The Bench Bosses: Kharlamov Division
We have now arrived at the third of our posts on KHL coaches as the 2017-18 season gets closer, and this time we are investigating the Kharlamov Division of the East Conference. Read on, for experienced coaches, infamous coaches (well, one infamous coach), and the like!
Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg — Vladimir Krikunov: Talk about a change in philosophy! Avtomobilist, at the end of last October, fired one of the KHL’s youngest head coaches in 43-year-old Andrei Razin and hired one of its most experienced in Krikunov. The 67-year-old began his head-coaching career more than 30 years ago, in the Soviet second division with Dinamo Minsk. Nizhnekamsk is the place he’s likely known best, having had three multi-season stints in charge of Neftekhimik; the most recent of those ended in 2015-16 when he was promoted to VP of Hockey Operations mid-season. Krikunov left the club at the end of that campaign, having helped Neftekhimik to a somewhat surprising playoff berth, and a similar result will be what is required in Yekaterinburg. Avtomobilist had made the playoffs in three straight seasons, but missed out under Razin and Krikunov; the experienced coach now gets a full season to see what can be done. Krikunov’s staff: Ivan Krivonosov (Ass’t), Oleg Mikulchik (Ass’t), Nikolai Zavarukhin (Ass’t).
Ak Bars Kazan — Zinetula Bilyaletdinov: No change in philosophy at all for Ak Bars; Bilyaletdinov has been their man behind the bench since 2005-06, apart from the three seasons he spent away coaching the Russian national team. Bilyaletdinov was a standout blueliner for Dynamo Moscow and the Soviet national team back in the day, and has brought a disciplined defensive viewpoint to a coaching career that had has included time as an NHL assistant with Winnipeg and Phoenix in the mid-1990s. He has had success, too, having guided Ak Bars to one Russian Superleague title and two Gagarin Cups, and the Tatar giants have reached at the least the Conference Final in two of the three seasons since Bilyaletdinov returned from national team duty. More of the same will be the expectation in 2017-18, and another Gagarin Cup wouldn’t go amiss either. Bilyaletdinov’s staff: Alexander Smirnov (Ass’t), Alexander Zavyalov (Ass’t), Brendon Bowie (Fitness), Sergei Abramov (goalies), Ari Moisanen (Goalies).
Lada Tolyatti — Artis Ābols: After two-and-a-half seasons as head coach of Dinamo Riga, Ābols arrived at Lada as an assistant in 2015-16, only to be promoted to the top job mid-way through that season. No playoff appearances have so far accompanied his tenure in Tolyatti, but the little Volga club’s scant resources mean that not much blame can be attached to him for that — in fact, club management has recently spoken in glowing terms of the job Ābols has done. The pressure will certainly be on in 2017-18, however, as Lada must be considered one of the clubs at risk of exclusion from the KHL based on the league’s new criteria and rankings. The 44-year-old Latvian will need to justify the team’s faith in him, and at some point that will mean that results on the ice must take a turn for the better. Ābols’ staff: Igor Ulanov (Ass’t), Sakari Lindfors (Goalies), Vilnis Klucis (Fitness).
Metallurg Magnitogorsk — Ilya Vorobyov: He’s still only 42, but Ilya Vorobyov has been a coach at Metallurg since 2012, and head coach since Mike Keenan was let go in October of 2015 (he has also, for the last two seasons, been an assistant with the Russian national team). And forget missing the playoffs; Metallurg haven’t missed the finals in the two seasons in which Vorobyov has been in charge. Now, having Sergei Mozyakin (et al.) certainly helps, so we have to be a bit cautious about assessing Vorobyov’s work too highly, but on the other hand a big part of the job for a coach with great players involves not messing them up. Mission most certainly accomplished there, and Vorobyov’s task now is to keep Metallurg atop the East Conference heap. Vorobyov’s staff: Mike Pelino (Ass’t), Viktor Kozlov (Ass’t), Sergei Zvyagin (Goalies), Sergei Kipryanov (Fitness).
Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk — Andrei Nazarov: The outrageous Nazarov’s KHL coaching career has been accompanied by too many headlines of the wrong kind, and his previous two stops (at SKA and Barys) ended badly. That said, he must get at least a passing grade so far at Neftekhimik. Nazarov arrived last October at a team in chaos — he was already Neftekhimik’s third coach of the season, 25 games in, after Yevgeny Popikhin was fired and Nikolai Solovyov simply quit. But under Nazarov, Tatarstan’s “little” team bounced back, as the points percentage improved from 37.3 under the old regime(s) to 49.5 under the new, and the playoffs were missed only by a narrow margin in the end. So dire reputation aside, Nazarov has certainly earned a second crack at it. Neftekhimik can make the playoffs — they did so under the above-discussed Krikunov in 2015-16 — but they are also a team that must have a worry or two about maintaining their KHL status under the league’s new strategic plan. Toss the notoriously volatile coach into the mix, and we may be in for a interesting season! Nazarov’s staff: Farit Zakharov (Ass’t), Igor Petrov (Ass’t).
Traktor Chelyabinsk — Anvar Gatiyatulin: By contrast with Neftekhimik, 2016-17 was a calm campaign for Traktor. Gatiyatulin had arrived with the KHL squad mid-way through the previous season, which ended in missed playoffs, and he took the top job in the summer of 2016. Traktor duly returned to the post-season, although only the first round. The Chelyabinsk native was very much an in-house hire, too, having previously played much of his career for Traktor, and subsequently having spent three-and-a-bit seasons as head coach of the club’s junior team. Traktor certainly have the wherewithal, and the desire, to be a big team in the KHL; Gatiyatulin’s next goal will be be to guide them back closer to the glory days of 2012 and 2013, when they first won the league’s regular season championship and then made the Gagarin Cup Final the following season. Gatiyatulin’s staff: Ravil Gusmanov (Ass’t), Vitaly Yachmenev (Ass’t), Andrei Sokolov (Ass’t), Konstantin Shtrakhov (Goalies), Vladimir Gaponov (Video), Vadim Gudzik (Fitness).
Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk — Igor Zakharkin: Zakharkin is has had something of an odd career compared to many of his peers. He never played hockey at a high level, although he did suit up for Red Army’s junior team in the 1970s. He has since coached, among other places, in the lower divisions of Swedish hockey, with the Russian national team, and as an assistant to Vyacheslav Bykov with the Polish national side (he then accompanied Bykov to SKA, where they won the Gagarin Cup in 2015). The 59-year-old has also held a number of academic postings, including Chair of the Department of Hockey Theory & Method at the Russian State University of Physical Culture, Sports, and Tourism (2008-2010). The last season-and-a-half saw him as head coach of Salavat Yulaev Ufa, although it was no great surprise that he was let go after 2016-17 — the Ufa side did not live up to expectations. In Khanty-Mansiysk, he replaces Andrei Razin, who was hired by Ugra this past December after being let go by Avtomobilist (see above).
Poor Ugra, it must be said, will be a bit lucky to survive in the KHL at his point. Located in one of the league’s smallest (pop. 80,000) and most remote outposts, and not having made the playoffs since 2012, they are prime candidates for a return to the VHL in the near future. It will be interesting to see if their professorial new coach can turn things around, but he will not have a huge margin of error with which to work. Zakharkin’s staff: Nikolai Borshchevsky (Ass’t), Andrei Zuyev (Goalies).
Next up in this series, we tackle — last but certainly not least — the far-eastern Chernyshyov Division. Thank you for reading!