in-depth interview with Amurskie Tigry Khabarovsk head-coach Alexander Yunkov.
Amurskie Tigry finished the regular season at 17th place in the Western Conference. The ‘Tigers’ enjoyed just 12 wins in 64 games. Reporter Alexei Shevchenko sat down with Khabarovsk head-coach, trying to find out the reasons behind the unfortunate season of Amur’s major junior team.
- The team’s priority isn’t about a place in standings;
- Kharchenko and Korotkikh are ready for KHL;
- Minus-40 isn’t the end of the world;
- Khabarovsk offers the shortest route from JHL to KHL.
You can read below about the reasons behind Amurskie Tigry’s unfortunate season, in-depth analysis of players and why young players should move to Khabarovsk.
− You never lost your cool even when your team was losing by a blowout. You never yelled at your players and never left to the locker-room when you could.
- I fully understood what kind of roster I dealt with. No other result could have been attained, especially early in the season. Amur management set a rather concrete set of goals and they weren’t about sports results. We had to develop a player or two for the KHL team. That is exactly what we focused on. We let Yegor Kharchenko and Ignat Korotkikh a lot of ice-time. They were a part of our special unit and gained experience. In that sense, our JHL team has achieved its goal. As for making the playoffs, that was unfathomable because we called up a lot of our junior hockey school alumni this season. We had 10 to 12 players dressed in every game who just graduated from the school. Obviously, it’s frustrating and annoying to lose but Amurskie Tigry didn’t aspire to achieve high places in the standings. We called up the boys from the school, a lot of them made their Junior Hockey League debut. We realized even back at the pre-season camp that we were headed into a tough season.
- Did you ever come close to leaving to the locker-room from the bench during a game?
- I felt like it once and only for a second. It wouldn’t be the right thing to do to the team. Commander in chief shouldn’t leave his men behind in a difficult situation. There was a lot of work to be done in the locker-room after blowout losses. We had to remind the boys that the season wasn’t over, that they had to forget about the negative and prepare for the upcoming games. Sometimes the players heeded to our words. If you take a closer look, we rarely had two horrible games in a row.
- Were you frustrated by the goaltenders?
- I was, especially early in the season. They had trouble stopping mid-range shots. We managed to fix that more or less towards November. Alexander Yevgrafov brought his game to a decent level. He adjusted to Junior Hockey League brand of hockey faster than anyone and we continued to develop him. There was another problem, though. In the pre-season games our goaltenders didn’t face such strong shots as Western Conference teams take.
- Is the statistics going to be a hard pill to swallow for the goaltenders?
- This was Alexander Yevgrafov’s last season in Junior Hockey League. The goaltender is with Amur right now. They will make a decision whether or not he’s going to stay within the club’s system after camp. As for Nikita Fyodorov, we haven’t made a decision either. I’m not going to lie, he let us down. Initially, we hoped we would have two goaltenders of the same level but when Nikita was in goal, we couldn’t expect a positive outcome.
- Did he break down mentally?
- Among other things. But the biggest problem was the lack of basic knowledge. Unfortunately, Amur junior hockey school has very serious trouble developing goaltenders. We lack coaches who would work specifically with goaltenders and that’s why the school develops poor netminders. However, there are positive changes. Professional goaltenders, who have recently retired, work with kids who were born between 2006 and 2013. Perhaps, the problem of Khabarovsk junior hockey school is going to be solved in a few years.
- Yegor Kharchenko was just a few minutes away from being the most penalized player of the season. Why was he getting so many penalties?
- Yegor is a true warrior. He can step up for anybody and fight anybody. Early in the season we even let him do that. But you get fined for fights so we had to strictly forbid it to Kharchenko. But we couldn’t do anything about 2-minute minors. You can’t forbid something like that. Yegor was regularly penalized and that’s bad.
- Despite getting fined, Kharchenko scored 9 goals and notched 22 assists for 31 points.
- He’s an offensive defenseman with a good wrist-shot. Kharchenko has talent and he has used it. I noticed that there aren’t many players in Junior Hockey League with such a good release on the wrist-shot. Yegor scored almost all of his goals on a power play.
- Nikita Zimin was often called up to KHL. He rarely played for Amur and he was dressed for just 13 games in Junior Hockey League.
- Nikita would have been of great help to us. But I’m definitely not against Zimin getting called up to KHL. He is too good for Junior Hockey League. He had to get to another level. I’m not surprised that he earned a spot on a KHL team. He was a rookie, but he didn’t just sit at the bench. When he was sent back down to us, we faced certain troubles because Nikita wasn’t aware of our plays. It was difficult for him to adjust.
