For Ak Bars and Metallurg Magnitogorsk, an established coaching structure led to more success; elsewhere Neftekhimik and Ugra hired six head coaches between them and failed to make the playoffs. Our review of the Kharlamov Division looks at what went right and wrong from Kazan to Khanty-Mansiysk.
Ak Bars Kazan – wily Bilyaletdinov still packs a punchResults: Ak Bars reached the final of the Eastern Conference and had a strong third-place finish in regular season. It added up to a successful season, but not quite a triumphant one for a club geared up to land hardware.
Summary: Hockey in Kazan is dominated by the figure of Zinetula Bilyaletdinov. The legendary coach completed his 1,000th career game behind the bench this season, and the lion’s share of those have been with Ak Bars. But this campaign represented something of a change of direction. Coach Bill’s title-winning teams were associated with star names, in particular Alexei Morozov. The class of 2017, meanwhile, came together with rather more modest reputations.
This was the season of Vladimir Tkachyov, who matured from promising talent to All-Star laureate. His 32 points in the regular season, plus a further 11 post-season markers, earned him an international call-up and the 23-year-old thrived alongside the likes of Justin Azevedo and Jiri Sekac.
There were disappointments, not least with the injury-strewn season that summer recruit Rafael Batyrshin suffered. Having won the Gagarin Cup with Metallurg last time out, he had the look of a key signing but didn’t really recover sufficient fitness to show his best form.
The playoffs brought two series victories against Eastern Conference big hitters: Salavat Yulaev, arguably Ak Bars’ key rival, was downed 4-1 – thanks in no small part to an Atte Ohtamaa goal 0.02 seconds from the hooter in Game One. Against that background, it was hard to be surprised when, later in the series, Salavat tied the game in the 60thminute, only for Azevedo to conjure a winner. Next came Avangard, and another solid success. But taking on Metallurg Magnitogorsk was a step too far, especially with one-time Ak Bars hero Danis Zaripov in blistering form. The defending champion progressed to another Gagarin Cup Final without dropping a game.
What’s next: Bilyaletdinov might have the safest coaching role in hockey, given his long-standing reputation in Tatarstan. His proven ability to fashion challenging teams from almost any group of players means that Ak Bars will always be a serious contender at the top end of the table. Anything less next season would, therefore, be a major surprise.
Ak Bars fans
Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg – Razin splutters, Avto stallsResults: The Motormen couldn’t find the right gear this season, missing out on the playoffs amid a coaching change.
Summary: Vladimir Krikunov, the head coach brought in to salvage Avtomobilist’s season, was in little doubt as to what had gone wrong. Asked about his team’s struggles, he laid the blame squarely with the previous coaching set-up. He questioned the decision to trade goalie Jakub Kovar to Severstal, and wondered why star forward Anatoly Golyshev’s form and relationship with the team had deteriorated to the point where he was sent to play four games for the farm club.
Krikunov may have had a point. Avtomobilist looked to be moving forward under Andrei Razin, until this season provided a horribly mistimed gear change and left the Yekaterinburg club’s progress stalled. With Razin’s outspoken style causing turbulence rather than motivation, results were patchy and the team’s playoff push never really got started. Krikunov arrived in October, but was unable to revive the team or its prospects. Instead, he was confirmed as the man to lead the reconstruction next season and made his intentions clear in March by releasing eight players after talking of the need for a handover from one generation to the next at the club.
That could mean greater reliance on Golyshev and a bigger role for Artyom Garayev after he produced his best season in the KHL this time around. But Golyshev, who impressed on the international stage even while he struggled at his club, may be hard to hold on to. Elsewhere, the likes of Dmitry Monya and Petr Koukal, players who couldn’t live up to big reputations, have moved on as the rebuild begins.
What next: Krikunov has said that if he can win something at Avtomobilist, that will be a fitting end to a distinguished coaching career. Some promising signs, including the return of Kovar between the piping, have already emerged, but at the moment the team feels like a work in progress.
Lada Togliatty – promise stifled by money worriesResults: Struggling with financial issues, Lada once again failed to reach the playoffs.
Summary: Entering its third season after returning to the KHL, Lada believed it had the budget and roster in place to compete for a playoff place. However, as vice-president Dmitry Shlyakhtin admitted, delays in paying salaries could have had a negative impact on the team’s progress. As such, he argued, resolving the club’s cashflow concerns was a bigger issue than seeking to replace head coach Artis Abols.
On the ice, there were some encouraging signs despite a playoff push that ended in failure before January was through. Nikita Filatov, one of the most naturally talented – and frustrating – Russian players of his generation, was handed a leading role in Abols’ team. An older and wiser Filatov, who admitted that in the past he had been guilty of squandering some of the opportunities that came his way, responded with the kind of performances he is capable of. Other bright spots included the emergence of young forwards Denis Zernov and Viktor Komarov.
What’s next: It all depends on the money. If the club’s sometimes fraught relationship with its key sponsors improves, there is hope that Abols can make progress on the ice. But, without stable finances, it’s hard to see any big changes for Lada in the near future.
Metallurg Magnitogorsk – marvellous Mozyakin and cup final defeatResults: A third Gagarin Cup final in four seasons, but no successful title defense for Magnitka. A season dominated by the individual scoring feats of Sergei Mozyakin came up just short of perfection.
