PHT’s Pressing Olympic Questions: Are expectations too high for Russia?

4 Comments

SOCHI, Russia — Canada got the job done in Vancouver. Can the Russians in Sochi?

For Alex Ovechkin, it’s a question he’s faced countless times already, the frequency of the queries growing higher and higher as the most important international tournament of his career drew closer.

Last month, he said he was trying not to dwell on the daunting task facing him and his Russian teammates.

“I don’t think about it because I don’t want to take pressure right now on me,” Ovechkin said. “But it’s kind of hard to do. Every time when I go to the news and on the Internet, I just see about the Olympic Games.”

Well, Ovechkin arrived Monday in the Black Sea resort city, where he’ll be the host country’s face of the Games, for better or worse. If the pressure of the Olympics was tough to ignore before, it’s mission impossible now.

Earlier this week, Russian head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov tried to downplay the burden of expectations.

“I think our players, they have good experience,” said Bilyaletdinov. “I don’t think they will feel bad, I mean will feel big pressure. They’re strong players, good players. I think they’re OK.”

And with star forwards like Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk, there’s certainly no shortage of top-end talent. Just imagine the first-unit power-play. Goalies Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov, whichever one is between the pipes, should be tough to beat as well.

But while the expectations are the same for Russia in 2014 as they were for Canada in 2010 – it’s gold or bust, just to be clear – there’s reason to wonder if the final results may be dramatically different. Instead of a celebration like the one that Sidney Crosby’s golden goal set off in Vancouver and across the entire Great White North, the Russians could very well be left heartbroken and searching for answers, just like they were four years ago.

Two big question marks for Russia are depth and the blue line.

On the subject of depth, nine KHL players were named to the Russian side. No disrespect to that league, but it’s not the NHL. Currently among the KHL’s leading scorers: former middling NHLers Brandon Bochenski, Nigel Dawes and Kyle Wilson.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for having players who are used to the bigger international ice surface, and maybe the KHLers can provide an element of surprise. But when Canada’s depth – not to mention the Americans’ and the Swedes’ — includes legitimate NHL stars, it stands to reason there are going to be some mismatches should Russia ever come up against the defending gold medalists.

The defense, meanwhile, will be led by NHL veterans Andrei Markov and Fedor Tyutin, along with the younger Slava Voynov. All good players, but compared to Canada’s star-studded blue line, well, there’s just no comparison.

“Play D,” Tyutin said Monday when asked what he and his fellow blue-liners have to do to be successful. “Simple as that.”

Also no doubt lingering in the minds of the Russians is their humiliating quarterfinal exit in 2010, a 7-3 loss to Canada that led goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to deliver the famous line: “They came out like gorillas out of a cage.”

Bryzgalov expanded: “It’s really simple, we lost all the battles.  We turned the puck over too much. We lost every aspect of the game. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. We lost the battles around the walls. It’s a simple game, hockey, you know.”

Four years later, Russian sports writer Igor Rabiner believes it’s imperative to take advantage of playing at home.

“We’ve been going backwards,” Rabiner told the New York Times. “In Albertville in ’92, before NHL players could join the team, we won. Since then, and now that all the best players in the world are at the Games, look at what has happened. We’ve done worse and worse. In Nagano, second place. In Salt Lake City, third place. In Turin, fourth place. In Vancouver, sixth place. So there is a feeling that, this time, with home ice, this is the only way.”

In 2010, after that devastating loss to Canada, Ovechkin pleaded, “Don’t judge our team by one game. We are still strong.”

And now, finally, here’s his chance to prove it.

“Of course I think about [winning gold at home],” he said Monday after practice. “Of course I want to do that. But it’s still a long way. It’s going to be hard way. But it’s my dream.”

Hall urges Hischier to ‘develop at his own pace’

Getty
1 Comment

The New Jersey Devils won the lottery and selected Nico Hischier first overall. With that comes even greater expectations on the player heading into their first training camp.

We’re less than two months away from the opening of training camps across the league.

But on a team that has worked this summer to bolster its offense, the addition of the 18-year-old Hischier could have an immediate impact in that department in October. Certainly, fans in New Jersey will hope so.

Taylor Hall knows all about the pressures of being taken first overall.

The Oilers selected him at that spot in 2010, but dealt him to New Jersey last summer, removing a very talented forward from their roster in order to gain something back defensively.

Devils coach John Hynes has already tried to lessen the burden on Hischier. Hall, it appears, has taken a similar approach.

“He’s just got to relax and develop at his own pace,” Hall told the Toronto Sun. “That’s not always the easiest thing to do with all the expectations people put on you for going No. 1, but I’ll help him any way I can.”

The Metropolitan Division featured four 100-plus point teams last season. New Jersey wasn’t one of them. Where the Devils need to make the most improvement in order to break back into the postseason conversation is with their offensive attack,finishing 28th in the league in total goals for last season.

Hischier should help — if not exactly next season then beyond 2017-18. The Devils also acquired Marcus Johansson from Washington and the signing of Brian Boyle should help solidify depth up the middle.

“It’s exciting times for us, bringing in the likes of Nico, Brian Boyle and Marcus Johansson,” said Hall. “We’re certainly trending in the right direction.”

Habs may lean more on Montoya to keep Price refreshed

Getty
Leave a comment

The Montreal Canadiens committed money (a lot of money) and term to Carey Price with his contract extension at the beginning of this month.

He is the backbone for this team, for its success.

He’s also about to turn 30 years old next month, with 509 career games in the NHL, entering the league in 2007-08. For as great as he has been, the Habs may place added responsibilities on the shoulders of their back-up, a title currently held by Al Montoya.

