Ak Bars Kazan in 2016-17
We go from a team coming off its best season ever to an Ak Bars side that had its worst in a long time. The Tatarstan giants finished 12th in the KHL, outside a league’s top ten for the first time since the Soviet Championship season of 1991-92. Have they remedied matters? Read on…
Ak Bars Kazan in 2015-16: 25 W — 6 OT/SO W — 9 OT/SO L — 20 L
2nd in Chernyshyov Div., 5th in East Conf., 12th in KHL. Lost in Conf. QFs.
Head Coach: Zinetula Bilyaletdinov
In: G Timur Bilyalov (Neftyanik Almetyevsk [VHL]); D Rafael Batyrshin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk); D Dinar Khamidullin (Severstal Cherepovets); D Ziyat Paigin (HK Sochi); D Jiří Sekáč (Arizona Coyotes [NHL]); F Anton Glinkin (Traktor Chelyabinsk); F Maxim Lazarev (Cape Breton Screaming Eagles [QMJHL]); F Alexander Pankov (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg); F Andrei Popov (Traktor Chelyabinsk); F Mikhail Zhukov (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk)
Out: G Jussi Rynnäs (Oulun Kärpät [FIN]); D Nikolai Belov (Traktor Chelyabinsk); D Konstantin Korneyev (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); D Ryan Wilson (Unknown); D Yakov Rylov (Dynamo Moscow); F Andrei Ivanov (Unknown); F Igor Mirnov (Traktor Chelyabinsk); F Oscar Möller (Skellefteå AIK [SWE]); F Mattias Sjögren (ZSC Lions [SUI])
Ak Bars have enjoyed spectacular goaltending down the years, but they didn’t get it last season, at least at first; Rynnäs’ .921 sv% was merely league average, as was the .924 of Emil Garipov. Then, late in the season, they acquired Stanislav Galimov from CSKA, and he went a spectacular .948 in 14 games for the Tatars. Galimov has been an excellent goalie over the last few years; with him as starter, and Garipov returned to his normal backup role (he has been great there in the past), Ak Bars have few worries. And that’s even before we consider 21-year-old Bilyalov, one of the best ‘keepers in the VHL last season.
Rylov , who led the Kazan defence last season with 19 points in 53 games, and the more traditionally defensive Korneyev are the big departures from the blueline corps. Their departures clear the way for emerging star Albert Yarullin (46 gp, 6-9-15 last season), and we should not forget about Slovakia’s Marek Ďaloga either; despite a season disrupted by injury, he led Ak Bars with a +14 in only 29 games in 2015-16.
And the new arrivals on the blueline are an interesting crew. The big name is Paigin; languishing on Ak Bars’ own farm team early last season, the 21-year-old was picked up by Sochi for a song and proceeded to go 9-18-27 in 37 games, play in the KHL All-Star game, and be called to the Russian national squad. Ak Bars duly reacquired him from the cash-strapped Black Sea outfit, and hopefully this time will play him to his strengths, and a lot (Lowetide has a nice write-up today on Paigin, who is a 2015 Oilers draft pick). Sekáč was a huge part of Lev Prague’s Gagarin Cup Finals run in 2013-14 (47 gp, 11-17-28), and although his time in North America was not so successful, he’s still only 24. Khamidullin, meanwhile, showed some scoring potential in junior, although the 22-year-old has yet to break out at the pro level, while only Batyrshin is of the more traditional defensive ilk. This may be a more attack-minded defence group than we are used to seeing in Kazan.
At forward, Ak Bars have held on to the excellent Justin Azevedo (59 gp, 17-36-53) and skilled veteran Mikhail Varnakov (54 gp, 17-16-33) while losing a very dangerous player in Möller (58 gp, 15-22-37). However, there are intriguing options among the new forwards as well. Popov led Traktor in goals last season with 13, while Zhukov was Neftekhimik’s best in both goals (16) and points (36). None of those are spectacular totals, but the fact that they were team-leading is definitely of interest.
But Lazarev, acquired just today, is the most exciting of the new forward group. In the last two QMJHL seasons he has scored 66-89-155 in 117 regular season games; “the Q” is a high-scoring league, but suffice to say that he has skill to burn. Passed over in the NHL draft (the old story: he’s 5’10”, 170 lbs.), he should be able to thrive on the big ice of the KHL.
This is a great roster — the best we have seen in this series so far — but much will depend on their coach. Bilyaletdinov is a good tactician, but is not known as a particularly “youth-friendly” bench boss, nor one that encourages wide-open play. And yet he now has some very important players (Yarullin, Paigin, Lazarev, plus forwards like Vladimir Tkachyov*) in the “young and skilled” category. On paper, this team should contend for the Gagarin Cup, and if their coach lets the skill show itself, it could a very entertaining side as well.
Next up: Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod.
*Not the same Vladimir Tkachyov, obviously, as the one who plays for Admiral Vladivostok.