Valery Belov is back in Kazan, and he’s hopeful of proving that the winning touch he had in tandem with Zinetula Bilyaletdinov can continue now he’s head coach.
Belov was Bilyaletdinov’s assistant as Ak Bars lifted the Gagarin Cup in the first two seasons of KHL hockey, but left the club to join his colleague at Team Russia following the disappointing World Championship performance in 2011.
His return to Kazan is part of a bid to improve on last season’s inconsistent showings from Ak Bars, which dropped out of the play-offs in the second round after placing third in the Kharlamov division.
The team retains a strong Finnish flavor, with forward Janne Pesonen returning after a season at HIFK, and Jokerit’s Janne Lahti also joining up. Those two bring a wealth of trophy-winning experience, having helped their country to win the 2011 World Championship, and join Jarkko Immonen in an all-Finnish line. However, goaltender Petri Vehanen has returned to his native Finland, to be replaced with Atlant’s Russia international Konstantin Barulin, a move perhaps connected with restrictions on the amount of game-time allowed for foreign goalies in the coming season. Barulin, though, may find himself battling with youngster Emil Garipov for the starting spot between the pipes.
Belov isn’t the only one returning to Kazan: forward Maxim Mayorov is back after a spell in the US with the Columbus Blue Jackets organization. A product of the Ak Bars youth system, Mayorov was drafted by the Jackets, but failed to make an impact on the NHL and spent the bulk of last season with the franchise’s feeder club in the AHL.
Pre-season results have been unimpressive so far, with a 6-1 hammering at Spartak proving particularly painful. But Belov has told journalists that in general he doesn't see big problems with the team’s progress towards the new season, which starts for his men on Sep. 6 at home to Severstal.
“A lot of our players were with their national teams, so our first full training session wasn’t until July 30,” he said during the Romazan Memorial tournament this week. “That meant we were slow getting back into shape and it was only at this tournament that everything really came together. Now we can review our training, but I don’t see any big difficulties or feel any great pressure.”