Slow starts dangerous for coaches in KHL

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By Mike Weber – One World Sports

Slow starts can be costly in the 60-game KHL schedule. Case in point: Big-name coaches Mike Keenan and Andrei Nazarov have been given the pink slip, along with Dinamo Minsk’s Slovakian bench boss Lubomir Pokovic, after beginning the season with mediocre results.

Metallurg Magnitogorsk shocked the hockey world by firing legendary coach Mike Keenan after losing back-to-back games. Iron Mike has left his name etched in hockey history by becoming the first bench boss to hoist the Stanley Cup and the Gagarin Cup, having won the NHL title with the New York Rangers in 1994 and then guiding Magnitogorsk to the KHL’s top prize 20 years later. 

Despite possessing a handful of KHL superstars, Keenan failed to get the best out of his players this season. Big spending Magnitogorsk owns the most feared line in the league of Sergei Mozyakin, Jan Kovar, and Danis Zaripov, and signed former NHLer Wojtek Wolski in the off-season. Add to the mix Chris Lee, one of the premier defensemen in the league, and former Russian national team member Vasily Koshechkin in net, and you have one of the best teams on paper in the KHL. But the results did not match the spending, and the squad, with largely the same nucleus as the team that won the league championship just two seasons ago, seemed to have tuned Keenan out.

With Magnitogorsk sitting in 5th place in the Eastern Conference, Keenan has been removed from his duties behind the bench. But the club hasn’t completely cut ties with Iron Mike. Keenan has moved upstairs into an advisory role with Metallurg. It doesn’t look like Keenan’s time in Russia will be coming to an end anytime soon either, with rumors circulating that the Canadian-born coach is close to finalizing his Russian citizenship and a possible gig as an assistant coach for the Russian national team could be around the corner. Stepping into Keenan’s shoes at Magnitogorsk is assistant coach Ilya Vorobyov.

Mike Keenan is not the only high-profile coach to have been fired, with former NHL enforcer Andrei Nazarov losing his job as coach of SKA St. Petersburg. The defending KHL champions have made major changes to their roster from last season, and the fiery coach was unable to get the squad to gel. Not even the most pessimistic of predictions would have put the star-studded team from Russia’s second city fighting for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, but that’s exactly where SKA sits just a few games short of the halfway point in the season. Nazarov’s abrasive style just did not seem to suit the team.

Former NHL star defenseman Sergei Zubov has taken over behind the bench at SKA. The move is likely to see dividends on the blueline and the powerplay, as Zubov established himself as one of the best defensemen in the NHL and one of the best at quarterbacking the powerplay during his storied career. He also brings a winning mentality with him, having won the Stanley Cup in 1994 with the New York Rangers and in 1999 with the Dallas Stars. Meanwhile, Nazarov has returned to a familiar setting, being hired as head coach of Barys Astana, where he coached the team to a 30-win season last year.  Just a little more than a week after being fired by SKA, he got sweet revenge against the St. Petersburg side winning 4-2 in Astana.

Last season with Slovakian head coach Lubomir Pokovic at the helm, Dinamo Minsk were one of the surprise stories in the KHL, surpassing expectations and finishing the regular season as the fifth seed in the Western Conference. This year it has been a different story, with the Belarussian squad sitting in tenth place in the West and just five points ahead of last place Severstal. Assistant coach Andrei Kovalyov has been promoted to interim head coach. Kovalyov is very familiar with the club having spent six seasons with the organization during his playing days. Look for the former high-scoring forward to implement a more open, free-flowing style of play at Dinamo.

Milestone Night

Prolific Metallurg Magnitogorsk scorer Sergei Mozyakin notched his 400th career goal in top flight Russian hockey in a 4-2 victory over Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod. The one-timer top shelf past Ilya Proskuryakov in his 800th game puts him in the record book with Boris Mikhailov and Vyacheslav Starshinov, the only other men to have achieved the feat. The smooth skating sniper sits just 28 back of Mikhailov, with it not out of the question for Mozyakin to reach the mark this season. The 35 year old has shown no signs of slowing, leading the league with 19 tallies in just 27 games this year.

Barys Astana Gets a New Home

One of the biggest changes to the KHL landscape over the years has been the modernization of the arenas. Earlier this year, Dynamo Moscow unveiled the VTB Ice Palace, widely-believed to be one of the finest hockey arenas in Europe, with a capacity to seat 12,100.

Now Barys Astana has followed suit, opening the doors to the state-of-the-art Astana Ice Palace. The spacious arena can accommodate 11,578 spectators and has great sightlines. Located on the west bank of the Kazakh capital, the new venue will help sell the game in the country and could help Kazakhstan host major international hockey tournaments. Barys prevailed 4-2 over SKA St. Petersburg in the arena’s opener.

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