MOSCOW – Vyacheslav Bykov is set to make his long awaited returning to club coaching after signing up to replace Jukka Jalonen at SKA St. Petersburg. Bykov, a double World Champion with Russia and a KHL champion with Salavat Yulayev Ufa, signed a two-year contract (with a possible one-year extension) in Russia’s northern capital on Friday, and immediately appointed his long-term coaching partner Igor Zakharkin as his right-hand man.
The decision not to prolong Jalonen’s tenure in Petersburg was confirmed after SKA crashed out of the play-offs in the second round, losing 2-4 to a Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team which finished the regular season in 8th place in the Western Conference, 21 points adrift of its rival. For a team with a stellar roster which includes the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Roman Cervenka, Viktor Tikhonov and Patrick Thoresen among its offensive threats, this fell way short of expectations.
Yet Bykov, despite his success at both club and international level, remains cautious about making bold statements of intent – even if the evidence suggests nothing less than the Gagarin Cup will do for organization’s owners.
“Like I told [SKA’s bosses Alexander] Medvedev and Gennadi Timchenko, it would be arrogant of me to promise to win the Gagarin Cup at the first attempt – but I’ll try to do it,” the coach told Russia’s Sport-Express newspaper.
Bykov is also relatively unflustered by the rapid turnover behind the bench in Petersburg: rumours suggest that it took an intervention from senior players to protect Jalonen’s job during the past season, and prior to that Milos Riha was fired in December 2012 while his team was top of the KHL. Rather than worrying about keeping everyone happy, the incoming coach reflected: “The main thing is to build trust between the coach and the team, and between the club’s management and the coaches.
“In our last season in Ufa we had a great bunch of people who were all pulling together, but even then we sometimes stalled in the regular season. Back in November Igor and I were even called in front of the President of Bashkortostan to explain what was going wrong. We had a constructive conversation, and that left us with the belief to go on and succeed in the play-offs.”
Play-off success remains elusive for SKA, however, despite big investment in playing and coaching staff. An attack-minded roster might seem to suit the kind of swashbuckling hockey that Bykov deployed with Russia – especially in the days when the powerful Morozov-Zinoviev-Zaripov line was motoring through World Championships.
However, during this season’s play-off it was the defence that came under greater scrutiny. Even in an opening round sweep of CSKA Moscow SKA gave up many chances to an underpowered opponent which lacked the cutting edge of star name Alexander Radulov. Then against Lokomotiv the team seldom got to grips with a pacy young rival, struggling to find consistent form from period to period, never mind game to game. Injuries played a part – in particular the niggling problem that Kovalchuk picked up in Sochi hampered his contribution post-season – but the sense remains that SKA somehow added up to slightly less than the sum of its parts.
Bykov thus begins with a quest to bring greater balance to the team without stifling the attacking flair at his disposal, something that might impact on the club’s recruitment policy as well as its tactics. In recent seasons, summers have tended to be dominated by speculation about which NHL- based stars might be returning to Russia to play for SKA. Kovalchuk was the biggest of these names, but before him came Maxim Afinogenov, Denis Grebeshkov and Yevgeni Nabokov – all of whom failed to make the title-winning impact many had anticipated and all of whom have since moved on.
Meanwhile, the regular season scoring leader this term was Artemi Panarin, a 22-year-old former World Junior Champion who arrived from lowly Vityaz Chekhov. Encouraging reports from the SKA-1946 MHL roster suggest that more talent might be arriving from that production line, following in the footsteps of Alexander Barabanov, who scored his first senior play-off goal during the series against Loko. At a time when Russia is considering putting further restrictions on foreigners at KHL clubs, development from within could become a key plank of SKA’s future progress.
For Bykov and Zakharkin it marks the end of a three-year exile from Russian hockey following their departure from both the national team and the Salavat Yulayev job in the summer of 2011. Since then they’ve worked with Poland’s national team, and will complete those duties later this month at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Vilnius, Lithuania. The pair are expecting to meet up with the club’s directors during the World Championship in Minsk in May to start preparing for the coming season.