Salavat Yulaev Ufa in 2017-18
It was not too hard to spot the problem area for Salavat Yulaev in 2016-17: they put up the fifth-most goals in the KHL (169), … and still got out-scored (174 goals against). As a result, one of the league’s perennial strong teams unexpectedly found itself battling just to make the playoffs. They managed it, by five points, but were quickly dismissed by arch-arch-rivals Ak Bars Kazan in the first round. Such disappointment meant changes, and those began with the arrival of veteran Finnish coach Erkka Westerlund to replace Igor Zakharkin. What else has the Bashkir team been up to in the quest to regain their accustomed spot in the pecking order? Read on…
Salavat Yulaev Ufa in 2016-17: 21 W — 6 OT/SO W — 13 OT/SO L — 20 L
3rd in Tarasov Div., 6th in East Conf., 15th in KHL. Lost in Conf. QFs.
Head Coach: Erkka Westerlund
In: F Ilya Baranov (Dynamo Balashikha [VHL]); F Georgy Busarov (Dizel Penza [VHL]); F Artyom Fyodorov (Dynamo Moscow); F Eduard Gimatov (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk); G Andrei Kareyev (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk); F Joonas Kemppainen (Sibir Novosibirsk Oblast); F Denis Kokarev (Dynamo Moscow); F Dominik Kubalík (HC Plzeň [CZE]); D Philip Larsen (Vancouver Canucks [NHL]); D Maxim Osipov (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod); D Grigory Panin (CSKA Moscow); G Ben Scrivens (Dinamo Minsk); F Vyacheslav Solodukhin (Ak Bars Kazan); F Ilya Zubov (Avangard Omsk Oblast)
Out: D Denis Bodrov (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg); F Dmitry Chernykh (Spartak Moscow); G Andrei Gavrilov (Unknown); F Igor Grigorenko (Unknown); F Kirill Kaprizov (CSKA Moscow); D Konstantin Korneyev (Severstal Cherepovets); D Sami Lepistö (Jokerit Helsinki); G Andrei Litvinov (Metallurg Novokuznetsk [VHL]); F Dmitry Makarov (Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk); F Dmitry Maltsev (HK Sochi); F Tomáš Mertl (HC Plzeň [CZE]); F Alexander Nesterov (Unknown); F Denis Parshin (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod); F Sergei Soin (Unknown); G Niklas Svedberg (Minnesota Wild [NHL]); D Dmitry Vorobyov (Lada Tolyatti); F Mikhail Vorobyov (Philadelphia Flyers [NHL]);
The problem can be especially easy to see when the problem is goaltending. Svedberg got the lion’s share of the work in net last season, appearing in 48 games, and his .897 sv% ranked him 47th and last among the KHL goalies who played more than 1000 minutes (he was, to soften the blow, very good during Salavat Yulaev’s brief playoff run). That was dire, and the odd thing about it was that his backup Gavrilov (he of the famous water-bottle episode) had a fantastic year, with a .934 sv% in 25 appearances. Why Svedberg was so repeatedly preferred to Gavrilov is a mystery, but one is forced to suspect that now-former Salavat Yulaev coach Zakharkin simply got things wrong.
Water under the bridge, though; it will be a completely new tandem in the Ufa goal this season, and an interesting one too. Kareyev, still just 22, was the fifth-best goalie in the KHL by sv% in 2016-17, going .936 in 44 games for Neftekhimik and for Metallurg Novokuznetsk, and he caught the eye of the Russian national program as well. He’s little (5’11”, 165 lbs.), and we would like to see him repeat last year’s performance before we jump to any conclusions, but this is a very promising young netminder. NHL veteran Scrivens, meanwhile, had an inconsistent season in Minsk, finishing with a just-below-average .918 sv% through 55 games. However, he could still be very useful in a “mentorship and easing-of-workload” role for the young Kareyev.
Salavat Yulaev’s defence was not white-hot on the defensive side of the puck (their goalies faced 29-30 shots per game, which is “meh”), but they backed up the scorers with aplomb. Lepistö, an excellent puck-mover, led the way in points for the blueliners (43 gp, 6-25-31), and that production will need replacing. However, three returning Ufa defencemen scored at least ten goals on the season: Denis Kulyash (58 gp, 12-10-22), Zakhar Arzamastsev (59 gp, 10-10-20), and Alexander Loginov (60 gp, 10-10-20). Arzamastsev deserves special note, because while his numbers were inflated somewhat by a red-hot run around Halloween against some of the KHL’s weaker teams, he not only scored decently but led Salavat Yulaev in plus-minus at +11. So there is a nice core group here, even if Lepistö and and the defensively-reliable Bodrov will be missed.
