It’s feeling like the end of an era in Kazan. The summer departure of veteran defensemen Evgeny Medvedev
and Ilya Nikulin
) ends a long-established blue line combination that has worked under head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov with Ak Bars and the Russian national team.
Nikulin in particular has been a hugely influential figure – not just for his defensive play but also for his habit of popping up with crucial goals. Fans throughout the KHL will surely recall him as a player to be feared on the power play; the later in the game and the more desperate the situation, the more potent his threat seemed to become.
In Kazan, fans are following Nikulin’s bid for an NHL deal with interest: many are still hoping that he might come back ‘home’ to Tatarstan if things don’t work out across the Atlantic, but Bilyaletdinov himself is looking to the future. “I can understand why players like Medvedev and Nikulin want to try and play in the NHL,” he told Sovietsky Sport during the current pre-season tournament in Nizhny Novgorod. “It’s a good league, and it’s an honor to play there. I’m sure Ilya [Nikulin] will make the right choice and will get his contract over there.”
That future will also be without Alexander Burmistrov
and Kirill Petrov
, two young forwards heading to the NHL next season. But it will involve plenty more of Bilyaletdinov’s trademark work on special teams: a rigorous, systematic approach to extracting maximum value from the power play was still apparent in Nizhny as Ak Bars downed Salavat Yulaev 5-4 thanks to four power play goals and one short-handed effort.
New faces have arrived: Mattias Sjogren, part of the Swedish squad at the last two World Championships, arrives from Linkopings to beef up the offense. NHL-bound goalie Anders Nilsson
is set to be replaced by incoming Finn Jussi Rynnas, back in Europe after failing to establish himself at the Dallas Stars. There’s also a new generation of Kazan defensemen emerging.
Eduard Nasybullin is back after a season in the QMJHL with the Oceanics. The 19-year-old is hotly tipped as a star of the future and has the chance to show why now that slots have opened up on the blue line at the Tatneft Arena. Albert Yarullin
), late of Atlant, is another player returning to his hockey ‘birthplace’ with hopes of establishing himself as a regular.
But the big challenges are likely to revolve around the familiar faces on the roster. Will Konstantin Korneyev
and Vladimir Denisov
, two experienced internationals, step up to fill the roles vacated by Medvedev and Nikulin? Can Oscar Moller
continue the hot scoring streak that saw him potting GWGs aplenty during the play-offs? Will Justin Azevedo
finally fire this time, and can Igor Mirnov
and captain Alexander Svitov
shoulder the scoring burden in the absence of Burmistrov and Petrov?
Ak Bars’ prospects of improving on last year’s Gagarin Cup final defeat will hinge on how well Bilyaletdinov and his men can find answers to those questions.