- Ignat Korotkikh had a good season. How do you explain his progress?
- Ignat had a pretty good debut season in Junior Hockey League. But I’m not fully satisfied with his work ethic. I believe, he could have played better and scored more points. He is yet to live up to his full potential. He showed just about 60% of what he’s truly capable of. The guy is being lazy and sometimes he doesn’t do what is asked of him. Hopefully, he’s going to make progress next season. However, Ignat had a hard time early in the season because we struggled finding the right linemates for him. When Vadim Sivchuk joined our team, it became a little better. Their duo turned out to be very productive. Without Vadim Ignat’s statistics would have suffered. The line Leschenko-Sivchuk-Korotkikh was established towards December.
- Sergei dobrynin played 51 games and scored no points. He is indeed a defenseman but certainly he could have picked up at least a point somewhere along the way?
- He’s a very unique player. Sergei is 100% about playing defense. Besides, he didn’t have a lot of ice-time. I’m going to be honest with you, sometimes we were forced to play Dobrynin because we have a really short bench. Although, I have to admit I wasn’t pleasantly surprised by his play. I mean, the kid played for CSKA, he must have a certain level. I was certain that Sergei would begin improving on his game with every day. But as the season progressed, that wasn’t happening.
− You couldn’t ask for more from Vadim Sivchuk, though. He scored 17 goals and 55 points. They said about him that he’s not an easy guy. He comes from a well-off family and hockey isn’t exactly what he needs to be successful in life. He used to have troubles with coaches, too.
- We found the right approach to him. We explained the goals to him, he bought into it and understood what we wanted to see from him. Vadim had no trouble with discipline. You can see that in his statistics. Sivchuk had the best season of his career. He played the brand of hockey he excels at. We saw Vadim’s statistics on other teams. He never played a full season before. Everyone talked about him not being an easy guy but we found the keys to him. I didn’t notice any trouble from motivation coming from him. He wanted to play, score points and win. He worked hard in every game. Sure, Vadim played almost no defense but he gave the result we wanted on offense.
- Forward Danil Bespalov finished the season with minus-40. Is that a shock for a coach?
- Daniil played his rookie season in Junior Hockey League. He used to play in junior hockey school league before. The level of play over there is completely different, you can’t even compare it to JHL. We saw Bespalov’s statistics and joked that we never saw anything like it and that he beats all records. Hopefully, next season Daniil will continue to improve his defensive game.
- I believe, one of the problems Amurskie Tigry coaching staff faced this year was that a lot of forwards played in their rookie Junior Hockey League season.
- Because of the pandemic we didn’t have a usual camp. We practiced off ice for a month and then had to be quarantined for a month. We knew almost nothing about the potential of our out of town players prior to the season. Besides, we signed several guys from Far East’s junior hockey school league – and the level of play there is very low. When someone from there joins the team, he needs a lot of time to get used to the pace of Junior Hockey League. The boys have talent but they have never played at such level.
- How long did it take them to get used to it?
- About three or four months. And keep in mind that at first we didn’t ask them to provide goals and assists. We just needed them to start with not conceding goals. But I really expect the local boys to come into the next season at a different level.
- You spoke about troubles putting together a team but in the fall Yegor Babasyov came to your team. He’s a Dynamo Moscow junior hockey school alumnus. He had to lock a roster spot on your team.
- We had to let him go due to athletic reasons. Yegor played seven games. We put him on special teams and we trusted him. But he didn’t manage to score a single point in seven games. And yet we saw Babasyov as a player for our Top-6. He has a good shot and he sees the ice pretty well but didn’t produce points. And we needed a player who could score points.
- As an upside of the season, I see Amurskie Tigry’s power play teams. They played rather well. How did you manage to achieve that?
- We worked a lot on our power play ever since the season started. We looked for players who could be effective on special teams. When we put together the Leschenko-Sivchuk-Korotkikh line, we could exhale. However, we had no luck with our second power play unit. At a certain point I realized that there was just one line on our team – the top line. Other lines were about as good as other teams’ fourth lines.
- So where can you get other players?
- In Khabarovsk they don’t believe in recruiting players from Junior Hockey League. We give our players a different motivation. The shortest route to KHL is in Far East. Players are guaranteed to get a lot of ice-time in Junior Hockey League if they can prove their worth.