First Out the Door
Given the looming contraction of the KHL — three, yet unknown, teams will be departing after this season — 2017-18 always looked like it would be harder than a normal campaign on the job security of coaches, particularly those in charge of the league’s weaker clubs. And so it seemed almost miraculous that we made it all the way nearly to the end of September, a full month and more of regular season action, with no casualties from the ranks of KHL bench bosses. However, the first domino fell earlier this week, and the second followed it by mere hours. In neither case, it must be said, can the move be considered a surprise. Read on…
Hiring someone to coach the club where his playing career made him a folk hero is a move that can work very well indeed, or not well at all; sadly, in the case of Sandis Ozoliņš and Dinamo Riga, it has turned out to be the latter. Ozoliņš began his career as a defenceman at Dinamo in the Soviet Championship in 1990-91, and ended it at the same team in the KHL in 2013-14. In between those years, he picked up a Stanley Cup ring as a member of the 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche, and patrolled the Latvian blueline at three Olympic Games. An interesting side note: in the four KHL seasons that he played for Dinamo, all as captain, they never once missed the playoffs, and they haven’t been back to the post-season since he retired. And so there was some understandable excitement when he was hired on for his first coaching job, as an assistant, midway through last season, and more excitement when he was given the head coaching position this summer.
However, it has, as they say, all ended in tears. Ozoliņš was fired on Thursday, with Dinamo riding a 12-game losing streak during which they have picked up zero of a possible 36 points. The team’s overall record is 2-14, with a league-worst 23 goals scored (tied for worst in that category, actually) and — also a league-worst — 55 goals conceded. I could go on, but you get the picture. It was not the way anybody wanted the tale to finish, but it can certainly happen, particularly with a rookie head coach.
Replacing Ozoliņš behind the Dinamo bench on an interim basis will be the club’s GM, Ģirts Ankipāns. Ankipāns, a forward by trade during his playing days, was a team-mate of Ozoliņš at Dinamo and with the Latvian national team. He retired in 2013, and was named the team’s General Manager this past summer. As Dinamo’s early-season woes built, he stepped in as assistant coach last week, and has now taken upon himself the top job, at least for now. It is his first head-coaching position in the KHL, and his second overall after he was in charge of the Latvian U20 team at the 2014-15 Division 1A World Juniors (they finished third). We still await word on whom he will bring in as assistants.
We will see if the coaching change, plus the arrival of talented but troubled forward Nikolai Zherdev, will help turn things around in the Latvian capital, but the immediate task will be a tough one: Ankipāns’ first game in charge will be on Tuesday, in Moscow against mighty CSKA.
It was Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk, the team tied with Dinamo for fewest goals scored in 2017-18 at 23, who made the other coaching change on Thursday, and again it involved a bench boss just hired this summer. 59-year-old Igor Zakharkin had a rather unusual path to the being a KHL head coach (I wrote about it earlier this summer), and only got his first top job in the league in 2015, with Salavat Yulaev Ufa. The Bashkir side had a disappointing 2016-17 season, and let him go at the end of it, and Ugra swooped in to pick him up.
Zakharkin is undoubtedly an intelligent coach, as his academic credentials indicate (“Chair of the Department of Hockey Theory & Method at the Russian State University of Physical Culture, Sports, and Tourism” is the one that jumps out), but he could not get his under-talented, under-resourced, Ugra side to play above itself, at least not by enough. With a record of 3-11 (just one win in regulation, too), and 53 goals conceded to go with that paltry 23 scored, Ugra find themselves at the foot of the East Conference, their playoff hopes and possibly their KHL future already vanishing over the horizon. Zakharkin was let go on Thursday, and his staff (assistants Nikolai Borshchevsky, Yevgeny Khvostov, and Alexei Seliverstov) along with him, although Andrei Zuyev remains as goalie coach.
When Zakharkin took over at Salavat Yulaev Ufa in 2015, it was Anatoly Yemelin whom he replaced; in a strange case of turnabout, it is Yemelin who replaces Zakharkin at Ugra. Now 52, Yemelin was a very decent forward during his playing career in the 1980’s and ’90’s; for one thing, in 1993-94 he was top three in both goals and points, and he was captain, on the Lada Tolyatti team that became the first-ever non-Moscow side to win a national championship. After many years as an assistant, he began his head-coaching career at Lada as well, in 2007-08, and since that has had multi-season stints behind the benches of Amur Khabarovsk, Metallurg Novokuznetsk, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, and Salavat Yulaev. Rather unusually, he stayed on as an assistant in Ufa when Zakharkin replaced him in 2015, but was let go from that position after the disappointment of 2016-17. Igor Ulanov and Sergei Gusev will join him as assistants on his staff at Ugra. On Saturday, they will face their first test, away to HK Sochi.
And that brings us to the final question: who is the next coach out the door? Andrei Martemyanov of Amur Khabarovsk and Lada Tolyatti’s Arturs Ābols are certainly candidates, although both of their struggling teams broke long losing streaks this week, and in doing so may have won their coaches a stay of execution for a little while at least. One other possibility? Metallurg Magnitogorsk, with two Gagarin Cups and three trips to the Final in the last four seasons, find themselves in ninth spot in the East, outside the playoff picture if only barely, with a quarter of their season played. While Magnitka’s struggles have more to do with this summer’s raft of significant departures than with anything else, we must wonder a little bit about the job security of head coach Ilya Vorobyov. One thing is certain, however: Ozoliņš and Zakharkin will not be the last head coaches given their walking papers this season.