“[Lokomotiv] had a whole different team this season than one year ago,” he told me earlier this week. “I think that they have a much better team, and if you lose in the playoffs four to nothing, it leaves no excuses."
A two-time winner of the SM-liiga, Marjamäki faced an unprecedented challenge at the helm of a team ransacked by a pandemic. Quarantined for 40 days himself in the midst of the season, Jokerit’s coaching staff ran four separate practice squads at the height of COVID-related turbulence. The results of this uneven preparation spoke for themselves, with 28 games played in 59 days due to postponements, and injuries to both goaltenders. The team arrived to the playoffs in far different style than the season prior, falling to Yaroslavl in a sweep and unable to play at home due to restrictions.
I caught up with Marjamäki to recap lessons from the 2020-21 campaign. We touched on the hardships that the organization faced, several roster standouts and the interesting road ahead.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): While you set a goal to assemble a younger team at the end of last season, Jokerit still iced one of the most mature squads in the KHL. You brought back veterans such as Peter Regin and Sami Lepisto. Did the COVID-19 situation influence your roster decisions?
Lauri Marjamäki (LM): Yes, I think that's what happened. One year ago, we played such a great level against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, and we won that first round [of the playoffs] 4-2. But overall, it became very difficult. I think that we had a good foundation in our team, but still during the season, Peter Regin and Sami Lepisto came back because they deserved a second chance. [Regin] has been a captain for four years of this team, and he's a good leader. When he came back, everyone was so happy about it. And what kind of level he played in those first 10 games—he helped our team a lot. Last season, we had a tough ending because of COVID. That was a huge disappointment for us, that last part of the season. But all in all, we saw some of that strength in the first part of the season. We played pretty well in those first 30 games.
I think that training was the most difficult part. During the worst of it, we had four different training groups, and every time someone got COVID, everyone else had to go into quarantine for 10 days. W had four quarantines. And that includes me—I was 40 days quarantined, as were some of the players. If your head coach is gone one and a half months, you have to revise your foundations for the whole season.
GK: I would think that the breakdown in the latter part of the season might reopen the conversation about icing a younger roster. Dinamo Minsk recently made a push for younger, Belarusian players—and their results were drastically different.
LM: Yes, you are right. This is what we have talked about with [Jari] Kurri, what we have to do. Of course, we have an okay foundation in our team, but we have to find a couple of new players and decide what kind of players we need. I think that we need players with desperation for playing and winning. The kind of players who are goal-oriented, competitive. And also you need some experience. If you look at Lokomotiv Yaroslavl one year ago, they were so experienced—Staffan Kronwall, Jacub Nakladal, those kinds of players, but now they have a much younger team, much faster. I think we have to look at that example for the next season.
I think the salary cap helps a lot of the Russian teams because they have such great, young players. For example, Lokomotiv—look at how they bring their own juniors, their own young players to the main team and that kind of thing. They have experienced players on their top lines, but the third and four lines have to be little bit younger. I am sure that we have to do a better job about that.
GK: Did you find that veterans weathered the strange preseason and quarantines better?
LM: It depends a little at the individual level, who can handle these things like staying at home and walking around, doing something with your body. I didn't see that older or younger guys handled that kind of thing better. It was tough for our whole team. I think that how we started the season, it was so weird that we had only four exhibition games. We couldn’t travel to play against Russian teams or Swedish teams. We played only three times against our previous league and one time against Riga. Our first game in Minsk was a technical defeat 5-0, but still, I think that we played at a high level in the whole first 30 games.
GK: You played Lokomotiv Yaroslavl 20 times in two seasons. Are you tired of them yet?
LM: [Laughs] Yeah, that's true—we met six times in the regular season and six playoff games last season, and four times in the regular season and four times in playoff games [this year]. But I think we like to play against them. They had a whole different team this season than one year ago. I think that they have a much better team, and if you lose in the playoffs four to nothing, it leaves no excuses. They were great in the season. But that is weird…twenty times against them in two years.
GK: Unfortunately for Jokerit, the latest campaign looked very different.
LM: It was a totally different situation before this season, because they say that success is the result of good preparation. That saying was definitely true this season. We played 28 games in 59 days after Christmas because we had so many postponements. We played a couple of games that were supposed to be at home, away. We were practicing in four different groups in that first part of the season, and then we played those 28 games in 59 days, and right away, straight to the playoffs. We couldn’t handle that. We were mentally tired and physically tired. We had a lack of practices. That is never a good situation because you have to be in your best shape in the playoffs, like we were one year ago. Now, we were so far away.
GK: At one point in the season, you resorted to a third-string goaltender. How would you summarize Jukuri’s clutch performance?
LM: Yeah, that's true. It was nice that Samuel Jukuri played in seven or eight games, but it was not so good for us because of the Lindbäck injury at the CSKA game on the 3rd of January. He was out for the whole end of the regular season, all of those 25 games. Jānis Kalniņš was also injured. Then we had only two young goalies, but Jukuri did a good job. I am so proud of him for how he played.