There are some nice things coming on defence, too. Denmark’s Larsen failed to win a place with the Canucks, but has an impressive resume as a scoring defenseman in the KHL (52 gp, 11-25-36 for Jokerit in 2015-16, and that with Westerlund as his coach) and should make Lepistö’s departure easier to bear. Osipov is still just 23, but has spent the last couple of seasons at Torpedo demonstrating that he can contribute positively at both ends of the rink. And Panin is an almost-stereotypical veteran defensive defenseman, who has been part of some excellent blueline groups at Ak Bars Kazan and more recently CSKA. He moves the puck better than he is given credit for, too. Those are three tremendous additions to a group that, as mentioned, already had some things going for it.
As you might expect, given that fifth-best offense in the KHL, some of Salavat Yulaev’s forwards put up nice numbers last season. Linus Omark led the team with a line of 55 gp, 14-42-56, good for tenth in the league in points and fifth in assists. His partnership with Teemu Hartikainen, which goes back to their days with the Oklahoma City Barons in the AHL, continued to be a productive one; Hartikainen scored 19-17-36 in 46 games. Injuries to both men late in the regular season did severe damage to Salavat Yulaev’s hopes, but both are back for this coming campaign. Nor should we overlook the contribution of Enver Lisin to last year’s team; the 31-year-old veteran had one of the best seasons of his KHL career, scoring 14-16-30 in 55 games.
However, the forward group did suffer a grievous loss with the departure of Kaprizov, an apparent superstar in the making. Kaprizov potted 20 goals and added 22 assists for Salavat Yulaev in 49 games last season, and all that before his 20th birthday, which didn’t arrive until late April. He also absolutely crushed the World Juniors this past Christmas, scoring nine goals in seven games (plus five assists) and being named best forward of the tournament. One of coach Westerlund’s worries, too, must be the effect of losing Kaprizov on the production of the other forwards. We shall see.
We should also note the departure of Grigorenko; the 34-year-old, Salavat Yulaev’s captain for the past couple of seasons, suffered a miserable 2016-17 campaign (32 gp, 6-3-9). However, he is a three-time 20-goal man in the KHL, and posted a line of 55 gp, 18-26-44 as recently as 2015-16. He is currently unsigned, but if he finds a team and rebounds (entirely possible, even given his age), Salavat Yulaev may rue having let him go.
There is no Kaprizov among the incoming forwards, but some useful pieces nonetheless. Kemppainen (60 gp, 11-12-23 last season for Sibir), seems to be the man tipped to play alongside Omark and Hartikainen, which should improve his numbers somewhat. Kokarev was third on Dynamo in points last season (44 gp, 8-20-28), while Fyodorov was fifth (48 gp, 10-16-26). We must observe that Salavat Yulaev did a nice job of pouncing when the KHL declared the entire Dynamo roster to be free agents last month. Kubalík may be the most intriguing of the new forwards; though he does not turn 22 until later this month, he led the Czech league in goals last season with 29 in 51 games. Finally, Zubov and Solodukhin have good scoring seasons in the their pasts, and should at least be able to provide useful depth. So it has been a decent job of recruiting by Salavat Yulaev this summer.
New coach, new goalies, a significant departure from their forward group: these are the areas of concern, or at least unanswered questions, for Salavat Yulaev in 2017-18. On the other hand Westerlund is an experience and successful bench boss, Kareyev has all kinds of promise in net, and there is still a lot of firepower in this lineup even with Kaprizov’s departure. If things go right, and some of the off-season bets pay off (particularly between the pipes), there’s no telling how far this team can go; even “dark-horse Gagarin Cup candidates” is not entirely beyond the limits of the possible. And as usual, Salavat Yulaev Ufa should be great fun to watch!
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 Salavat Yulaev be one of them? Not a chance. The Ufa side is a historically successful, popular, well-run team in a city of more than a million people. Sure, the arena is a tad on the small side — 8000 seats where the KHL would prefer 12000 — but that’s really the only problem, and it’s not a major one. Salavat Yulaev aren’t going anywhere.
Next up: HK Sochi.