Znarok and Gagarin Cup (Photo: Championat.com)
According to SovSport, Dynamo Moscow head coach Oleg Znarok has been named the new head coach of Team Russia. The news comes as no surprise; Znarok was pretty much the only candidate discussed in recent months. Ex-coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov failed to medal in Sochi, losing to Finland in the quarterfinals. Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin scored just one goal in the tournament, examplifying an overall disappointing performance by Team Russia’s stars.
Znarok has been a household name in Russian hockey since 2010, when his HC MVD Balashikha went on a Cinderella run to win the Western Conference only to lose in the finals to Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s Ak Bars Kazan. After a successful season by the Moscow suburb team, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, which is related to both clubs, merged Dynamo Moscow and HC MVD into UHC Dynamo Moscow (where “U” stands for “United”). HC MVD’s coaching staff and top players moved to the storied Russian franchise. Success followed soon thereafter: Dynamo won the 2012 Gagarin Cup, and then another one, in 2013, holding off Evgeny Kuznetsov’s Traktor.
Despite being a native of Ust-Katav (Chelyabinsk Region, Russia) and an ethnic Russian, Znarok’s dual Latvian-German citizenship makes him the de jure first-ever foreign coach in Team Russia history. His assistant, Harijs Vitolins, who will also step in as head coach for Dynamo, is an ethnic Latvian.
I think the Znarok hire is a big mistake.
I thought that after the Bilyaletdinov fiasco, Russian Federation of Hockey would know better than to treat success at the club level as a predictor of international success. Znarok is a lot like Bilyaletdinov: he, too, won two Gagarin Cups. He, too, knows what discipline means. His teams’ style of play is more aggressive, but the dilemma didn’t go away.
Will the new coach stick to the players he’s had success with– like Dynamo’s speedy grinders? Can he get Russia’s offensive-minded stars like Malkin, Ovechkin, and Kovalchuk to play his kind of game? Will he stay true to his style?
Malkin, Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, and others looked out of place under Bilyaletdinov’s sit-back defensive system, like a classic pianist forced to play Lady Gaga or Katy Perry. With Znarok’s forechecking that will certainly change, but not really for the better. Instead of trying to rock out to Katy Perry’s “Roar,” these skilled Russians might be beat-boxing in Pyeongchang, metaphorically speaking.
Znarok has experience coaching stars, working with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom during the lockout, but that’s pretty much it. Through most of his tenure, the biggest star at Znarok’s disposal was Leo Komarov, which tells you what kind of style Dynamo played. Smart? No. Skilled? No. Bone-crushingly physical, feisty, and blazingly fast? Definitely.
Dynamo’s speed and physicality were tough to match for most KHL opponents, but a lot of that advantage is derived from the players’ comfort with the system and their physical conditioning. Systems take time to learn, and the way Znarok works to get his players in top form at the right moment is well-known to anyone following the KHL closely. He takes his team to a lengthy training camp, usually in the Belarusian town of Pinsk, where he pushes his players to the limit of their physical abilities, and then some. Forward Martins Karsums (24 NHL games with Boston and Tampa) said during camp last year: “Pinsk is a nightmare. I’ve never trained that hard. [...] We ran a lot. I didn’t know I can run like this.”
By the time the season begins, Znarok’s players can outrun and outhit anyone. But that takes weeks, if not months. With the national team, you have to work with what you have. You can’t determine your players’ physical shape: it’s either there or it’s not.
Znarok is far from a rookie when it comes to international competition: he coached Team Latvia for almost 10 years: from 2002 to 2011. Only twice at the World Championships did the Latvians under Znarok make the playoffs, both times finishing seventh. Overall, their performance can be described as solid, but far from excellent. Znarok getting the Team Russia gig clearly wasn’t the result of that work. Overall, coaching Latvian and Russian national teams has little in common because of the differences in player caliber.
Znarok’s personality has been questioned as well. He’s known for getting into it with almost everyone. A graduate of the John Tortorella school of media relations, Znarok is one of the two least talkative coaches in Russian hockey. The other one was Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, who may have turned the pundits off with his reticence. When Bill’s team started to fall apart, he got no mercy from the media.
Znarok may not get any mercy either. I’d be surprised if he does.