Summary: Goals from Sergei Mozyakin. In the season when he celebrated his 36th birthday, this master marksman showed no sign of slowing down. On the contrary, he produced his best ever stats. September saw him score goal number 429, breaking Boris Mikhailov’s All-time Russian record. As the season went on, he set new club records for goals and assists before finishing with the KHL’s best every goal tally (48) and points (85) in a regular season. His first playoff goal, away to Kunlun Red Star, brought up 1,000 career points in Russia’s top division, capping a memorable campaign.
The only thing missing was another Gagarin Cup. Magnitka dominated the Eastern Conference, taking top spot by 15 points ahead of Ak Bars and Avangard. Dropping just one game in the first three rounds of the playoffs, an in-form Danis Zaripov fired his team to a showdown with SKA. But there the run halted. Zaripov, Mozyakin and line-mate Jan Kovar were muted; SKA found ways to win the tight games. The cup was destined for St. Petersburg despite a fine season for Metallurg.
What’s next: Metallurg favors evolution over revolution, so it’s unlikely that there will be any wholesale changes to the roster. Wojtek Wolski could be back next season after his serious injury, while the NHL’s reluctance to go to next year’s Olympics should make it a less attractive destination for the likes of Viktor Antipin or Alexei Bereglazov. However, key men like Chris Lee, Danis Zaripov, Vasily Koshechkin and, of course, Sergei Mozyakin, are approaching the end of their careers. Finding the balance between utilizing their experience and preparing the ground for a new generation is likely to be Vorobyov’s biggest challenge next season.
Metallurg Magnitogorsk fans
Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk – the coaching merry-go-round whirls out of controlResults: Three head coaches over the course of the season could not quite get Neftekhimik into the playoffs. The team missed out by three points, thwarted by three losses in its final three games.
Summary: Even in pre-season, head coach Evgeny Popikhin was hitting the headlines after a brawl with Peteris Skudra in an exhibition game against Torpedo. He lasted until October 4 when he was dismissed with the team in 11th place in the Eastern Conference. Replacement Nikolai Solovyov had already departed from Metallurg Novokuznetsk and lasted just 24 days in Nizhnekamsk. His replacement was Andrei Nazarov, who began the campaign at Barys.
Off the ice, then, it was a whirlwind of activity. On it, though, results remained stubbornly elusive. Nazarov quickly went on a five-game winning streak, but also lost seven games out of 11 in December. The team stuttered rather than stomped; an often-effective offense was undermined by shaky defense.
There were memorable moments, most notably an 8-2 thrashing of Tatarstan rival Ak Bars in the closing stages of the season. But the season petered out with three losses – all in overtime or shootouts – against Jokerit, Dinamo Minsk and Dinamo Riga. The top eight was out of reach.
What next: Nazarov’s reputation as a head coach has suffered in recent seasons. Once viewed as a master of getting big results from small resources after relative success at Severstal and Donbass, his brief spell at SKA ended unhappily and subsequently he has missed out on the playoffs at Barys and now Neftekhimik. After the season, he spoke of bringing in younger players to refresh the roster and will be looking at a period of stability for himself and his club to form the foundations of a lasting success.
Traktor Chelyabinsk – defense builds a foundation, but forwards fail to decorate the plansResults: Fourth place in the Eastern Conference exceeded expectations from the regular season; defeat to Barys in the first round of the playoffs fell short of post-season hopes.
Summary: Head coach Anvar Gatiyatulin made significant strides in his first full season behind the bench in Chelyabinsk. The team enjoyed its best regular season since 2013, when it reached the Gagarin Cup final but also said goodbye to the inspirational talents of Evgeny Kuznetsov.
The current team lacks a player of Kuznetsov’s ability, or even the unpredictable flair of his then team-mate Valery Nichushkin, but it has gained an admirable solidity. Despite scoring just 130 goals in regular season – the worst of any team to reach the playoffs in the East – it remained competitive thanks to the fine goaltending form of Pavel Francouz and Vasily Demchenko. Both goalies earned call-ups for their national teams along the way.
In the playoffs, though, that lack of goal power proved costly. Barys prevailed in six games, becoming the only team to buck the seedings in round one, and Traktor’s season came to an end.
What’s next: In Alexei Krichinin, Gatiyatulin has a player capable of bringing much-needed firepower to Traktor. If he can help add more potency to a solid defense, Traktor can continue to progress.
Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk – three head coaches, little successResults: Ugra, once again, failed to make the playoffs. Three head coaches came and went, and the future is in the hands of Igor Zakharkin.
Summary: The coaching carousel was spinning swiftly in Khanty-Mansiysk when Pavel Yezovskikh was dismissed in mid-September. Andrei Sokolov, a former colleague of Bilyaletdinov, came in but managed just three months in charge. The third man at the helm was Andrei Razin, following his departure from Avtomobilist. None of the trio managed to steer Ugra towards the top eight and come the end of the season, the club’s directors opted to wield the ax once again.
Unusually, Ugra opted to play without imports and placed its faith solely in Russian players. Of those, former Dynamo Moscow goalie Alexander Sharychenkov and promising forward Pavel Varfolomeyev delivered the most satisfactory returns; summer signings Igor Radulov and Anton Kuryanov proved disappointing.
What’s next: To get Ugra moving upwards again, former Salavat Yulaev head coach Igor Zakharkin has been appointed as head coach for the coming season. He brings a wealth of trophy-winning experience for club and country … but mostly as Vyacheslav Bykov’s right-hand man rather than as head coach in his own right. In Ufa, with a strong roster, he struggled to generate consistent results; in Khanty-Mansiysk he will face a different challenge as he seeks to create a team stronger than the likely sum of its parts.