Consistency was the word as Ak Bars finished on top of the Eastern Conference. After a narrow loss to CSKA in its opening game of the season, the Kazan team won its next games and never looked back. Dmitry Kvartalnov’s men would not suffer back-to-back losses until late December, and that three-game skid was mitigated by two games going to a shoot-out amid the disruption and travel occasioned by a trip to Davos as part of the KHL World Games program.
With 44 wins in 62 games, Ak Bars finished just one point behind Continental Cup winner CSKA. Notably, the team was nine points clear of Barys, second in the East. A tally of 178 goals scored was second only to CSKA. A sweep of Neftekhimik at the start of the playoffs ensured Ak Bars was firmly in the Gagarin Cup conversation, with the prospect of an intriguing season against Sibir, once of Kvartalnov’s former clubs, to come before the pandemic halted the action.
Dmitry Kvartalnov is possibly the best coach not to win the Gagarin Cup. At least, not yet. The 54-year-old played in the NHL with the Bruins, a goalscoring winger he produced points in his first 14 appearances for Boston, setting a league record beaten only by Evgeny Malkin. As a coach, he’s paid his dues at the lower end of the league with spells at Severstal and Sibir before having three seasons at CSKA (including a Gagarin Cup final) and two at Lokomotiv.
In that time, he has gained a reputation for developing young talent: the rise of Artyom Galimov last year, in Kvartalnov’s first season with Ak Bars, continued a well-established trend on Kvartalnov teams. He is regarded as one of the most astute coaches in the Russian game; all that’s missing is the big trophy to go with it.
It’s been a quiet summer in Kazan, with Dmitry Kvartalnov happy to continue with the bulk of last year’s team. Two imports have left, with defenseman Jesse Virtanen going to Sweden and forward Matt Frattin returning to Barys. Among the other departures, only Emil Galimov, SKA-bound, could reasonably be described as a big part of last season’s team.
It’s hard to look past Nigel Dawes. The most prolific import in KHL history is, at last, on a team with a real shot at winning the cup. Given everything that Dawes has done at Barys and Avtomobilist, few would begrudge him that chance to crown his years in the league with some hardware to go with his scoring records. And the 35-year-old is not the only proven talent joining the club this summer. French international center Stephane Da Costa arrives from Lokomotiv, Alexander Burmistrov returns from Salavat Yulaev.
However, the acquisition of Alexander Khovanov on a year’s loan from the Minnesota Wild could be the most intriguing move of the summer. Two years ago, he was tipped as a first-round NHL draft pick, but a long lay-off due to illness pushed him down the rankings. Since then, he’s piled up the points in major junior hockey and is felt by many to be close to cracking the pro game. Returning to Russia, rather than slugging it out in the AHL, gives the Saratov native a chance to show us what he can do as he makes his senior debut.
For many, Danis Zaripov is the face of the franchise. The man has an unprecedented five Gagarin Cups, three of them in Kazan, and even at the age of 37 he continues to play a big role on and off the ice. But it’s no longer 2018, and sentiment aside, it’s time for new names to come to the fore in Kazan. Artyom Galimov is very much a star of the future, Dawes and Da Costa are both looking to parlay years of big league experience into a serious push for honors, and homegrown goalie Timur Bilyalov continues to mature into a top stopper.
But if Ak Bars is to win another cup, it’s likely that Justin Azevedo will have a big say. The Canadian shot to prominence back in 2014 when he inspired Lev Prague to the final before losing out to Zaripov’s Metallurg. One year on, he was back in the final with Ak Bars, but lost again. In 2018, he finally got his hands on the cup. Typically, he’s at his best in post-season; it’s no coincidence that when his production drops in the playoffs, his teams don’t go far. That’s why, even if the regular season numbers can look a little ordinary, Azevedo is a big player for the big games.
With three Gagarin Cups and another runner-up finish in the KHL era, Ak Bars has the kind of pedigree that commands respect. But it also demands continuous success to maintain the club’s reputation as perhaps the biggest name in the competition. There were signs last season that Kvartalnov — a coach still looking for his first Gagarin Cup — could lead Kazan to yet another trophy in his first season since arriving from Lokomotiv.
This time, with the nucleus of last year’s roster intact and a clutch of impressive signings to add to the team, it’s hard to imagine anyone in Tatarstan will be satisfied with less than a big season. Expect Ak Bars to be among the contenders to win it all.