The mainstream North American hockey media loves clickbait, and nowhere is that more evident than their discussion of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). While Europe’s top hockey league does have its problems, it’s nowhere near the brawlfest and financial cesspool the media portrays. Ahead of the August 24 start of the regular season, I’m here to bring you the real KHL: a league full of skilled players, electric fanbases, and amusing all-star skills competitions. Today, we look at Ak Bars Kazan (Cyrillic: Ак Барс Казань)
Irbis Kazan (MHL)
Bars Kazan (VHL)
Before we begin, let’s get one thing straight. “AK” is not capitalized in the team name, and is not pronounced as separate letters. Ak translates to “white,” in the Tatar language, which is commonly spoken in Kazan, the capital of the Russian republic of Tatarstan. (For the record, “Ak Bars” specifically translates to “Snow Leopards.”) Now that we’ve got that out of the way…Ak Bars Kazan started in 1956, but had a bit of an identity crises until the mid-90s. The team went through 3 names in the first 40 years of the team: Mashstroy Kazan, SC Uritskogo Kazan, and Itil Kazan. During this time, the team was one of the most dominant in the Soviet second league, thanks to scoring aces Sergei Stolbun and Gennady Maslov and defensive star Ravil Shavaleyev, considered to this day one of the best Tatar defenders ever.
Modern history started in the mid-90s, when the team name changed to Ak Bars, after the traditional symbol of the Tatar people. After the region prospered on a resource boom, so did the team. They became sponsored by oil giants TatNeft, and won their first Russian title in 1998. Runner-up performances in 2000 and 2002 showed that it was a new era in Kazan hockey.
The 2004-05 lockout saw them sign 11 NHL players; however, they never gelled. But Aleksey Morozov remained in Kazan, and along with Danis Zaripov and Sergei Zinovyev, formed the dangerous ZZM line that, along with defender Ilya Nikulin, formed the core that won the Snow Leopards another Russian title in 2006, a runner up in 2007, and the first two KHL Gagarin Cups in 2009 and 2010. In recent years, the team has transitioned; it wasn’t pretty, especially after a first-round playoff exit at the hands of underdog Sibir Novosibirsk in 2014 which was the team’s earliest playoff exit in over a decade, including a 7-1 humiliation in Game 3. However, a small Canadian speedster by the name of Justin Azevedo helped the Kazan side get back to the finals this season.
If you can think of an offensive category, Aleksey Morozov owns the team record. 219 goals actually has him tied with Zaripov, but his 505 points and 286 assists are at least 50 ahead of the nearest runner-up. All this despite the fact that Zaripov has played over a hundred more games with the Kazan side, due in part to the fact that, though Morozov played in the NHL briefly, Zaripov spent his whole career in Russia.
Geography & Rivalries
As mentioned earlier, Kazan is located in the Russian republic of Tatarstan, at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka rivers. The region is most noted for its people, which is comprised of a slight majority of ethnic Tatars. The Tatar people, who compromise a slight majority of the population in the region, are mostly Sunni Muslims who are more related to the Turkish people than the Russians. Notable Tatars in hockey include Ak Bars coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, former NHL goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, and Edmonton Oilers forward Nail Yakupov, the highest drafted Muslim in NHL history and first Tatar ever taken first overall.
As for the city itself: the city of Kazan, nicknamed the “third capital of Russia,” was named the Sports Capital of Russia in 2009 after Ak Bars won the Gagarin Cup and local football side Rubin won the Russian Premier League. The Tatarstan derby against Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk is hotly contested in the republic, although the hate is mostly Neftekhimik on Ak Bars. The Kazan side’s biggest rival is Salavat Yulaev Ufa, from neighboring Bashkortostan, and the two contest the “Green Derby,” a reference to the fact that both teams wear green. Sibir Novosibirsk has also become a rival in recent years, as they’ve played each other in the playoffs two years in a row, one of which was that series in 2014.
Interesting note: the team’s crest on their uniforms is not the Ak Bars logo, but rather the coat of arms of Tatarstan.
