Right now, all the league’s teams but Kunlun Red Star and Dinamo Riga announced their head coaches. And other than those who changed sides in the offseason, three men will have their debut in the league. Somewhat ironically, it’s the same number as last year: Mikhail Kravets and Vityaz qualified for the postseason, Nikolai Zavarukhin managed to get to the Gagarin Cup playoffs’ second round, while Craig MacTavish lasted only eight games in Yaroslavl.
Since the times when Avtomobilist fell under UGMK’s wings, the Ural franchise already underwent three coaching changes. The team’s president ambitions are definitely higher than a mere second-round qualification. The team had a record-breaking winning series and topped the Eastern Conference in 2018-2019, but that’s not enough to be considered a top-gun team. Maybe Yekaterinburg will make an extra step with Bill Peters?
In its first season in the KHL, Avtomobilist qualified for the postseason led by Marek Sikora. The expectations for Peters will be much different. First of all, the team completely changed in the last ten years. In Sikora’s times, Avtomobilist’s star was Alexander Gulyavtsev — now coaching Amur — while Peters will have a more powerful roster at his disposal. The Ural franchise had to part ways with Nigel Dawes. Still, considering the latest moves — Avtomobilist signed Pavel Datsyuk and Nikita Tryamkin to new contracts — they are among the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference. The only question is how much time Peters will need to adapt to his new reality. The Alberta native never coached outside of North America. To help with his adaptation, he hired as his assistant German Titov, who already worked with four different KHL teams. Titov should help Peters becoming a second Bob Hartley and not a second Craig MacTavish.
However, Peters already acquainted with European hockey in his four IIHF World Championships. He was an assistant coach for Canada in 2015 and 2017 and a head coach in 2016 and 2018. In 2016, in Moscow, Peters led Team Canada to the gold medal. In North America, the 55-years-old coach worked with Datsyuk and Alex Semin. While Datsyuk was at his usual level, Semin failed to find a common language with him.
Seeing a successful head coach like Nikolai Tsulygin being replaced by his assistant was somewhat strange. Especially thinking that, in the latest couple of seasons, Tsulygin won two playoffs series out of three. Usually, a young specialist learns from his foreign boss like Ilya Vorobyov and Iron Mike Keenan in Magnitogorsk, or the same Tsulygin and Erkka Westerlund. This time, it was the other way around: a foreigner assistant replaced a Russian head coach. However, it is expected that the team won’t change much as the duo will keep on working according to Erkka Westerlund’s path.
The only way we have to anticipate what kind of coach Tomi Lamsa is is to listen to his players’ voices. Salavat Yulaev players agree that he prefers a more systemic approach than Tsulygin, who gave a fair deal of freedom on the ice. As an assistant, Lamsa was more involved in the tactical side than in the communication with the players. He was responsible for the team’s penalty-killing efforts. Last year, Salavat Yulaev was excellent with its special teams. The only question is how a coach who doesn’t speak Russian can find a common language with the team. A plus for the Finnish coach is that many of the team’s leaders are international players — three of them coming from Suomi.
Lamsa has a long history of collaboration with Erkka Westerlund, as he was his assistant in Jokerit even before the Helsinki franchise moved to the KHL. Lamsa will play the same role as Valery Belov. The young coach replaced Zinetula Bilyaletdinov at Ak Bars’ helm after the veteran mastermind left Kazan to coach Team Russia. However, Tomi Lamsa already worked without Westerlund — his most significant success was winning the 2012 Youth Olympic Games in Austria when Finland defeated Team Russia 2-1 SO. His opponent, Pavel Baulin, is yet to work in the KHL.
Andrei Skabelka left Barys almost immediately after the season was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. The Belarusian bench boss won the first round with Barys, and he was set to face his former team — Sibir — in the second round, but he decided to leave. Supposedly, his decision was motivated by the failed Olympic qualification with the Kazakh national team. After Skabelka left, rumors were spread that a Russian or a Finnish coach could fill the vacated spot, but Barys decided to stake on local assets.
Mikhailis is not an entirely new surname for the KHL. Nikita Mikhailis, Yury’s son, plays in the league since 2014. In six seasons, he accumulated more than 200 games and almost 100 points. After two seasons with 30+ points, Nikita had his contract with Barys run out but then decided to renew ties with the Kazakh franchise. Now, he’ll play under his father. Yury had already worked in the league, in 2018, when he was among Galym Mambetaliyev’s assistants. He was also an assistant for the Kazakh junior and senior national team, other than for Barys’ junior team in the JHL.
Last year, Mikhailis and Barys’ farm team — Nomad — had their debut in the VHL. The team didn’t reach the playoffs, but Mikhailis’ fate was determined not by his results with Nomad (he led the team to a Kazakhstan title), but by the fact that most of Barys’ local players worked with him at some point of their career. This will help the hockey operations personnel easing up the adaptation period to start delivering right away.