PHT’s Pressing Olympic Questions: Who are these guys?

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The Winter Olympics are a chance to showcase the best hockey talent the world has to offer. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll see stacked lines duels against superb defensemen and elite goaltenders.

But it’s not just a series of NHL All-Star Games with medals on the line — given it’s an international event, the Olympic talent pool extends beyond North America’s top league. In fact, there will be be plenty players with little to no NHL experience playing significant roles.

With that in mind, we’ve handpicked a few worth learning about before the puck drops:

Viktor Tikhonov (Russia) — Odds are the name sounds familiar even if you can’t quite place it. Tikhonov was named after his grandfather, best known for coaching the Soviet Union to three gold medals (the final in 1992 was with the short-lived Unified Team).

The younger Tikhonov is a 25-year-old winger that grew up in California, holds dual American and Russian citizenship, and was taken in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft by the Phoenix Coyotes. He had eight goals and 16 points in 61 games with the Coyotes in 2008-09, but he split the next season between the AHL and KHL and eventually settled on European hockey in 2011-12.

Over the last three campaigns with SKA St. Petersburg, he has scored 46 goals and 88 points in 129 contests. He’s someone that has established himself beyond his family name, but that doesn’t mean his history isn’t important to him.

“It’s kind of funny to think about it, but the last time Russia won was 22 years ago, when (my grandfather) was the coach,” Tikhonov told the San Jose Mercury News. “Maybe it’ll come full circle and we can go from Tikhonov to Tikhonov. That would be kind of cool.”

Reto Suri (Switzerland) — Suri has spent his entire professional career in the Swiss league, but that nearly changed over the summer. After a strong 2012-13 campaign with Zug, the skilled forward helped lead Switzerland to a silver medal in the 2013 World Championships and tied Nino Niederreiter with a team-high five goals.

Along the way, Suri netted two shootout goals in a 3-2 upset over Canada in the round robin phase. You can watch his second marker below (skip to 1:47):

It was the first time Switzerland had ever won a medal in the tournament and not long after that, reports began to surface that Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was trying to sign him. Suri couldn’t head to the NHL, though, because the Swiss Federation lacked a transfer agreement with the NHL and vetoed the proposal.

The Lightning are still very interested in Suri, likely because he continues to shine in the Swiss league. He’s notched a career-high 36 points to tie for eighth place in the National A League scoring race.

Jori Lehtera (Finland) — Lehtera’s never played in the NHL, but certainly had the option to. The St. Louis Blues took him in the third round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft but, after a seven-game taste of the AHL during the 2008-09 campaign, he went back to Europe and hasn’t looked back.

Lehtera led Finland’s SM-liiga in 2009-10 with 69 points and earned the league’s MVP award. The following campaign, he decided to take his talents to the KHL where he has quickly established himself as one of the league’s top players.

This year, the 26-year-old forward is tied with Ilya Kovalchuk for ninth place in the league’s scoring race (40 points).

His success hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Blues, but they haven’t been able to lure him over.

“At the end of the day he does not want to play in the NHL,” Blues GM Doug Armstrong said in June. “We offered him a one-way, seven-figure deal. Can’t force guys to want to play in the NHL.”

It’s worth adding that Lehtera is capable of playing up the middle, which makes him a very valuable commodity for Finland after they lost centers Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula.

Ivan Baranka (Slovakia) — Baranka was selected in the second round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Rangers and in his third season as a pro in North America, he got his big chance.

The Rangers summoned him and he made his NHL debut on Nov. 21 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He made the most of his 12:44 minutes of ice time by setting up the game-winning goal by Colton Orr in the 2-1 victory.

And he never played in the NHL again.

Following that campaign, he decided to take his talents to the KHL where he has emerged as one of that league’s top defenseman. He’s a physical blueliner, but also contributes offensively. Playing for the Omsk Avangard this season, he’s tied for 20th place among defensemen with 18 points in 47 games.

He was part of Slovakia’s 2010 Olympic team, which finished a surprising fourth. He didn’t play a big role in that tournament, but he was a major factor on the 2012 World Championships team that earned a stunning 4-3 victory over Team Canada in the Quarterfinals. Slovakia went on to win the silver medal in that competition.

