The Axe Falls on Mr. Nazarov
Update: There has been further interesting KHL coaching news since I started writing this piece! In case you missed it, Mike Keenan has left his post as head coach of Metallurg Magnitogorsk, apparently for an advisory role of some sort and a possible place on the coaching staff of the Russian national team (Keenan has been pursuing Russian citizenship for some time). Obviously, there will be a lot more to say about that in the coming days, as we learn more details — in the meantime, follow Aivis Kalniņš on twitter for developments. And now, off to St. Petersburg, and SKA’s coaching saga:
It was coming — we had to know it was. When the defending champions are sitting ninth out of 14 teams in their own conference, outside the group destined for post-season play and already with a third of the season behind them, there are going to be changes. And so yesterday, after a dismal 3-1 home loss to Ak Bars Kazan in which his team was out-shot by its Tatar guests 44-29, SKA St. Petersburg head coach Andrei Nazarov failed to appear for the post-game press conference. The obvious conclusion was the correct one; Nazarov is out after only a couple of months on the job, and Sergei Zubov will step in to take over for now. Below the jump, some thoughts:
I think we can safely say that Andrei Nazarov will not be missed by many among the SKA faithful. Both as player and as coach, he has always been known as temperamental — 1409 penalty minutes in his 571 NHL games played and numerous run-ins with fans, opposing players, referees, and the various league disciplinary committees bear witness to that. And his reign at SKA began with another capital-I Incident when he was accused of beating up the team doctor during a pre-season meeting. That scandal faded away into the background after a little while, and nothing like it occurred thereafter, but it was hardly the best way for Nazarov to reassure his new team’s fan-base that the team had hired the right man to replace the classy and dignified Vyacheslav Bykov.
A quick start to the season might have helped Nazarov, but he did not get it. SKA were not bad, certainly, through late August and the first three weeks of September, but neither did they look anything like a team capable of defending a championship. They stumbled along, never either winning or losing more than two in a row, with an injury to team captain Ilya Kovalchuk certainly not helping matters. Then, in late September, “Kovi” returned and back-to-back wins over powerful arch-rivals CSKA Moscow and early-season pace-setters Jokerit Helsinki suddenly suggested the turning of a corner. But it was not to be; SKA followed up their win over Jokerit by losing 4-1 at home to Dinamo Riga, and have now dropped five of seven after today’s defeat. Looking at the season as a whole, we might even be tempted to wonder why the SKA top bass did not act earlier.
In fairness to Nazarov, he was dealt a very tough hand in taking over SKA. The popular Bykov’s sudden resignation this summer meant that the new coach was under pressure from day one, even beyond the burden that comes with leading the KHL’s richest team as they set out to defend a championship. To make matters worse, Nazarov inherited a lineup that was missing several key pieces of the Gagarin-winning side. The forward corps had been particularly hard-hit, with six of SKA’s top ten 2014-15 scorers having departed for new teams. Among those heading to the exit were the team’s leading scorer last season, 23-year-old Artemi Panarin, who now plies his trade for the Chicago Blackhawks. In a way, it would have been grossly unjust not to expect some stumbles at the start of the season.
However, SKA St. Petersburg still possess the sort of talent all over the ice that makes a seat in ninth place unacceptable at this point in the campaign. Up front, Yevgeny Dadonov, Vadim Shipachyov, and of course Kovalchuk all remain from the glory days of this past spring. Kovalchuk, whose injury problems have already been mentioned, is having a dire season (13 gp, 3-5-8), and both Dadonov and Shipachyov are slightly off their usual pace as well, but there is not a team in the KHL that would not take any or all of those three in a heartbeat (I submit that most NHL teams would be interested, as well). And the team’s defense is formidable, having kept the likes of Anton Belov and Maxim Chudinov and added another very useful piece in former Lokomotiv Yaroslavl rearguard Yegor Yakovlev. That Nazarov could not get more out of that lineup is a damning indictment of his performance as SKA’s coach.
