|Defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky is currently playing for the resurgent Salavat Yulaev Ufa team in the Russian Super League.
The historical Salavat Yulaev was a famous 18th-century insurgent and poet from the Russian city of Ufa. Yulaev, who fought in the Cossack rebellion against Catherine the Great, is an enduring folk hero in that part of Russia. Among the many institutions and organizations named in his honor is the Ufa hockey team in the Russian Super League (RSL).
Traditionally, the Salavat Yulaev club has been an RSL also-ran. Although the team often has exceeded preseason expectations, it never has been able to overcome the league’s perennial powerhouses. Salavat’s roster usually has been built from within the organization’s junior ranks, with a focus on squeezing the most out of talented youth and second-tier veteran players recruited away from other teams.
The club has reached the RSL playoffs for the most of the past decade and closed last season as one of the hottest teams in any major European league. It lost just one of its final 16 games to finish in third place in the RSL. The Ufa squad swept SKA St. Petersburg in the first round of the playoffs, but lost to CSKA Moscow in a second-round series that went the full five games.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year (and the city’s 450th anniversary), the Salavat Yulaev club stands a solid chance to win its first Russian championship come springtime. The team is in first place in the RSL after 24 games with an eye-catching 18-4-2 record. They’ve scored a league-high 79 goals, and have allowed the second-fewest goals (46).
Balanced scoring has been the key. The club only has two players in the league’s top 25 scorers, but there are seven players with double-digit points and eight players with four or more goals.
The team, which plays in the new, 8,000-seat Ufa Arena, spent a lot of money during the offseason to upgrade the roster. Among others, the team signed longtime NHL defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky to a multi-year deal, as well as Alexander Perezhogin (last with the Montreal Canadiens and formerly with Avangard Omsk), former Vancouver Canucks prospect and Avangard Omsk defenseman Kirill Koltsov, and one-time Philadelphia Flyers defensive prospect Mikhail Chernov (last with SKA St. Petersburg). The team also made headlines in Russia by signing en masse the second forward line that played with Ak Bars Kazan last season (Alexei Tereschenko, Vladimir Vorobiev and Vitali Proshkin).
One of Salavat’s holdover players, right wing Vladimir Antipov, remains the team’s top offensive performer. The 29-year-old former Toronto Maple Leafs prospect scored a career-high 21 goals and 43 points last season to lead the team in scoring. So far this season, he ranks 19th in the RSL with seven goals and 11 assists. Former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Konstantin Koltsov leads Ufa with eight goals.
Antipov was one of five Salavat Yulaev players chosen for the victorious Russian team at the recent Karjala Cup in Helsinki, Finland. The others were Perezhogin (six goals, 14 points this season), former Dallas Stars prospect Tereschenko (second on the team in scoring with six goals and 17 points), 23-year-old defenseman Andrei Kuteikin (four goals) and veteran goaltender Alexander Eremenko (2.05 goals-against average, .908 save percentage).
Early this season, Salavat goaltender Vadim Tarasov (a former Montreal Canadiens prospect) was the hottest goalie in Europe. In 10 starts, the 29-year-old keeper posted a sparkling 1.25 GAA, three shutouts and a .940 save percentage before getting hurt. To fill the open roster spot, Ufa has signed former NHL goaltender Milan Hnilicka (previously with Czech team Bili Tygri Liberec) for the rest of the season.
Salavat Yulaev, with 56 points, currently is three points ahead of SKA St. Petersburg in the RSL standings. The resurgent SKA club has been led by former Minnesota Wild right wing Maxim Sushinsky (12 goals, 24 points), and a host of players with NHL and/or major international experience.
The St. Petersburg club also features Swedish former NHLer Andreas Johansson (seven goals, 17 points), former NHLer David Nemirovsky (seven goals, 12 points), former Phoenix Coyotes and Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Kirill Safranov, ex Florida Panthers forward Denis Shvidki (six goals, 10 points) one-time New Jersey Devils prospect Anton But (10 points), former AHL scoring standout and NHL defenseman Jamie Heward (nine points) and Swedish import Mika Hannula (nine points). The goaltending duo of 33-year-old former Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings keeper Marc Lamothe (2.04 GAA, three shutouts in 17 games) and 35-year-old goaltender Dmitry Yachanov (1.93 GAA, .924 save percentage in 10 appearances).
Some of the top RSL teams of recent years find themselves in the unaccustomed position of being buried in the standings. Most notably, Ak Bars Kazan has crashed and burned in the early going this season after being widely considered the best club in Europe the previous two seasons. Kazan found itself in last place in the 20-team circuit until a recent surge lifted the club to 15th.
The team’s biggest problem has been on defense, having allowed 70 goals (tied for third-worst in the league). Offensively, the team remains potent, with 67 goals scored to date. The club has over-relied on its prolific top scoring line of RSL point king Alexei Morozov (13 goals, 27 points), linemates Danis Zaripov (eight goals, 26 points) and Sergei Zinoviev (16 points in 14 games), as well as former NHL defenseman Ray Giroux (eight goals, 17 points) to save the day.
Defending RSL champions Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Dynamo Moscow and Avangard Omsk have played better than Kazan, but find themselves playing catch-up in the standings.
Metallurg, with the league’s stingiest defense (just 39 goals allowed) and three of the top-20 scorers in the RSL (Yan Marek, Vitali Atyushov and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Nikolai Kulemin) are in the thick of the hunt for the top spot, just five points behind Salavat Yulaev. Dynamo is in seventh place, 16 points off the pace, and Avangard is eighth, one point behind Dynamo.
Russia’s most famous team, 32-time champion CSKA Moscow, has not won the domestic championship since the fall of the Soviet Union. This season, the former Red Army team is in fifth place in the RSL, 10 points behind Salavat Yulaev Ufa.