Hired to be Fired (Updated)
KHL coaches, generally speaking, are there for a good time, not for a long time — the league’s longest-tenured bench boss with a single team is currently Pēteris Skudra, who has been in charge of Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod for all of three years. And usually, at about this time of the season (8-10 games played for most teams), we would start to think about who would be the first coach to walk the plank. However, 2016-17 has been a tougher season than normal for the men behind KHL benches: the next coach to lose his job will be the FOURTH of this young campaign. Read on for more…
The first KHL coaching change of 2016-17 came before the regular season had actually begun, when Avangard Omsk replaced Yevgeny Kornoukhov with Fyodor Kanareikin. It was a bit of a surprising move, given that Kornoukhov had guided the team to the best record in the East Conference in 2015-16. However, Avangard were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs — something of a disappointment, under the circumstances. There have also been recent rumours that Czech forward Vladimír Sobotka, whom Avangard are eager to keep from fleeing to the NHL, might not have been on the best of terms with Kornoukhov. Finally, Kanareikin is vastly experienced, with a Russian Superleague championship on his resume (he won it coaching Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2006-07). He only recently became available for hiring once again, having battled some health issues.
So far, things seem to be working fine: Avangard are currently tied for tops in the East once again, with a record of 5-2. As for Sobotka, he still has not stated with 100% certainty where he will play this season, but is expected to do so once the World Cup of Hockey is over (he suffered an injury during a pre-tournament game this week, but it is apparently not serious).
The second coaching change of the season came in late August, courtesy of lowly Metallurg Novokuznetsk, and this too was a bit of strange one. Outgoing bench boss Nikolai Solovyov had the team at 1-2 to start the season, which is respectable enough given Metallurg’s scarce resources. Solovyov himself spoke publicly on that theme after his firing, claiming that the club’s expectations of the team were way out of whack with the support they were willing to give in terms of acquiring talent: “I’m not a wizard” he said, summing up the problem.
Metallurg remain without an official head coach at this point, and the club’s Sporting Director Valery Zelepukin has taken on the role for now. Since Solovyov’s firing, the Novokuznetsk side has gone 1-4.
The KHL’s third coaching change of the season was the one that everyone could see coming, when Barys Astana cut ties with Andrei Nazarov. The notorious Nazarov does have some coaching successes in his past, but is known as much for his hot-headedness as he is for anything else. And his time in Astana was not a success; after his brief and disastrous tenure at SKA St. Petersburg, he failed to guide Barys to the playoffs (the first ever post-season non-appearance for the team) in 2015-16. Nazarov’s charges then began 2016-17 at 0-3, including a loss to the afore-mentioned Metallurg Novokuznetsk. But the final straw came when the Kazakh national team, of which Nazarov was also in charge, failed to qualify for the 2018 Olympics. The on-ice failings would likely have been enough in any case, and we have not even mentioned the shenanigans which led to Barys forward Damir Ryspayev being banned from the KHL indefinitely. In many ways, the only surprise about Nazarov’s firing was that it did not occur sooner.
Barys wasted little time finding Nazarov’s replacement, and the new man is 46-year-old Belarusan Eduard Zankovets. His coaching career has included a number of years with the Belarusan national program, and some seasons as a KHL assistant with SKA and Avangard. Zankovets spent last season as a scout for the Chicago Blackhawks. Since his hiring, Barys have gone 1-1, so there are at least early signs of improvement.
So three coaches gone already — who’s next? There are certainly some possible candidates. Amur Khabarovsk came into the season with some optimism, if only of the modest variety, but are off to a 2-7 start and are getting out-shot heavily on a regular basis, which makes Mishkhat Fakhrutdinov’s continued employment far from a sure bet. Severstal Cherepovets are 1-7, so Alexander Gulyavtsev may well be on the hot seat there as well. We might also mention Dinamo Riga, who have started 1-5, but there the situation is more complicated. Head Coach Normunds Sējējs is also the team’s general manager, and only took the coaching job at the last minute when he could find another suitable candidate. Presumably that hunt goes on, so there may a coaching change coming in Riga whether or not the results improve.
Finally, I would not lose track of Salavat Yulaev Ufa’s progress or lack thereof. Much as they did last season, the Bashkortostan team has started dreadfully, with a record of 2-6, although it should be noted that two of those losses came via shootout. However, this is a team with talent to spare, so at some point attention will turn to coach Igor Zakharkin. Oddly enough, Zakharkin got the job a year ago after Salavat Yulaev’s poor start to 2015-16, and the man he replaced, Anatoly Yemelin, is still on team’s coaching staff as an assistant. It is not a complete impossibility that Yemelin could end up back in the head-coaching role under circumstances similar to the ones that cost him the job in the first place last October.
All that’s for the future, however — in the meantime, all we can say for sure is that the league’s 2016-17 “coaches fired” list is unlikely to stop at just three!
UPDATE: And indeed, not a day after this piece was posted, the fourth KHL coaching change of 2016-17 is now in the books:
COACHING CHANGE: Yugra sacks head coach Pavel Yezovskikh. Andrei Sokolov takes over in the interim.
— KHL News – English (@KHLNewsEN) September 12, 2016
Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk are 4-5 on the season, which is ok for one of the KHL’s smallest teams, and they even have a win over defending champions Metallurg Magnitogorsk already this season. However, their most recent game was a 7-1 pasting at the hands of Sibir Novosibirsk, during which the Ugra players noticeably gave up during the third period. Today’s move may well be a case of pre-emptive action while the team is still realistically in the playoff hunt. Sokolov, beginning his first-ever head-coaching job, will get his first test on Wednesday when Ugra host lowly Metallurg Novokuznetsk.