In an interview with the Habs’ website, the club’s goaltending coach Stephane Waite said that, in his mind, the days of starting goalies playing 65 to 70 games are done. It’s too tall an order in today’s NHL.

Price has, on three occasions, breached the figures in that approximation during his career. He approached the lower end of that with 62 starts in 2016-17. Montoya, meanwhile, had 18 starts and 19 games, posting a 8-6-4 record (20 points for Montreal in the standings) and a .912 save percentage.

He was the victim of one awful game, allowing 10 goals to Columbus on Nov. 4. But seriously, the entire Habs team was awful that night, essentially leaving their No. 2 goalie out to dry in an embarrassing effort from everyone.

Beyond that, Montoya was able to put together some nice starts, including shutouts against Pittsburgh and Edmonton, two teams well-equipped with dangerous offensive talent.

“We’re not afraid to put Al in goal against any team in the league,” said Waite.

“We don’t look at who he’ll be playing, we just look at the schedule that we make at the beginning of the season. Our priority is to give Carey the right days off at the right times.”

The Habs signed Montoya to a two-year extension in January. That’s a vote of confidence in their back-up.

Maintaining that confidence with a good season would certainly help the Habs accomplish the objective of keeping Price rested and refreshed.

Rangers are ‘right on the cusp,’ says Shattenkirk

Getty
9 Comments

Since missing the playoffs in 2010, the New York Rangers have made it to the Eastern Conference Final three times, and to the Stanley Cup Final once.

A championship, however, has eluded them. Instead, they’ve lost to the L.A. Kings in the final and watched their division rivals from Pittsburgh win it twice in a row, even losing to the Penguins in the first round in 2016.

This summer, however, has brought considerable change to the Blueshirts through a blockbuster trade with Arizona, buyouts and a retirement.

Derek Stepan — gone.

Dan Girardi — gone.

Kevin Klein — gone.

Antti Raanta — gone.

Oscar Lindberg — gone.

There has been substantial change on the blue line. The Rangers went after prized free agent defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk with a four-year contract worth $26.6 million. They re-signed Brendan Smith, a late-season acquisition. They brought in Anthony DeAngelo in that deal with Arizona.

Read more: Optimism replaces pessimism after changes to Rangers defense

No surprise here, but Shattenkirk had an optimistic outlook when describing the Rangers, a team he believes is “right on the cusp,” according to a conversation with NHL.com.

“I think we have that capability of playing with a team like that,” Shattenkirk recently told NHL.com.

“We have great goaltending (Henrik Lundqvist). Our defense is fast and we can make plays, but I also think we have a little bit of edge as well. Up front, I’m sure we’re one of the fastest teams in the League. You look at how Pittsburgh is built, and that’s the way that they’ve won. We have some great depth on our team, and I think that’s what it really comes down to at that point of the season: How deep are you?”

Their success next season may also depend on which teams rise and fall in the Metropolitan Division.

Columbus took a big step forward with a franchise record-setting season and will look to replicate that beginning in the fall. The Penguins were the Penguins, advancing past Washington and Ottawa in seven-game series despite a plethora of injuries before besting Nashville in the final. One has to wonder how much of a toll the grind of two Stanley Cups will take on that club. The Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy but faltered in the playoffs, ushering in change to their roster with all the unrestricted free agents — including Shattenkirk for the playoff run — they had.

Can the Islanders get back into the playoffs? Same question for the Flyers. Will Carolina, with Scott Darling in net, get the necessary upgrade at that position and take the next step toward the playoffs? What will New Jersey, with an upgraded offense in addition to Taylor Hall, be capable of when the season begins?

The number of changes to teams in the Metropolitan may be enough to shift the balance of power in that division this upcoming season. The Rangers have seemed like a team on the cusp at least three times in the last seven years.

Shattenkirk mentioned goaltending, as well, calling it great. That’s an accurate description of what Lundqvist has been for many years in New York. However, at the age of 35, he’ll need to bounce back from what was a down season for him in 2016-17.

“I think everyone’s probably all going to judge [the window] based on Lundqvist, and everyone is talking about, ‘Well, how long does he have left?'” continued Shattenkirk. “We have a lot of young players on this team, though, to counterbalance that.”

Jayce Hawryluk could be intriguing prospect for Panthers this season

Getty
Leave a comment

Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has talked extensively this offseason about giving young players an opportunity to play and trying to create a faster, more up-tempo, aggressive roster.

One of the young players that might get an opportunity to make that sort of an impact is 2014 second-round draft pick Jayce Hawryluk.

Throughout his junior days in the Western Hockey League, Hawryluk developed a reputation for being the type of player you to have on your team and absolutely hate to play against — in other words, a classic pest. But one that can also play. Really, really well.

“We have high hopes for him,” Tallon said, via the Panthers’ official website this past week. “He’s a kid who plays with a lot of passion, a lot of energy. He’s got not only speed and skills, but he’s got a lot of grit.”

The speed and skill part is what really makes it all work for him as a prospect.

He was consistently a point-per-game player for the Brandon Wheat Kings and in his last year with the team exploded offensively with 47 goals and 59 assists in only 58 games. He made his pro hockey debut this past season with Springfield of the American Hockey League where he scored nine goals and added 19 assists in 47 games.

Had it not been for an injury early in the season he probably would have already made his NHL debut for the team. Given the makeup of the roster at this point, especially after the exits of veteran players Jaromir Jagr and Jussi Jokinen this summer, there should be plenty of opportunities for him to make the roster this season.

Obviously until he plays in the NHL we won’t know for sure what he is capable of but if he can turn out to be a Brendan Gallagher type of player (or a poor man’s Brad Marchand) that would be an extremely valuable asset for the Panthers both in the short-and long-term.