Where did it all go wrong?
by Andy Potts|13 MAY 2018
An all too familiar sight for Belarus: goalie Mikhail Karnaukhov and forward Yegor Sharangovich react after allowing a goal in the 6-2 loss against France in Copenhagen.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Yesterday’s loss against Austria condemned Belarus to relegation from the top division. It’s a big blow for an established top-tier nation, one that was reaching quarter-finals as recently as 2014 and 2015. So what went wrong, and where might the recovery start?
Changing rosters

A quick look over the rosters from 2014 and 2015, and a comparison with this season, paints a vivid picture. The class of 2018 is, on average, two years younger than the 2014 team that reached a quarter-final on home ice in Minsk.

But it’s not just a generational switch. Changes in policy within the KHL, where Belarusian players are now treated as imports at Russian clubs, have had an impact. Dynamo Minsk, the country’s flagship team, is also operating with a reduced budget. That means less money spent on imports – previously a source of naturalized talent for the national team – and more investment on developing a new generation of local talent. In the long term, it could be a sustainable strategy; in the short term, we’re seeing a rise in the number of players from the Belarusian championship – eight this year, compared with three in 2014 and two the following season.

Other changes to the roster are unavoidable: the country’s top NHLer, Vegas forward Mikhail Grabovski, is still on the long-term injured list with concussion problems, wily playmaker Alexei Kalyuzhny is retired, as is goalie Kevin Lalande, who suffered a career-ending injury this season. But it’s less clear why the Kostitsyn brothers, Sergei and Andrei, declined the call. Their absence robs the roster of more than 700 NHL appearances, a big loss for a team in transition. Defenceman Nick Bailen, another important naturalized player, also missed the trip to Denmark.

Coaching confusion

The decision to replace Dave Lewis with Sergei Pushkov after three games of the World Championship looked like a reckless gamble – and it failed to deliver. It wasn’t so much that Lewis was doing a terrific job, more that the timing was destined to be disruptive rather than helpful.

Backup goalie Vitali Trus told reporters after the defeat to Austria that Lewis’ departure had never been explained to the team. “Nobody understood why that happened,” he said. “Nobody explained anything to anyone, what the problems were or anything else.”

The Danish debacle was the fourth World Championship campaign under Lewis, but that admirable continuity did not extend to his coaching staff. This year’s group, Pushkov, Vyacheslav Gusov, Mikhail Zakharov and Andrei Mezin, was far removed from the collaboration with Craig Woodcroft and Igor Antonenko that began Lewis’s era. There was a growing sense that Belarus lacked clear leadership in preparation; events on the ice added weight to that theory.

Pushkov inherited a crisis and had little room to manoeuvre. With the roster set, his hopes rested on the familiar ‘bounce’ displayed by struggling teams when the top man is replaced. When that failed to materialize, relegation was inevitable.

Lack of firepower

With four goals in six games, Belarus fell far short of the kind of offensive force that could keep it in the elite pool. The team was shut out four times. This wasn’t due to a lack of shooting: in most games Belarus was competitive on the shot count. But there was a lack of sophistication about the offence that made it easy to push to the outside. Too many of those shots were speculative, too few would force goalies to work for their save.

It’s not just about Sergei Drozd, a forward who earned unwanted fame when his 37th World Championship appearance without registering a point reportedly set an all-time record for non-productivity, surpassing Andrzej Slowakiewicz, a Polish D-man in the mid-70s. It’s also the diminishing effectiveness of players like Geoff Platt and Charles Linglet, once high scorers in the KHL but coming to Copenhagen on the back of modest returns for their clubs. Dynamo Minsk suffered similar problems in the KHL last season: not only was the leading scorer an import, Marc-Andre Gragnani got his 35 points from the blue line. Linglet was the club’s leading Belarusian-qualified scorer, but his 17 points from 55 games was hardly barnstorming form. Assessing the team’s failings, captain Alexander Pavlovich concluded that failing to score on Austria said it all.

Seasons of struggle

Belarus could easily have dropped in each of the last two World Championships. A defeat against Hungary in St. Petersburg in 2016 forced the team into a nervous final-day showdown against France to preserve top-flight status. The following year in Paris, the Belarusians were rock bottom after losing the first four games and remained level on points with Slovenia after a shootout loss to France. Wins over the Slovenes and Norwegians secured safety but could not disguise the weaknesses in the team. In Denmark, those weaknesses finally caught up with Belarus.

Is there a way back?

There are positive signs. Despite repeated complaints from fans, commentators and politicians that the team lacked spirit and patriotism, the reaction of the defeated players after the Austria game was far from apathetic. The younger generation, guys like Pavel Vorobei, Yegor Sharangovich and Vitali Trus, were visibly upset by the outcome of the tournament. There is raw talent, and just as important there is a will to put things right. Belarus just finished the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in 8th place and was either 10th or 11th in the U20 category during the last four years.

Vorobei, a 20-year-old defenceman, was the leading scorer on the blue line for Kunlun Red Star last season in his first KHL campaign; forward Sharangovich, just 19, had a handy 12-point return in his first season with Dynamo Minsk. Trus, too, gained a taste of international competition here and could yet mature into a reliable goalie.

Behind the scenes, there is an urgent need to get the coaching right. Assistant captain Alexander Kitarov asserted that there is no lack of hockey expertise in the country. That know-how needs to be given the chance to create a coherent program, rather than be forced to fight fires in yet another crisis.

There is one more big plus. As co-host of the 2021 Worlds, Belarus is set to play on home ice in Minsk even in case it would not be qualified to play among the top-16 hockey nations in the world. That could mean a two-year sequence to get the team back up to the required standard in case the Belarusians would not already bounce back with promotion next season.