SOCHI – The first instinct would be to frame this cataclysmic disaster as a massive failure for the Kontinental League by claiming the KHL doesn’t produce enough world-class players and to put them on the Russian team for political reasons was a reason why they lost.
The only problem with that is you look down the rosters of Finland and Russia. In their 3-1 win over Russia in the quarterfinal, the Finns had six players who are currently playing in the KHL, one more than the Russians had in their lineup. So clearly, the league is doing something right.
The KHL had absolutely nothing to do with this massive foul-up by the Russians. In fact, the more you watch the Russians, the more you come to the conclusion that none of the players, NHL or KHL, were responsible for this defeat. So why did the Russians lose? Well, let’s start with the fact that it is the 21st century and they had a 20th century man behind the bench.
Zinetula Bilyaletdinov screwed this up. Badly. He stood behind the bench and watched while his players played a passive system that did not exploit their massive amount of offensive talent. His deployment of players was deplorable and he continued to roll three five-man units even when the Russians were trailing in the game. He had Nikolai Kulemin on the power play, for Pete’s sake, and in the third period, after having the benefit of a TV timeout to rest his players, he came back with his third line.
That kind of stuff may have worked when hockey players in the former Soviet Union carried AK-47s for their day jobs, but this coach is completely out of touch with the modern athlete. And talk about trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. Nothing Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin did until the quarterfinal suggested they could be effective together, but Bilyaletdinov continued to throw them over the boards with Alexander Popov on their wing. Meanwhile, impressive Dallas Stars rookie Valeri Nichushkin, who had been pretty impressive in this tournament, was punished for going minus-2 earlier in the game with a total of 3:46 of ice time and not a second in the third period.
Bilyaletdinov talked about how proud he was of his players and how they all played hard and he would say nothing negative about them. Then he threw Ovechkin directly under the bus. The Russians scored just eight goals in five games in the tournament. Included in that was the only one from Ovechkin, which came on his first shift of the tournament against Slovenia.
“It’s difficult to explain why we didn’t score,” Bilyaletdinov said. “The players who usually score more on their teams, especially Alex Ovechkin, who has scored 40 goals for his team so far. I can’t explain it.”
Well, Coach Bill, as they call you around here, go back and watch the tapes. In order for Ovechkin to be effective, he needs a center who is willing to put the puck on his stick and be content to be a set-up man. Malkin is not that guy. Malkin likes as much as anyone to have the puck on his stick, too, and take it hard to the net. You also may have noticed that Ovechkin has revived his NHL career by moving to his natural wing, the right side. But you put him on his off-wing because that’s the way you guys roll in Russia. Those are the kinds of tactics that time forgot.
There is a rumor in Russia that Bilyaletdinov has a multi-million dollar contract waiting for him with SKA St. Petersburg next season. He should enjoy that because if there’s any sense in the Russian Hockey Federation, this guy will never get even close to the national or Olympic team again. The Russians have now gone three NHL Olympics without a medal and coaching has been a major factor, first with the in-over-his-head Slava Bykov and now Bilyaletdinov.
Russia has taught the rest of the world, including Canada, much about this game. But perhaps it’s time they go outside of their own inner circle to find a coach from somewhere outside the country. Because the ones who are here don’t seem to have a clue. Bilyaletdinov was asked by a Russian journalist whether or not this Olympic tournament was a catastrophe. “This was an unsuccessful game. Let’s not play word games. You call it whatever you want.”
All right then, we’ll go with catastrophe.