MOSCOW – The season is not yet three weeks old, but already three KHL clubs have replaced their head coaches. From Omsk to Yaroslavl, poor results in the opening games have persuaded the directors to act immediately. Meanwhile, unheralded Barys Astana is off to a flying start alongside Kovalchuk’s SKA St. Petersburg.
Coaching in top-level hockey is always a high-risk occupation. Elevated expectations in the boardroom often mean that the men behind the bench find their jobs are vulnerable if the team’s form drops even slightly.
But even allowing for that, the departure of three KHL coaches with the season barely two weeks old is an astonishing cull of the chiefs. The three fall guys were Petri Matikainen (Avangard Omsk), Tom Rowe (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl) and Sergei Svetlov (Atlant Mytishi).
The first two had kept their jobs after somewhat disappointing play-off campaigns last season, while Svetlov had masterminded Atlant’s astonishing late surge into eighth place in the Western Conference after the Moscow Region side seemed out of contention at the turn of the year.
But all three fell victim to a sluggish start to the 2013-14 season, and all three were asked to clear out their lockers last week.
Matikainen was first to go, dismissed last Tuesday after his team’s 2-5 reverse at Barys Astana. The Omsk outfit had previously gone down 1-5 at home to SKA, and lost 6-0 at Ak Bars, while its victories had come narrowly, and against modest opposition. That leaking defense seems to be the key problem – and one which pointed squarely at Matikainen himself.
Over the summer Avangard reshuffled its back line, bringing in five new D-men and replacing goalie Karri Rämö, who moved to the Calgary Flames in the NHL. So far, though, it hasn’t worked out.
Teemu Lasilla has suffered a torrid time between the piping since arriving from Barys, while experienced defensemen like Ivan Baranka, Denis Kulyash and Miroslav Blatak have all struggled since moving to Omsk.
Prior to his dismissal, Matikainen had admitted that there was “no stability in our game” while commenting on the defeat in Astana. In that particular game he also noted that conceding a first-minute goal after a mauling in Kazan had left his players bereft of confidence and that he and his team would need time to show their capabilities. But time was not forthcoming.
The Avangard management reacted quickly to appoint Milos Riha, a familiar figure in the KHL. He's been out of work since his surprise dismissal by SKA – top of the table at the time – last December. The charismatic Czech flew into Omsk on Sunday morning, and by 5pm was already behind the bench as his new team took on Yugra.
However, his presence could not inspire an immediate improvement – Avangard lost 6-2, conceding four unanswered goals in the second period as Lasilla was pulled once again. Riha now has almost a full week to prepare for his next game, which takes him to one of his former clubs, Spartak.
Another of Riha’s previous clubs, Atlant, was next to wield the ax. Svetlov had earned a crack at the job full-time thanks to an incredible finish to the last regular season, when he led the team to 10 wins from its final 12 games to confirm its play-off place on the final day after languishing well off the pace at New Year.
However, he was also warned that expectations would be rather higher this time around. Those expectations were fuelled by a summer signing spree which saw experience arriving in the form of ex-SKA forward Yevgeni Artyukhin and former Salavat Yulayev defenseman Vasili Atyushov, both of whom have plenty of Team Russia games under their belts.
But a slow start to the campaign soon saw Svetlov and his assistant Alexander Nesterov out of their jobs. Five straight defeats, albeit mostly narrow ones, stretched the patience of the Mytishi management to breaking point.
Caretaker coach Alexei Kudashov has since steadied the ship, picking up home wins against Donbass (1-0), Dinamo Minsk (3-2) and Medvescak (3-2 OT) to give him a crack at a full-time position.
The third coaching casualty came in Yaroslavl, where Tom Rowe’s tenure came to an end Thursday. There was a sense of regret about this one: Rowe had performed creditably and with great dignity after taking the reins as Lokomotiv made an emotional return to top-level action at the start of last season.
At times his team played some great hockey, particularly when locked-out star Artyom Anisimov was leading the attack. Moreover the emergence of a new generation of young talent in Yaroslavl, led by forward Daniil Apalkov, captured the hearts of fans still grieving over the loss of their team in the 2011 air tragedy.
But, sentiment aside, hockey is a results business – and after going out in the first round of last season’s play-off, it was clear to all that Loko needed to step up this time around. Once again, a slow start proved the coach’s undoing: four defeats in the first five games sealed Rowe’s fate.
Piotr Vorobyov, a long-serving and popular figure at the club is back in full-time control once more, having previously taken charge from 1996-2001, in 2010 and also during Loko’s half-season of VHL hockey in 2012. The 64-year-old has immediately steadied the ship with wins in his first two games in charge.
SKA’s 7th heaven, Barys on song
The early pace-setters in the KHL include one surprise and one familiar name. SKA St. Petersburg, now with Ilya Kovalchuk leading the attack, made a sensational start to win its first seven games.
Kovi himself, who missed much of pre-season due to his commitments to a sporting charity, may not have dominated games as much as some expected – indeed, the former New Jersey Devil missed a couple of outings with niggling injuries – but has still posted 4+3=7 in his first six games.
That winning streak ended Sunday at home to Donbass, but SKA still leads the way in the Western Conference. Viktor Tikhonov’s six goals, meanwhile, make him the league’s top scorer to date while summer signing Roman Cervenka has posted 10 points so far.
In the East, though, it’s free-scoring Barys which has roared to the top of the table. The Kazakh outfit set the tone in its opening game, romping to a 10-1 win over Severstal, and has gone on to plunder 40 goals in just seven games. The only defeat so far came against SKA, and with Nigel Dawes and Roman Starchenko both riding high in the individual scoring charts, confidence is high Kazakhstan.
After winning its opening five games, champion Dynamo Moscow has stumbled slightly with three road defeats in a row at cross-town rival CSKA, Dinamo Riga and Lev Prague. The Blue and Whites are currently second in the Western Conference, and face SKA on Friday in one of the most eagerly-awaited clashes of the new season.