GK: You ran three defensive pairs this season. Did you look for a seventh defenseman at any point?
LM: We wanted to find that one, young defenseman who could play as the seventh D. We didn't find as good of a player to accommodate our team, to be number seven. You have to understand that sometimes [the players] just think about the role, and where is the best place to develop. We have a Finnish league and many other options, when you think about it. It would help a lot if we had that kind of defenseman who can play in the KHL and at that level all season.
GK: Brian O’Neill led the team in points. It seems like the “Mr. Helsinki” crown remains uncontested.
LM: Yeah, that's true. Probably one of our most valuable players, and he's a top athlete. Look at how versatile he is—he can play PP, PK, even-strength. He won the plus-minus statistic across the whole KHL. He scored over 50 points and was also 40 days in quarantine. He’s always in good shape, and in some of the games when we were not so good, he showed what a team player he is. We are so happy that he signed a contract for the next three years with us.
GK: The past few seasons have been a roller coaster. How would you summarize the team’s adjustment to the KHL, and what does the organization need to focus on moving forward?
LM: First of all, I love the KHL—this level, and all of the skill. If I look at how tough these players battle and those kinds of things, that is our development target. We have to find a better team and do a better job in practices.
We have been here for seven years, and the results have been the same. We have to talk about it, to analyze with our management, with our coaches and with our organization, what we can do better to succeed. Now that we understand the demand level in the KHL, what kind of players do we need? We have to do better in practices, and on the physical and mental side. Team building, coaching, focus, communication throughout the whole organization, cooperation. The small things. We have a lot of good things, but we know how tough the KHL is. Sometimes if you didn't succeed, there's a good possibility to develop and analyze what we can do better.
GK: You’ve won the Finnish league twice. How much harder is it to dominate in the KHL?
LM: There is a huge difference between the KHL and the Finnish league. For example, the Finnish league is so young, and I think they have now fifteen teams there. Sometimes they said it was the second league in the whole world, but that was 10-15 years ago. It was much more experienced players and only 12 teams. I think the main difference is in how you battle, how you defend. If we think about the Finnish league, they have young, talented guys who skate well, but they didn't battle at all. I think that it the main reason why the KHL is a much better league.
GK: How do you adapt the Finnish hockey style and your own coaching preferences when facing the systematic, defense-first Russian clubs?
LM: It is a good question. I think that sometimes we are a little bit better with the offensive game—if we talk about five-on-five to the breakouts to the cycle. But like you said before, they defend so well. What kinds of keys can we find to score more goals? We can be more efficient as a team, but it is not so easy of a situation. Last season, at the beginning of December, we scored the most goals per game, but then we had a huge problem with our efficiency because other teams just developed a defensive game. When I look at the playoffs now, CSKA against Lokomotiv, it is so hard to score. We also have to improve our own defensive game and especially the special teams. The powerplay is everything if you want to win.
GK: Jokerit chairman Jari Kurri told me that he prefers larger ice sizes. Do you agree, and have you noticed any differences in team performance depending on where you play?
LM: I didn't see such a huge difference. We won games in Saint Pete, Sochi and Nur-Sultan where they have the 26-meter rink, what they are calling the NHL rink. But I think that sometimes if the rink is too small, it’s only defense, defense, defense. Battle, battle, battle. If you have a little bit more space, a little bit more room to play, it’s great for the Russian hockey culture that is so skilled. I think that if it is only small rinks, it is not so nice to watch. Do you know what I mean? One of the nicest things in hockey is that you can pass and score nice goals. If you go up to 30 meters by 60, that is too large sometimes—but I think that 28 is the best rink size. Everyone has their own opinions about that. I think we also have to think about our audience and our fans. It is not okay if the results are always 1-0 or 2-1. Sometimes it is good to have a result 7-4, or something like that.
GK: How do you rate the state of Finnish hockey right now? For such a small country, it has contributed so much to the game.
LM: Yes, this is for sure a hockey country. They have done a good job with our juniors, and we have a good program. Sometimes I am a little bit worried about our experienced players and experienced coaches. Now they don't have any jobs, and they are heavily focused on the young players. But all in all, there are a lot of good things in our Finnish hockey program. Our National Team and our U20s, U18s—they are succeeding at the World Championships. It is a good thing for us.
GK: What is something about hockey that you will bring with you for the rest of your life?
LM: I think the social skills and the interaction in that kind of environment. I think that has been the most important thing for me—that you can communicate with so many different people, and you have had so many relationships with different people. I think that I will miss it a lot when I retire, and I hope that I will still be able to call my coaching staff and my old players. It is so nice to go every morning to the rink—to see those guys and to say to them, “Good morning.” I think that always feels good.