For Salavat Yulaev, the 2011-12 season was a string of crises. The club began as defending champion, and ended with a first-round play-off exit at the hands of bitter rivals Ak Bars Kazan. Along the way, Ufa was rocked by player departures and the dismissal of popular head coach Sergei Mikhalyov, while post-season brought more bad news with the loss of star forward Alexander Radulov, now at CSKA.
Despite the turmoil – and some stinging criticism from certain former players – Vener Safin (pictured) has retained his place in the Salavat hot seat. He’s taken steps to restructure the squad, bringing in the likes of Metallurg Magnitogorsk forwards Tomas Rolinek and Denis Khlystov, both of whom have more than 250 KHL appearances behind them. As well as experience, youth is getting a chance with Nikita Filatov moving from CSKA and hoping to finally start confirming some of the potential he has shown early in his career. However, persuading evergreen goal-getter Sergei Zinovyev to sign a further contract in Ufa may yet be the key deal ahead of the coming season.
At the back, there are more new faces – and one old hand. Kirill Koltsov, a Gagarin Cup winner here in 2011, is back after a season in St. Petersburg. He’s joined by former Spartak man Ivan Baranka and two new goaltenders. Vadim Tarasov is back at the club after spells at Neftekhimik, Metallurg Novokuznetsk and Severstal, and he will be hoping to finally establish himself as number one. However, he faces stiff competition from Finland’s Iiro Tarkki, who joins from Anaheim. Tarkki’s older brother, Tuomas, is familiar to Russian fans for his appearances for Neftekhimik.
Notably the squad also includes a handful of players promoted from Salavat’s VHL farm club Toros, making the two teams’ encounter at the on-going Bashkortostan Cup something of a meeting of old friends. Salavat won that one 4-2 on the way to lifting the trophy on its own ice with a final game win over Metallurg Novokuznetsk.
Safin, meanwhile, has said he is happy with how the squad is shaping up for the season’s opener at home to Spartak on Sep. 6. Speaking at a Salavat Yulaev supporters’ day, he said: “We’ve put together a good, battling team. We might not have star names, but the guys know how to work together and get results. We have set ourselves ambitious targets, and with the support of our fans we can meet them.”