It was clear since a few weeks that Slovan would most likely end the regular season in the last place of the Western Conference. This was mostly due to the significant number of problems that afflicted the Slovak club throughout the whole season. However, even if he needed to change the lineup at pretty much any game of the season, Orszagh isn’t disappointed. Quite the opposite – the 41-years-old coach considers this season as a great way to gather very precious experience.
Motivating a team and finding the right words in such conditions isn’t always easy for a coach. But this situation didn’t get Orszagh worrying: “No matter what the position in the standings is, each team hits the ice only thinking about winning the game,” the head coach explains. Slovan also enjoyed a few wins in the latest encounters. “Moreover, it’s also a matter of your prestige and your future, no matter the league. This is why I keep on telling my players that they need to have an honorable end of the season. But the players understand that. We don’t have as many players as we had before, many players left, thus the ones that remain have more responsibilities on themselves. Regarding the wins, we also faced teams which are in our proximity, like Dinamo Minsk, Dinamo Riga, HC Sochi. These games always have some other implications.”
Even if there are still two games to be played (against Jokerit and HC Sochi), the season for Slovan is pretty much over. “It has been a hard season” – Orszagh has little doubts about it. “The team didn’t know if we would play in the KHL or not. Thus the preparation started very late. When I arrived at the club – at the start of July – we had only two players signed. We could do our job with all the best players already taken. Initially, we planned on gathering most of the best Slovak players plus some quality imports. However, we couldn’t work according to this plan and needed to go on with what was at our disposal. As a result, we couldn’t rely on quality, nor quantity.”
In spite of all these difficulties, in November Slovan was at only four points to the playoffs line in the standings. “The KHL regular season is a very difficult beast. In short spans, a team may look good, but in the long run, all the flaws in the roster’s composition will inevitably make themselves heard,” Orszagh explains. “All the guys tried hard, but as the saying goes, a stream cannot rise above its source. We had only four units, with a couple of extra guys. In the first couple of months, Slovan had quite a few games in the Eastern Conference, but we performed well. At one point, we had five straight wins and were close to the playoffs. Unfortunately, then we had a sort of decline, and we had economic problems. And everything collapsed. The black series of 13 losses in a row finished us off.”
Orszagh also had to deal with the problem of having a very different roster between the start and the end of the season. “This wasn’t a problem to me,” the coach says. “I knew what the situation would look like when I signed my contract. Slovan had similar problems last year too. During the summer, there were negotiations with a new sponsor, but things stalled. There was some degree of risk, and I knew that. But as a young coach, I decided to accept the offer anyway. I spent the previous two seasons in the Slovak Extraliga, winning the title with Banska Bystrica. Working in the KHL is a whole another level. I am very happy to have had this chance and I don’t regret anything. I think that this season gave me a lot on the professional plan.”
In the latest few weeks, Slovan lost many players, who moved to other leagues. For example, goalie Marek Ciliak moved to the Czech Republic, while Rudolf Cerveny and Eric Gelinas moved to Sweden. “Having these players moving was a mutual decision,” Orszagh explains. “Slovan’s season ends on February 22; then it's only practices. Many of our players are national team members; they need to get ice time before the IIHF World Championship. Also, the team saves some money this way. There is no sense in leaving the highest-paid players in the team when the season is done.”
As every year, clouds gather on as Slovan’s future has a degree of uncertainty. Orszagh doesn’t know more than we do: “Everyone is waiting to know more about what’s going to happen. The latest information we have is that we should get a new investor at the end of the season. We should know more at the end of March.”
Orszagh has said that he gathered precious experience working in the KHL. The coach agreed on giving greater detail: “Working in the KHL showed that in modern hockey, a lot depends on the special teams. On those players who are iced in powerplay or penalty killing situations. It’s them who mostly decide the outcome of the games. I didn’t have a lot of experience in this field. And frankly speaking, I didn’t have many players who can get out and decide a game on their own. Also, sometimes I get almost too involved in a game. Sometimes I lose control, and I start acting very emotionally. But I am working a lot on it. When I started coaching, my legs hurt even more than when I was playing. That’s why I am always walking along the bench to talk with the defensemen or the forwards. Now I behave more calmly, although I am still a bit lacking in composure. Therefore, I try to analyze not only the errors of my players but also my own mistakes. This is the only way to develop and go forward.”
Being only 41 years old, the Slovak coach is not a locker room authority as old-school bench bosses were. “I build my work on the maximum transparency and openness,” he explains. “I try to talk with my players as much as I can, they know that can always visit my office. If they are not happy with something, call it their time on ice or their role within the team, we can talk about it. There were some cases in my career, where my players asked me why we were playing in a way and not in another. So, I try and explain them. Today, players are very different than they were twenty or thirty years ago. You can’t simply tell them what they are expected to do. You need to explain why and to what purpose. Only then will the team be completely tied to the task and will train intelligently.”
Orszagh’s ties with Slovan will run out next April 30. According to his words, the coach hasn’t decided yet what to do next year. “Let’s see what happens and what kind of offers I will receive. In my plans, I have a two-three week-long stage with an NHL team. I’m now having negotiations about it. If it doesn’t work out, I may try in one of the Scandinavian countries. Generally speaking, I’m open to offers, including from other KHL teams. The KHL is the best league in Europe, and it can give a lot to a young coach like I am.”
Naturally, to work in the KHL, a coach needs to know well the Russian language. “I don’t talk well in Russian, but I understand pretty much anything,” Orszagh confirms his readiness. “I have studied Russian at school, and I know that it would be good to refresh my knowledge. If I have this chance, I am ready to attend Russian language courses.”
The season was a hard one for Slovan, but this doesn’t mean that the players didn’t have a chance to progress. Orszagh is ready to shed some lights on them. “Quite a few players had a nice progress during the season. For example, Matus Sukel. We signed him on a try-out contract as we needed a few extra players, but he went beyond the expectations and so he earned a full-time deal. He compensates his small size with an extraordinary work attitude, and he progressed a lot. The same can be said about the 19-years-old Adam Liska: we decided to give him a chance, and he made good use of that.”
The Slovan coach also had a few kind words for his only Russian player, Yegor Baranov. “He’s a very young player with a great attitude in both games and practices. He scored his first KHL goal against CSKA, and he deserved it with his hard work. It would be useful for Yegor to play a bit in the Slovak Extraliga or other similar leagues. This way, he wouldn’t play in the fourth line, and he would play more than seven minutes a night. He needs to play and gather experience; he has enough potential.”
Born on May 24, 1977, in Banska Bystrica (Slovakia)
Playing career: 1994-1996, 2004-2005, 2007-2008, 2009-2010, Banska Bystrica (Slovakia); 1996-1998, Utica Grizzlies (IHL); 1997-2000, New York Islanders (NHL); 1998-2000, Lowell Lock Monsters (AHL); 2000-2001, Djurgarden (Sweden); 2001-2004, Nashville Predators (NHL); 2004-2005, Zvolen (Slovakia); 2005-2006, Lulea (Sweden); 2005-2006, St. Louis Blues (NHL).
Achievements as a player: Sweden championship (2001), IIHF World Championship Gold Medal (2002), IIHF World Championship Bronze Medal (2003)
Coaching career: 2012-2014, 2015-2018, Banska Bystrica (Slovakia); 2018-today, Slovan (KHL).
Achievements as a coach: Slovakia championship (2017, 2018)