Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in 2017-18
Neftekhimik’s playoff hopes looked dead and buried this past October, with the team languishing near the bottom of the standings and already on its third head coach of the season — not to mention the fact that that third coach was the infamously volatile Andrei Nazarov. But, a funny thing happened: somehow Nazarov got the train back on tracks, and although the playoffs did indeed prove out of reach in the end, it was only by three points when all was said and done. Can the team put together a full season of that kind of performance, and reach the promised land for the second time in three years? Read on…
Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in 2016-17: 20 W — 8 OT/SO W — 4 OT/SO L — 28 L
4th in Kharlamov Div., 10th in East Conf., 16th in KHL. Missed Playoffs.
Head Coach: Andrei Nazarov
In: D Vladislav Arbuzov (Metallurg Novokuznetsk); F Ilya Arkalov (Medveščak Zagreb); F Alexander Avtsin (Severstal Cherepovets); D Roman Graborenko (Dinamo Minsk); F Robin Hanzl (HC Litvinov [CZE]); F Alexander Kuznetsov* (Dynamo Moscow); F Denis Lyapustin (Neftyanik Almetievsk [VHL]); G Andrei Makarov (Kunlun Red Star Beijing); D Oleg Piganovich (No Team); F Chad Rau (Kunlun Red Star Beijing); D Damir Sharipzyanov (Ontario Reign [AHL]); F Yevgeny Solovyov (Metallurg Novokuznetsk); F Alexander Toryanik* (Ariada Volzhsk [VHL]); D Alexei Volgin* (Lada Tolyatti); G Ilya Yezhov (Lada Tolyatti)
Out: D Maxim Berezin (Avangard Omsk Oblast); F Igor Bortnikov (HK Sochi); F Gilbert Brulé (Traktor Chelyabinsk); D Kirill Dyakov (Lada Tolyatti); F T.J. Galiardi (Dinamo Riga); F Eduard Gimatov (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); F Richard Gynge (Kunlun Red Star Beijing); G Andrei Kareyev (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); G Ivan Kasutin (Metallurg Novokuznetsk [VHL]); D Geoff Kinrade (Kunlun Red Star Beijing); G Ville Kolppanen (Rögle BK [SWE]); F Sergei Konkov (Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast); D Denis Kuzmin (Amur Khabarovsk); D Ivan Lekomtsev (Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk); D Kirill Lyamin (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg); D Andrei Pervyshin (Unknown); F Igor Polygalov (Traktor Chelyabinsk); D Yevgeny Ryasensky (Unknown); F Gennady Stolyarov (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod); F Mikhail Zhukov (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod)
Massive turnover has been the order of the off-season in the Neftekhimik net. The team used five different goalies last season, and exactly none of them are back in Nizhnekamsk for this coming autumn. Three ‘tenders saw significant time: Kolppanen played the most games, posting a slightly-below-average .917 sv% in 30 outings. Ivan Lisutin, who left for Avtomobilist at the deadline, was just above average at .923 in 21 games. But it was Kareyev, acquired at the transfer deadline from Metallurg Novokuznetsk, who really stood out, with a .943 sv% in 16 games to close out the season. He’s one of the best young goalies in Russian hockey, and he will be missed.
It is harsh to say it, but Neftekhimik’s new goaltending tandem appears somewhat underwhelming. Makarov started last season decently enough for Kunlun Red Star, but regressed sharply and finished with a poor .912 sv% over 29 games. Yezhov, meanwhile, was almost exactly a league-average goalie for Lada: .919 sv% in 50 games. Which of those two will seize the starting job, and whether he can hold it thereafter, remains to be seen, but netminding must be an area of some concern for Neftekhimik.
On defence, Neftekhimik have retained the services of top blueline scorer Andrei Sergeyev, although his numbers were not jaw-dropping: 53 gp, 4-14-18, and a (joint) team-worst -8 to boot. Some steadiness in defending was, and hopefully will again be, provided by Dmitry Orgutsov (42 gp, 5-4-9, +6) and another mid-season arrival from Novokuznetsk in Andrei Pervyshin (13 gp, 1-2-3, +5). [UPDATE: Or not — Neftekhimik have released Pervyshin from the roster.] The most significant departures are those of solid two-way rearguard Kinrade (35 gp, 6-10-16, +3) and Lyamin (44 gp, 2-12-14, -3), who will definitely need to be replaced.
And with two significant defencemen departing, two have also arrived. Piganovich, who missed all of 2016-17 due to injury (by the time he recovered, it was too late to sign with a team), is familiar with Nazarov, having played for him at Donbass Donetsk in 2013-14 on a team that made the second round of the playoffs. Piganovich is a veteran two-way type, although there are signs that his offence is dropping off in recent years. Graborenko, for his part, played just 16 games for Dinamo last season, but scored 2-6-8 in those, and reinforced his playmaking credentials by going 6-4-10 in 20 games with the Belarusan national team. If he can keep up that scoring pace, the 24-year-old will represent an excellent “get” for Neftekhimik.
The real excitement in Neftekhimik’s off-season happened in the forward group; of the five Neftekhimik forwards who scored at least 20 points last season, four are gone. Gynge is the particularly damaging loss, as he tied for sixth in the KHL in goals (57 gp, 24-16-40, 11 more goals than any of his team-mates). Brulé, too, was a major part of Neftekhimik’s second-half turnaround, joining from Medveščak in mid-October and scoring 12-20-32 in 37 games. The other two 20-point men were Stolyarov (32 gp, 5-15-20) and Polygalov (57 gp, 13-13-26).
If that’s the bad news, the good news is that the one remaining scoring forward for Neftekhimik is the best of them. Dan Sexton scored 13-37-50 in 51 games, putting him seventh in the league in assists and 13th in points. Obviously, many of those assists came on Gynge’s goals, but there may be a capable replacement at hand: Rau scored 20-20-40 in 60 games in 2016-17, leading Kunlun Red Star in goals and points. Hanzl is an interesting acquisition as well. He scored 7-21-28 in 46 games for in the Czech Extraliga this past season, which is not eye-catching in and of itself, but his all-round game was enough to allow the 28-year-old to break through to the Czech national team for the first time and play at the World Championship.
It would be stretch, however, to say that Neftekhimik have strengthened their offence. Too much scoring has departed, and not enough has come back. There are some promising young players about the place, such as Bogdan Yakimov (50 gp, 3-8-11, but tied for the team lead at +6) and Pavel Poryadin (46 gp, 7-5-12 in limited KHL ice time, plus 34 points in 21 games for junior side Reaktor Nizhnekamsk). However, for now they are just promising, and we still await the delivery.
Neftekhimik have made a habit of punching above their weight in recent seasons. They made the playoffs in 2015-16, and last year’s near miss was impressive enough given how the season started, so we can never quite write them off. However, I do not see enough talent here, or enough depth, to predict a post-season berth just yet. If coach Nazarov keeps his head on straight, and the goaltending out-performs expectations, there’s a chance — we shall see what happens.
The Big Question: Based on the criteria laid out in the league’s new strategic plan, three teams will be leaving the KHL after 2017-18 — will Neftekhimik be one of them? There is danger here certainly. Nizhnekamsk is not a big place (235,000 people), and the arena similarly does not meet the KHL’s stated desires (on the bright side, Neftekhimik were an above-average club when it came to filling the building, if only slightly). And it certainly does not help them to be overshadowed in their own region by giant club Ak Bars Kazan. My gut feeling is that Neftekhimik will survive this year’s KHL contraction (that playoff appearance in 2015-16 will help), but that is by no means a sure thing.
Next up: Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast