The Bench Bosses: Bobrov Division
We are now just a month or so away from the beginning of the 2017-18 KHL pre-season training camps. Thus we are beginning to get some clarity concerning the men who will behind the benches in this upcoming campaign, so perhaps it is time to take a closer look at those under-pressure figures. We will begin in the West Conference, with the six teams of the Bobrov Division — read on!
Dinamo Minsk — Craig Woodcroft: The 47-year-old Canadian is entering his second year in charge of the Belarusan capital team, having replaced Andrei Kovalev last summer. Woodcroft’s debut KHL season was a success, as he guided Dinamo back to the playoffs after they had missed out in 2015-16. He also caused one local sportswriter to famously (and literally) eat his words! Dinamo’s first-round post-season exit, in just five games against Lokomotiv, was a disappointment, but there were apparently no thoughts at all of making a coaching change. The next task will be for Dinamo to achieve a first-ever KHL playoff series win. Woodcroft’s staff: Ron Pasco (Ass’t), Rob Davison (Ass’t), Kristian Skarphagen (Strength & Conditioning).
Dinamo Riga — Sandis Ozoliņš: The big news of this week has been the appointment of Ozoliņš, who takes over at the club where he was a legendary player (he became an assistant with the team midway through 2016-17). It is something of a surprise announcement, as the club was apparently very interested in Latvian national team coach Bob Hartley, but could not come to an agreement. Last season was a miserable one for Dinamo; GM Normunds Sējējs was forced to take on the head coaching duties due to inability to find an alternative, and the Riga side finished last in the West Conference and second-last in the league. Dinamo have not tasted the playoffs since 2013-14, Ozoliņš’ last campaign as a player, so the task confronting the rookie head coach, and former Stanley Cup champion defenceman, is not a small one. However, he should enjoy the unstinting support of the fans, to whom he is a justly beloved figure, and it will be great story if he can lead Dinamo back to the post-season (or even to a Spengler Cup triumph, as Dinamo revealed this week that they will take part in the traditional Christmas tournament in Switzerland). Ozoliņš’ staff: unknown.
Jokerit Helsinki — Jukka Jalonen: 2016-17 was a season of discontent for Jokerit, as the usually-strong Finnish side slumped to an eighth-place finish in the West Conference, and were peremptorily swept out of the way by CSKA in the first round of the playoffs. However, Jalonen, who took over last summer after coaching Team Finland to gold at the 2015-16 World Juniors, will remain at his post, and that’s probably a fair decision. The 54-year-old from Riihimäki has a top-level head-coaching resume that extends back nearly 25 years, and also has previous KHL experience thanks to a year and a half in charge of SKA. His priority this coming season, obviously, will be to return Jokerit to their former spot among the top clubs in the West. Jalonen’s staff: Raimo Helminen (Ass’t), Mika Saarinen (Ass’t), Markus Ketterer (Goalies), Janne Hietaniemi (Video).
SKA St. Petersburg — Oleg Znarok: Hired by SKA in summer of 2016, to replace interim coach Sergei Zubov after the disastrous but short Andrei Nazarov era, Znarok has certainly covered the bet so far! Coach of the Year honours for 2016-17 and a Gagarin Cup championship followed his arrival, and the Russian national team has not suffered from his taking double-duty either. Team Russia came fourth at the World Cup, won the Euro Hockey Tour, and picked up a fourth straight medal (all under Znarok) at the World Championship. Now, given SKA’s unrivaled financial strength and the resulting edge in player recruitment, there is a valid question to be asked about how much credit Znarok deserves for his club’s success. However, the answer to that is likely not “none.” It is worth recalling that Znarok led Dynamo Moscow to two consecutive Gagarin Cups, and the venerable capital city team has not come close to a title since he left; the admittedly irascible coach knows what he’s doing. Next year’s goal with SKA will be to remain atop the heap, while the national team has the small matter of an Olympic tournament to think about. Znarok’s staff: Harijs Vītoliņš (Ass’t), Vladimir Fedosov (Ass’t), Rashit Davydov (Goalies), Marko Torenius (Goalies), Yuri Zhdanov (Fitness), Denis Korotyshev (Fitness).
Slovan Bratislava — Miloš Říha: The 58-year-old Říha is now the Bobrov division’s longest-tenured coach, as he enters his third season behind the Slovan bench. In his first, 2015-16, he nigh-miraculously guided the team to the playoffs despite very difficult circumstances. Oddly enough, in 2016-17 they missed out, although the club was sailing in much calmer waters. However, the only coaching changes that Slovan have chosen to make this off-season involve Říha’s assistants. And that is fair enough, too; Říha has more than 20 years experience as a head coach, and has previously been in charge of KHL sides Spartak, Atlant, SKA, and Avangard (he got un-fancied Atlant all the way to the Gagarin Cup final in 2010-11, in one of the great shocks of the KHL’s early history). The man can certainly coach, and will now take on the job of figuring out what went wrong last season, and fixing it. Říha’s staff: Rudolf Jendek (Ass’t), Rostislav Haas (Goalies), Róbert Bereš (Fitness)
Spartak Moscow — Vadim Yepanchintsev: It is now six seasons without a playoff berth for Spartak, although in fairness one of those campaigns (2014-15) the team sat out entirely due to financial issues. And last season, the second season since Spartak’s “renaissance,” was particularly disappointing, as they finished ahead of only Dinamo Riga in the West, and recorded 11 fewer points than in 2015-16. Coach German Titov paid the price early in October of 2016-17, and his interim replacement, Alexei Yarushkin, resigned at season’s end. And now it is the turn of Yepanchintsev to try to set matters aright, as he returns to the club whose junior squad he coached a couple of seasons ago. In the interim, he has been doing a decent job at VHL powerhouse Saryarka Karaganda. Just 41, Yepanchintsev will be youngest coach in the Bobrov division this coming season, having wrapped up his playing career (which began at Spartak) in 2011 — interestingly enough, as a member of Miloš Říha’s amazing Atlant team. He can have no illusions about the size of the task in front of him now, but is at least approaching it with good humour: in a recent interview, he said he had jokingly written to Sergei Mozyakin, Danis Zaripov, and Ilya Kovalchuk to invite them to join Spartak! Yepanchintsev’s staff: Unknown.
This season, of course, will be one of added pressure for KHL coaches, as on-ice performance is one the criteria that the league will use to determine which three teams are given the boot after the 2017-18 campaign is over. Teams therefore will have less room than usual (and the usual is not much) to allow a coach to work his squad out of a slump. Of the Bobrov group, I suspect that the seats are hottest under Yepanchintsev and Říha, possibly just ahead of Ozoliņš (the latter’s legendary stature in Latvian hockey may earn him a bit of a grace period). While their teams are likely not under threat, Woodcroft and Jalonen may not survive a stuttering start either. As for Znarok, he’s not going anywhere unless he wants to.
Next up in this little series is the West Conference’s other division, the Tarasov, and that should be along this weekend. Before then, however, we will be checking back in with some updates on the KHL’s new strategic plan. Thank you for reading!