2014/15: The Season In Review
Under old-new coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, who returned to his old club side after coaching the Russian national team, Ak Bars soared to the top of the Eastern Conference in 2014/15, and won the Kharlamov Division, beating Metallurg Magnitogorsk by three points. The team was led by small, speedy forward Justin Azevedo and his 50 points, while the defense – aided by new acquisition Yakov Rylov – was stingy as usual, allowing 115 goals over 60 games, the second fewest in the KHL behind CSKA. Both goalkeepers, Anders Nilsson and Emil Garipov, were superb.
In the playoffs, the magic number for Kazan was 5. The team edged Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg in the first round of the playoffs in five games; every Ak Bars win was by one goal, and two of them went to overtime. They then met Avangard Omsk and former goalkeeper Konstantin Barulin in the second round, and beat them in 5, including three shutouts by Nilsson. Next, their sights were set on revenge against Sibir, and in a low-scoring, tight series, they won in 5, with Mikhail Glukhov scoring the golden goal in Game 5 at TatNeft Arena. Unfortunately, 5 would be turned on them in the final, as they ran into a buzzsaw in the form of an SKA team that had just pulled off the ultimate comeback over CSKA. Though they stole a game in St. Petersburg, it wasn’t enough, and they lost in 5. With Game 5 being decided by 5 goals.
A laundry list here. The most notable is most likely Alexander Svitov, a former top-5 draft pick who never panned out in North America. Salavat Yulaev fans hate the guy, who left the Ufa side for their archrivals in the 2013 offseason.
Justin Azevedo also spent time in North America, toiling in the LA Kings system for 4 years. Realizing his size was going to keep him out of the NHL, he jumped to Europe, and after 20 points for Lev Praha in their 2014 run to the Gagarin Cup Finals, Ak Bars took a flyer on him, and watched him blossom into a KHL superstar, with 50 points to lead the team in the regular season.
He’s not the only ex-King on the side: Oscar Möller was 2nd to Azevedo in most categories in 2014/15, but was incredibly clutch in the playoffs, scoring the winning goal in 3 of the 5 semifinal games against Sibir.
Jussi Rynnäs, signed to replace the departing Anders Nilsson, spent last season in the Dallas Stars organization, and before that spent some time with the Toronto Marlies and Maple Leafs.
Note: The Vladimir Tkachyov on the Ak Bars roster is NOT the same Vladimir Tkachyov that the Edmonton Oilers attempted to sign in 2014. That one was a product of Avangard Omsk Region’s junior program and plays in the QMJHL, whereas the one on Ak Bars was developed in Kazan and born in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine.
Semi-Obscure Players To Watch
The big name here is Fyodor Malykhin. His first season in Kazan was subpar, with just 10 points in 36 games; however, he was fairly low on the depth chart on a good team. At his best, there are very few players in the KHL that can match Malykhin’s skill set; during his breakout 2013/14 season with hometown Avtomobilist, he drew comparisons to another Yekaterinburg native, Pavel Datsyuk. It may not be with Ak Bars, as he’s been linked with moves elsewhere (namely CSKA Moskva and archrivals Salavat Yulaev), but the team will need someone to replace departing Alexander Burmistrov, and it may be him..
Another name, perhaps not obscure, is Ziyat Paygin. At 20 years old, he managed to play 33 KHL games, and he also won a silver medal at the World Juniors with the national team. The Penza native was selected in the 7th round of the 2015 NHL Draft by the Edmonton Oilers. His 6’6” frame and defensive instincts have him pegged as a potential shutdown defenseman and penalty killer.
Young goalkeeper Emil Garipov will be a name to watch if Zinetula Bilyaletdinov sticks to his word saying he will trust the 23 year old. In 2013/14, as Konstantin Barulin’s backup, the in-house product posted a downright ridiculous .952 save percentage, and followed that up behind Nilsson with a .933. The kid has talent, but will Bilya trust him?
You would like this team if…
You want a team that has a chance to win every year, with reasonable start times (basically lunchtime Eastern) and a possession-oriented style of play.
Stay tuned – Amur Khabarovsk is next.
Illustration by Christy Kondo @HockeyBabbler