Hockey is the number one sport in Tatarstan. This assumption proves to be right when you look at the large number of junior hockey schools and several hockey systems that spread out across top Russian leagues. There were two Ak Bars Kazan junior teams who played in the MHL interchangeably. Bars was the first team. Back a few years ago this team played in junior hockey and they did better than all the other Kazan junior teams in the MHL. In the last season – 2013-14 - Bars, coached by Sergei Lopushansky, made it to the Kharlamov Cup semifinals. They lost the series 3-1 to Spartak Moscow, but they still finished the season with bronze medals.
2014 off-season brought a lot of changes in Tatarstan hockey – Nefteyanik Almetyevsk, which had been the only representative of the republic in the VHL, was joined by Kazan junior team, while it was replaced by Irbis from MHL-B. Ak Bars Kazan went into the season with a solid MHL-VHL-KHL system.
To facilitate the transition to a new league, Irbis kept their head-coach and the core of the its team, while adding several Bars players and junior hockey school alumni to their roster. During the season Sergei Lopushansky took back the reins – the team made the playoffs in its debut season but got eliminated in the first round as they were swept by Kristall 3-0. Last year Kazan did not make the playoffs but they are currently among the top-8 teams of the conference this year with their new head-coach Dmitry Balnin.
Here’s a list of Ak Bars top players, MHL alumni who began their professional careers on Bars.
IN THE SYSTEM
Emil Garipov (35 games in this KHL regular season, Save Percentage - 93,7 Goals Against Average - 1,79)
Kazan junior hockey school alumnus, Emil Garipov made his debut for Nefteyanik Almetyevsk right after his rookie season with Bars and a year later he was called up to Ak Bars. It was a long road for him to become the starting goaltender on KHL team. Season after season Garipov had to compete against Petri Vehanen, Andres Nilsson and Stanislav Galimov. This year he finally became Ak Bars’ starting netminder.
Having to compete against tough opposition, Garipov had to work real hard to stay in goal – he had to minimize the number of rebounds he allowed, improve his ability to play the puck and take advantage of his big size. Without any doubt he ripped dividends from that – despite his augmented ice-time, Garipov manages to keep a positive balance between wins and losses and he has good numbers comparing to other KHL goaltenders.
Damir Musin (44 games, 7 points (2 goals, 5 assists), plus-13)
22-year-old Musin went through the entire Ak Bars system. He stood out in junior hockey as he was one of Bars’ key defensemen, and later on who won a regular spot on Ak Bars fair and square. The young defenseman rarely joins offensive rushes, focusing on defense – it’s easy to ascribe him to stay-at-home defensemen. He does his job well on the ice – he tries to keep the opposition in front of him and he excels at shutting down offensive rushes.
It is no secret that Ak Bars head-coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov has set the bar high for his defensemen and – judging by his statistics – Musin is the ideal candidate for the coach. Bilyaletdinov assigned Musin to his special teams, which led to drastic improvement of his ice-time (Musin leads the time with an average of 19:57 TOI). He also leads the team in plus/minus category.
Albert Yarullin (26 games, 5 points (2 goals, 3 assists), plus-8)
It is not easy to get a regular spot on Ak Bars. Which is especially true for their junior hockey school alumni – are you talented but you need to work on your defensive game and stick to the game plan? Well, then, you’re going to have to wait for that roster spot. Albert Yarullin proved himself as a smart player with an excellent shot first on U18 Team Russia and then on Bars. He was a real leader and captained both teams.
However, he wasn’t doing well on Ak Bars, so Yarullin had to do a bit of travelling between Almetyevsk, Kazan and Nizhnekamsk. The right-handed defenseman joined Atlant Moscow Region in the 2014-15 season. And that’s where he blossomed – in 29 games he scored 15 points (5 goals, 10 assists). That didn’t go undetected by Bilyaletdinov and his coaching staff. Yarullin went back to Ak Bars and now he’s irreplaceable on their powerplay (he averages 18:58 TOI per game, which is third best on the team). He’s also one of the top players on Ak Bars when it comes to hitting – he has 30 hits this season, which is good enough for 5th on the team.
Ziyat Paigin (17 games, 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists), minus-7)
Unlike Yarullin, it didn’t take long another Kazan junior hockey school alumnus – Ziyat Paigin – to get a roster spot on KHL team. In his rookie season then 19-year-old Paigin played 33 regular season games and two playoff games on top of that. During next season he was traded to Sochi. On Vyacheslav Butsayev’s team, where young players tend to get more ice-time, the defenseman really made a name for himself.
Paigin rarely uses his big frame, so he’s seldom seen in physical battles but he’s very good at starting offensive rushes with stretch passes. That led him to scoring 27 points (9 goals and 18 assists) in 37 games. Paigin was called up to Team Russia from Sochi and after the season he returned to Ak Bars.
Vladimir Tkachyov (54 games, 29 points (15 goals, 14 assists), plus-2)
Can you imagine one of Ak Bars’ top players wearing Lokomotiv Yaroslval jersey? Back in a day 12-year-old Tkachyov and his family made their way up Volga river to try-out for Lokomotiv. Then he had to decide where to continue his hockey career. However, a year later he ended up in Kazan – Tkachyov joined Ak Bars junior hockey school from Sokol Kiev. He was known for his stickhandling, speed and shooting ability even when he played for Bars.
He honed those skills during the five years that he’s spent with the team and became a reliable two-way forward. As a center, Tkachyov improved his face-off winning percentage (55,9%) and in the past two seasons his scoring numbers also went up – Tkachyov averages 0,5 point per game on Bilyaletdinov’s team.
Maxim Lazarev (32 games, 3 points (3 goals, 0 assists), plus-5)
Miniature and brisk winger is in his rookie KHL season. Maxim Lazarev was known for his dynamic duo with Evgeny Svechnikov since their junior hockey school days. They perfectly completed each other on Bars, U18 and U20 Team Russia, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the QMJHL, dangling around the opposition and creating lots of scoring chances.
They went their separate ways – Lazarev didn’t settle for a two-way deal and went back to Ak Bars this summer. An energetic player with great hockey sense, Lazarev was welcomed to Ak Bars – his ice-time is steadily growing. Currently he averages just over six minutes per game and he played over 30 games this season. Lazarev is an excellent example of local junior hockey school alumni trusted to play on KHL team.