Ironically, one of the few bright spots for SKA in Nazarov’s last game in charge was this bit of work by Mikko Koskinen.
Perhaps most puzzling has been the situation with SKA’s goaltenders. It is true that Mikko Koskinen, the normally superb Finnish netminder acquired late in 2014 from Sibir Novosibirsk, is posting a surprisingly poor .913 save percentage this season (33rd-best in the KHL among goalies who have played more than 400 minutes). Some criticism from the coach is to be expected under those circumstances, to be sure, but Nazarov seemed to focus on Koskinen as the root of all the team’s ills, and that seems a bit excessive (I invite you to check out Cirno Avery‘s analysis of one particular goal against SKA, which Nazarov harshly blamed on Koskinen, as an example). To give him his due, nominal back-up Ilya Yezhov has been decent enough (.929 sv%, 15th among netminders with 400+ minutes), but needlessly ruining Koskinen’s confidence in the expectation that Yezhov can take over for him was a fool’s game at best.
So what now, for both SKA and Nazarov? As regards the team, we have already noted that Sergei Zubov, one of the best attacking defensemen of all time in his playing days, will step in behind the SKA bench for now. However, it appears that long-time coach Pyotr Vorobyov will be the “permanent” hire at some point in the near future (see *note below on the spelling of that name). Vorobyov played in the Soviet Championship for Dinamo Riga in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, with early part of his career spent under the tutelage of Viktor Tikhonov. Now 66 years old, he has been a coach of either the assistant or head variety since 1981. Most recently, Vorobyov worked in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl organization; he was the team’s first head coach when it was re-established in the VHL after the 2011 plane crash, and took charge of it again, this time in the KHL, in 2013-14. We wait now for an official announcement from St. Petersburg on that front; until then, Zubov is the man in charge.
There is, of course, another big acquisition coming for SKA St. Petersburg; Vyacheslav Voynov will likely join the team very soon. That signing comes with its own controversy of course, as the former L.A. Kings defenseman would not be in the KHL at all had he not done time in an American jail this summer after being convicted of beating up Marta Varlamova, his wife. However, in purely hockey terms, a player of his abilities can only improve SKA’s fortunes; we may well wonder whether Nazarov could have saved his job for the long term had he been able to hold on for even another week or two.
As for Andrei Nazarov himself, he will likely get another chance as a coach somewhere, if not immediately. He enjoys the enviable combination of youth — he is only 41, which is youngish for a top-level coach — and experience (this was Nazarov’s ninth season as a head coach in the top Russian league). And his resume does contain some genuine accomplishments. He guided unfashionable Severstal Cherepovets to the second round of the playoffs in 2012-13, and repeated the trick with another “little” team in Donbass Donetsk the following year (interestingly, the aforementioned Shipachyov was a player for Nazarov in Cherepovets, and Dadonov in Donetsk). I speculate here, but this may be a coach who is adept at teaching the sorts of tactics that let under-talented teams out-perform their abilities, but has little idea of how to handle lineups stacked with vast talent like SKA’s. If that is the case, he has lots of time to figure it out.
However, we must once again return to the problem of Nazarov’s temperament; if he cannot learn to control his emotions better than he has in the past, he is unlikely to live up to his potential as a bench boss. In truth (apart from the early incident with the doctor, and there is much that we do not know about that incident) he did fairly well in that regard at SKA, giving the league’s dispensers of punishment little reason to turn their eyes upon him once the season actually began. For Nazarov’s sake, we can but hope that this improvement is more than a brief respite!
*Note: His name is Пётр Воробьёв in the Cyrillic alphabet. I have transliterated it as “Pyotr Vorobyov,” but you will also frequently see “Petr Vorobiev,” the Latvian “Pjotrs Vorobjovs,” and other similar variations (both the examples given here are completely acceptable, by the way). Vorobyov was born in Moscow, and is a Russian citizen, but spent a great deal of time in Riga as a player and coach during the Soviet era and later coached the Latvian national team, which explains why one sees the Latvian version of his name so often.