There was plenty of excitement about the summer recruitment of Joonas Nattinen, Mikael Ruohomaa and Juuso Puustinen and the three Finns lived up to the hype as they led the team in scoring. Unfortunately, the locals could not keep up with the imports’ scoring and, with the exception of Damir Sharipzyanov, struggled to contribute.
That meant that even though Neftekhimik rarely got on a long losing streak, it struggled to string victories together. By the end of the year, Nazarov was on his way and Vyacheslav Butsayev took over. The new coach began with a run of losses but earned the confidence of his players and in February the team still had a fighting chance of a playoff spot. However, after a win against fellow playoff battler Sibir, Neftekhimik slumped to three successive losses and its season ended outside the top eight.
Vyacheslav Butsayev admitted that when he came to the club, nobody was giving up on the target of making the playoffs. In the event, that didn’t happen, but the management in Nizhnekamsk take a realistic view and accepted that Butsayev, who had just a third of the regular season, was brought in as a crisis manager. This time, though, with a full summer to prepare, a playoff place will be the minimum expectation.
Butsayev noted that his team’s problems came from a weak offense. Improving that became the first task for the coaching staff. And the work had to begin from scratch following the departure of all three free-scoring Finns.
Goalies: Konstantin Barulin (HC Sochi), Alexander Sharychenkov (Ak Bars)
Defense: Vitaly Atyushov (Amur, try-out), Stepan Zakharchuk (Admiral), Maxim Ignatovich (Sibir, try-out), Ryan Murphy (New Jersey, NHL), Ziyat Paigin (HC Sochi), Evgeny Ryasensky (Traktor), Andrei Churkin (Ugra, VHL)
Offense: Denis Kazionov (Avtomobilist), Dmitry Kazionov (try-out), Evgeny Korotkov (try-out, Lokomotiv), Zack Mitchell (Ontario, AHL), Alexander Rybakov (try-out, Traktor), Matt White (Augsburg, GER), Igor Ugolnikov (VVS, VHL), Radel Fazleyev (Ak Bars), Alexander Chernikov (Admiral)
Goalies: Ilya Ezhov (Vityaz)
Defense: Maxim Gusev (VVS, VHL), Damir Musin (Ak Bars), Dmitry Ogurtsov (Dynamo Moscow), Adam Polasek (Sparta, CZE), Nikolai Timashov (Avtomobilist)
Offense: Emil Galimov (Ak Bars), Bulat Nabiullin (VVS, VHL), Andrej Nestrasil, Joonas Nattinen (Vityaz), Juuso Puustinen, Mikael Ruohomaa (both Sibir)
In the summer, Neftekhimik lost all of its imports. As well as the Finnish forwards, high-scoring defenseman Adam Polasek moved on, as did Czech forward Andrej Nestrasil. That meant that all of last season’s top five scorers were gone, along with goalie Ilya Ezhov. So it’s a whole new team for the coming campaign.
If we look at the replacements, the goalkeeping situation is absolutely clear. Konstantin Barulin is an even more experienced netminder than Ezhov. However, there are questions over the forward line. The arrival of Denis and Dmitry Kazionov on try-outs, along with Evgeny Korotkov, cannot be seen as an attempt to replace the Finns. The new imports are Zack Mitchell and Matt White. Mitchell is a Canadian forward with plenty of AHL experience. However, his numbers there have not captured the imagination and in his past three seasons he hasn’t managed 35 points.
White played a couple of seasons in the AHL before moving to Europe and playing in Germany. His production there is encouraging – 42 points in his first season, improving to 49 last time – but it remains to be seen whether he can maintain that scoring here.
After the exit of Ilya Ezhov there’s no cause for concern about goaltending at Neftekhimik. Konstantin Barulin is the clear #1, supported by young Fyodor Karatayev and the more experienced Alexander Sharychenkov. Moreover, the former Russian international and All-Star regular looks likely to be the biggest star on the team.
Last season, at the age of 34, he produced good numbers for HC Sochi, stopping 92.3% of the shots he faced for a GAA of 2.12 and four shut-outs. And that, don’t forget, was on a mid-ranking which, like Neftekhimik, regards making the playoffs as a successful season. Konstantin knows his job and it’s hard to imagine he’ll have any problems adapting to life at a new club.
In Nizhnekamsk there’s a whole galaxy of prospects who were born in 1996. Last season Pavel Poryadin and Marat Khairullin scored 28 points each and both came in the top 10 scorers on the team. But the biggest hit from that group was Sharipzyanov. The World Junior silver medallist was once again called up to play for Russia six times in the Euro Hockey Tour while at club level he was the highest scorer among the players who remained after the summer restructure. Maturing into a quality player, he looks to be the most exciting youngster in the ranks at Neftekhimik.
Last season, Neftekhimik assembled a team capable of making the playoffs only to see the offense fail to give adequate support to Puustinen, Ruohomaa and Nattinen. After a summer in which all five imports departed, despite generally positive contributions from each of them, it’s hard to say that things have improved. The prospects for the 2019/20 season depend a lot on the effectiveness of the club’s management in building a new roster. A simple assessment of the ins and outs suggests that this won’t be an easy season for the club but it’s clear from last year that the management has a knack of unearthing a talented import. And it’s impossible to overlook the figure of Butsayev behind the bench. He has plenty of experience in getting teams into that top eight, most notably at Sochi where he twice took the newly-formed team into the playoffs.