MOSCOW – Oleg Znarok, a double Gagarin Cup winner with Dynamo Moscow and the only man to lead two different clubs to the KHL’s grand final, has been announced as the next coach of Russia’s national team.
Znarok, whose previous international experience came behind the bench for Latvia, replaces Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, who was abruptly sacked after Russia’s Olympic disappointment on home ice in Sochi last month.
The Chelyabinsk-born coach is expected to continue with Dynamo as well, although following the Blue-and-Whites’ first-round play-off exit he is already free to start preparing for the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk in May.
He will be joined in the national set-up by Andrei Safronov, who becomes GM of the national team as well as GM of Dynamo. The pair will be officially introduced at a press conference in Moscow on Friday.
Although the decision was only rubber stamped on Wednesday, the news hardly came as a huge surprise. Apart from Znarok, only the recently-departed Bilyaletdinov and the out-of-favour Vyacheslav Bykov have won the Gagarin Cup since the KHL came into being in 2008. With President Vladimir Putin and Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko both speaking out against the appointment of foreign coaches last week, it was clear that the lobbying for SKA’s Jukka Jalonen would get nowhere, leaving Znarok as pretty much the only candidate.
Znarok, in fairness, is a worthy candidate. In his time with Latvia he helped to keep the tiny Baltic state punching above its weight in the top division and he has achieved spectacular results in the KHL. Three Gagarin Cup finals in four years, two of them victorious, and all achieved by rosters which tend to lack star names but draw on a deep bench of teamwork and commitment.
For Russia, dazed and defeated by a second successive Olympic failure from a stellar roster, Znarok’s no-nonsense approach to the team smacks of a refreshing change. The speed with which he busted Mikhail Anisin, a promising young forward who blazed through Dynamo Moscow’s first Gagarin Cup prize only to start investing too heavily in his hype, suggests this is a man who will not suffer locker room prima donnas.
Similarly, his terse explanation that he dropped forward Jakub Petruzalek from his Dynamo team during last year’s play-offs because the endgame demanded ‘real men’ might strike a chord with many fans infuriated by the pallid efforts of Ovechkin and Malkin in Sochi.
Others will point to his successful handling of a locked-out Ovi during the 2012/2013 campaign, seeing the star return 40 points in 31 regular season appearances, as evidence that he can unlock the enigma of Russia’s greatest – and most frustrating – talent. That alone could be seen as a rebuttal of the charge that Znarok, who shot to fame by leading unheralded MVD to a seven-game Gagarin Cup final with Bilyaletdinov’s mighty Ak Bars in 2010, cannot coach big name players.
However, Znarok is very much a coach who sets a system and demands his players fit into it – not the other way round. That could spell the end for several regulars with Team Russia: it’s difficult to see someone like Artyom Anisimov, a centre notorious for defensive apathy, keeping his place under a coach who is a known admirer of the hard-working, in-yer-face hockey played by the likes of Leo Komarov, a talismanic figure at Dynamo.
His success at club level has come not through unleashing a devastating offensive arsenal, but by judiciously spiking the big guns of his rivals. Although Dynamo won back-to-back titles, its playing budget this season was a modest 10th in the KHL. His is not a chequebook team, and it doesn’t play the kind of swashbuckling champagne hockey Russia tends to expect.
Hindsight suggests meat and potatoes may have been a more appropriate diet than champagne and caviar when Russia took to the ice in Sochi, where Russia’s own scoring machines were shunted out of the game. However it is likely to take Znarok time to build a national roster which can match the hard-working defence of the Finns in their quarter-final win over Bilyaletdinov’s team, or the back-to-back champions from Canada.
And there is a further problem. Bilyaletdinov reported hit out at media criticism of his preparation of the Sochi roster, arguing – with some justification – that nobody could come up with a roster that would do a better job. Coaches, inevitably, carry the can for failure, but Bill’s exasperation at the failure of Oveckhin and others to reproduce their NHL scoring feats was palpable at the end of the tournament.
However the issue lies deeper: Russia does not produce large numbers of the kind of rugged, combative player who grinds out the ugly victories. Znarok’s system demands this, and demands is from players capable of stepping up to play at a higher level than the KHL. Much of his task during the next Olympic cycle will be devoted to finding those players and blending them into a roster seasoned with the creative talents for which the Russian game is justly renowned.
He also faces an audience that expects to see NHL stars turn out for Russia whenever possible, regardless of how well they fit into the team. Leaving out a big name, regardless of form, will create huge controversy. Znarok is not a man who lacks the confidence to make big calls, but he has yet to face the intense scrutiny that comes with the national team job.
In order to succeed he will need patience while he reshapes the team in his own image. He needs the freedom to make those big calls – including the ones which go wrong along the way – and learn from those experiments. Without that, another four-year Olympic cycle is liable to end in the same mass of recriminations we saw after Vancouver and Sochi.