UFA, Russia - For years, the letters UFA stood for Unrestricted Free Agent amongst hockey fans. Not any longer. The local hockey team of the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan, Russia, is making noise in the Russian Super League.
Salavat Yualayev Ufa, named after an 18th century rebellion against Catherine the Great, are rebellious themselves, dominating the Super League this season. With Christmas still a month away, the team has already build up quite a gap between the rest of the competition, and there are signs of the club slowing down.
Last season, Salavat Yualayev already came forward with an impressive surge in the latter stages of the season, which saw them finish third. During the summer, the club's management opened up its pockets to bring in re-enforcements. However, where other teams were spending their Rubles on expensive returnees from North America, the club cleverly assembled a well-balanced team. So far this balance proved to be the key to their success. Despite leading the league in goals scored, there is no Salavat Yualayev player to be found in the top 10 in scoring in the Super League.
Amongst the summer signings were the likes of Alexandr Perezoghin, Igor Grigorenko, former NHL defenceman Oleg Tverdovsky and Andrei Taratukhin. But perhaps the most important acquisition was a domestic one. The Ufa club managed to acquire the sometimes underrated but so important second line forwards of European Champions Cup winner Ak Bars Kazan Alexei Tereschenko and Vladimir Vorobiev. The raid was concluded when the club also acquired defenseman Vitaly Proshkin and goaltender Alexandr Eremenko from Ak Bars.
Well-rounded scoring on one end of the ice is only paying off when the defence is able to keep the opposition from scoring. This hasn't been a problem either for the club. To date they have conceded the fewest goals against. In net, Vadim Tarasov was on fire early on in the season (1.25 Goals Against Average, and a 94 save percentage) including three shutouts before an injury put him on the sidelines. Although back-up Alexandr Eremenko certainly didn't look out of place the management quickly re-addressed the club's goaltending situation and brought in Czech veteran Milan Hnilicka.
The early dominance of Ufa has caused the traditional top teams in the Super League to play catch-up hockey already. Reigning champions Metallurg Magnitogorsk has been able to keep its position high in the standings, currently sitting on third position. Dynamo Moscow and Avangard Omsk however are already well behind ranked 7th and 9th.
One of the biggest shocks though is the position of Ak Bars Kazan. Despite still possessing Europe's most potent first offensive unit with Danis Zaripov, Alexei Morozov and Sergei Zinoviev, the club has felt the loss of the quartet that moved to Salavat Yulayev. Offensively, only four forwards have managed to notch double-digit points. Zinoviev has missed half of the club's games this season. In his absence Denis Arkhipov has not been able to copy the scoring numbers. Between the pipes, Finnish goaltender Mika Noronen went down injured whilst Vasily Koshechkin was not performing to par. During the international break in November therefore, Ak Bars opened up its pockets and acquired a handful of players. Arriving from Switzerland were Oleg Petrov and Jukka Hentunen. Furthermore Czech forward Petr Cajanek and goaltender Robert Esche had to stop the team struggling. It took some time but as of mid-November, the club managed to find a break and win four of out five games giving the team some breathing room. Still positioned on the wrong half of the standings (10th), they do not have much room for errors anymore in order to make it to the playoffs.
...and Alexei Morozov with Ak Bars Kazan in 2007
Last but not least are the performances of SKA St. Petersburg. With the local football team having recently captured the league title, their ice hockey equivalents are doing a nice job to repeat that success. SKA is currently comfortably ranked second behind Salavat Yulayev. Their line-up is full of internationally experienced players. Sweden is represented in Andreas Johansson and Mika Hannula whilst coach Barry Smith can rely on the services of fellow Canadians Jamie Heward and goaltender Marc Lamothe. The St. Peterburg club squad also contains a string of former Russian NHLers: Denis Shvidki, Maxim Sushinsky, David Nemirovsky and Kiril Safronov. Recently the whole organisation received a huge boost when defensive rock Darius Kasaparaitis signed for SKA. Although he only joined the club on a loan move, and thus can be recalled later on in the season, his presence is paying off both on and off the ice enabling the club to retain its high position in the RSL.Top scorers
(as of November 27)
- Alexei Morozov (Ak Bars) 30 Games Played - 14 goals - 20 assists - 34 points
- Sergei Mozyakin (Khimik) 30-12-13-33
- Danis Zaripov (Ak Bars) 30-12-21-33
Not too long ago Russian hockey fans saw a large number of talented players leave Russia to have a crack at the NHL after each season. Nowadays, things are different. First of all, the prosperous economic situation of Russian hockey is a main reason. The Russian teams can lure players with contracts that some NHL teams would not dare to offer. Secondly, the lack of a transfer agreement between the NHL and Russia has made it more difficult for NHL teams to get players across the pond. Instead, Russian teams are bringing back players from the NHL into their Super League, which has raised the league level immensely.
The 2007-08 season is no different as several players have returned home. The most highlighted example is probably the one of Alexei Yashin. The forward, who had the final four seasons of his 10-year contract bought out by the New York Islanders in June, signed for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and notched 18 points in 29 games so far.
Other notable returnees listed below:
Rule changes impacts both clubs and players
- Nikita Alexeev, Denis Arkhipov (Ak Bars)
- Alexander Svitov (Avangard Omsk)
- Oleg Saprykin, Konstantin Pushkarev (CSKA Moscow)
- Dmitri Afanasenkov, Daniil Markov (Dynamo Moscow)
- Stanislav Chistov, Igor Grigorenko, Alexander Perezhogin, Andrei Taratukhin, Oleg Tverdovsky (Salavat Yulayev Ufa)
- Darius Kasparaitis (SKA St. Petersburg)
Last season gave plenty of reason for fans to talk about all summer. Yet, the talk of the town suddenly shifted based on reports from the league's head quarters. Some drastic rule changes were applied for the 2007-08 season which has not only made clubs having to deal with accordingly. It also has a major impact on players.
The league expansion from 19 teams to 20 teams was foreseeable (legendary Spartak Moscow and Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod entered the league replacing Krylya Sovetov). The new import rule though came more of a surprise. Compared to the three import players allowed to be dressed for a game last season, Russian clubs can now dress four import players. At first sight, this looks a minor change but the definition of 'import player' had a far greater impact. Any player not eligible to represent the Russian national team in an official IIHF competition is now considered an import player regardless possessing Russian citizenship or not. This group includes players from former Soviet Union nations like Kazakh goaltender Vitali Eremeev and Belarusian Andrei Mezin. Some of these players have decided not to play for their country any longer in order to save their roster spot in Russia. Added to this will be another rule applied next season which states that no team is allowed to dress an import goaltender.
Furthermore, the RSL has decided to slowly implement penalty shots in the last part of the regular season and the playoffs, penalty shoot-outs will be taken after a 10-minute overtime has not brought victory to either side. In case of an all-decisive fifth playoff game (best-of-five rule is applied) the rules are different though. Then a continuous overtime will be the decider on who will advance.
Finally, the Russian Super League has opted to open its league for teams outside the Russian border. Teams like Kazzinc Torpedo from Kazakhstan, or Sokol Kyiv from Ukraine were already allowed at the second level but would not be eligible for promotion if they had won the league. As of this season, the opportunity is there and if the clubs seize the moment, the Super League could add another remarkable chapter to its book.