At the end of the 2012/13 KHL season, no team envied the situation of Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg. The team had just finished dead last in the KHL with a paltry 35 points, and ranked at or near the bottom in every major category. Their NHL lockout signing, Joffrey Lupul, bolted after 9 games. Two years later, with about a sixth of the season gone, the team is topping the Kharlamov Division and is within striking distance of elite KHL teams like Avangard and Jokerit. So how did a team that was almost historically bad become so good in just a few years – and on a budget, too?
The first pieces were laid during that 2013 offseason. Leonid Vaisfeld was named the new general manager of the team, and brought head coach Anatoly Yemelin on board with him. These two men were tasked with turning around a team that scored fewer and conceded more than any KHL team. Vaisfeld decided that conceding fewer was the big early goal, and went into the transfer market for foreign help. They landed Tobias Viklund, captain-to-be Sergei Gusev, and Sami Lepisto to help bolster the blueline, and made what turned out to be the best move in this teambuilding process in signing Jakub Kovar, who had just led the Czech Extraliga with a .935 save percentage and 2.00 goals against average. With these three in tow, the team cut their goals conceded tally by 55, and even got to watch Lepisto and Kovar at the Sochi Olympics. That year, thanks in part to a breakout season by Fyodor Malykhin, the team squeaked into the playoffs as the 7 seed, but were quickly swept by Barys Astana.
That offseason, it looked like things were on the verge of unraveling, as Malykhin was sold to Ak Bars for budget reasons. The Motorists tried to compensate by picking up Jakub Petruzalek and Gilbert Brule, but Brule failed to live up to expectations and Petruzalek returned home to the Czech Republic for family reasons. However, despite this, the team still made the playoffs and Jakub Kovar did something KHL goalies rarely do: play in all 60 games that season. He also led the league with 8 clean sheets, and added a ninth in the team’s lone playoff victory against Ak Bars as again they were taken out in round one.
Things looked even more dire for Avto in the 2015 offseason. Out were Lepisto, Viklund, and Anton Lazarev, as well as the architect Vaisfeld and the tactician Yemelin, both to Salavat Yulaev Ufa. However, the Yekaterinburg side knew how to play their cards with Salavat, and picked up Oleg Gross, the man who built the title-winning sides of 2008 and 2011. Gross rolled the dice with his head coaching hire, tabbing Izhstal Izhevsk boss Andrei Razin, who had never coached in the KHL before. Gross also managed to lock down Kovar for another two years, and brought in a pair of Czechs to join him in Ondrej Roman and Petr Koukal. Rounding out the import party were a pair of Finns, Tommi Kivisto and Eero Elo. The team also managed to snag a good return for Lazarev, picking up young Alexander Pankov and defender Alexei Vasilevsky, who has been impressive in 2015/16.
Behind a balanced attack led by Koukal (8 points), a solid defense, and one of the KHL’s best goalies in Kovar, Avto has surprised many by climbing to the top of the Kharlamov Division, where they sit 2 points ahead of Metallurg Magnitogorsk heading into the games on 13 September. In the KHL, utilization of limited resources can make a small team great, and Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg has made something out of what two years ago was nothing.