With Lubomir Visnovsky sidelined, Slovakia has just four NHL defenseman on their roster. They’ll be counting on Baranka to once again stand up to the NHL’s elite.

NHL on NBCSN: Blues expect to get Bouwmeester back for clash with Oilers

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The NHL on NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Tuesday night, as the St. Louis Blues host the Edmonton Oilers at 8:00 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

The St. Louis Blues have been hit hard by injuries so far this season, but that hasn’t stopped them from having some success in 2017-18.

Finally, they’ll be getting some good news, as Jay Bouwmeester is expected to play for the first time this season. Bouwmeester hasn’t suited up for the Blues since suffering a fractured ankle early on in training camp.

“It’s been a long time, especially at the start of the year when you miss training camp,” Bouwmeester told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I’m excited and hopefully and I’ll just jump in and not interfere with what’s going on here.”

The 34-year-old’s return gives the Blues’ top four defense some balance. He skated on a pairing with Colton Parayko, while Alex Pietrangelo was with Joel Edmundson during Monday’s practice.

“He’s a veteran guy, his skating ability, defensive game, I don’t expect him to step in and his game to be exactly where it’s going to be five, 10 games from now,” head coach Mike Yeo said. “We have to understand he’s missed a lot of time but his experience will make the transition. It will come along quickly.”

The Blues have been just fine without Bouwmeester, so they should be even better now that he’s back. They’ll head into tonight’s game with the best record in the Central Division at 15-5-1.

Things haven’t been going as well for the Oilers, who are alarming close to the basement of the Western Conference through 20 games.

Surprisingly, only two teams (Buffalo and San Jose) have scored less goals than Edmonton’s 50 this season. When you look at the individual numbers on the team, you understand why they’re struggling so much.

Only two players (Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) have scored eight goals or more this season. Nobody else on the team has more than five.

Another big issue has been the play of Cam Talbot, who went from one of the top goalies in the NHL to being pretty average this season. Talbot owns a 7-10-1 record with a 3.10 goals-against-average and a .903 save percentage this season.

“He’s part of the team … the goalies have to be better, the defense, the forwards, the coaches have to be better,” said head coach Todd McLellan, per the Edmonton Journal. “None of us have lived up to where we need to be and that’s why we’re where we are in the standings.

“I’m not going to single out the goaltender. It’s team-wide.”

PHT Morning Skate: Top 5 moments from Auston Matthews’ first 100 NHL games

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

–The Dallas Stars have been hit hard by injuries lately. On Monday, they announced that Marc Methot and Martin Hanzal would both miss some time. Also, Kari Lehtonen is away from the team after he and his wife welcomed a baby boy into the world. (Wrongsideoftheredline.com)

Jay Bouwmeester, who has been out since the third day of training camp, is expected to return to St. Louis’ lineup tonight. “It’s been a long time, especially at the start of the year when you miss training camp. I’m excited and hopefully and I’ll just jump in and not interfere with what’s going on here.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

–Sabres coach Phil Housley is trying to find solutions to help his team get back on track. Right now that includes mixing up the lines. Jack Eichel finds himself with Zegmus Girgensons and Jason Pominville, which seems like a bit of a demotion. (Buffalohockeybeat)

–Anton Rodin’s time with the Vancouver Canucks has officially come to an end, as he’s been placed on waivers with the purpose of terminating his contract. “Anton asked to be released from his contract,” said Jim Benning. “We value the skill and depth he adds to our team but ultimately it was important to respect Anton’s request to move on.” (Vancourier.com)

–Yes, the Edmonton Oilers are struggling this season. Some people want to blame Connor McDavid for that, but according to NHLNumbers.com, GM Peter Chiarelli should be the one taking the heat. (NHLNumbers.com)

–The swap Mike Cammalleri-for-Jussi Jokinen swap between the Kings and Oilers was nothing more than a weak attempt for both teams to try to get back on track. Don’t expect the move to help either side. (Fanragsports.com)

–Hall-of-famers Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne were honored prior to the game between the Ducks and Panthers on Sunday night. “It was just a perfect way to end a great week and a half,” Kariya said. “Just the most memorable time, certainly in my life and both of our lives. To spend it with Teemu and his family, it was icing on the cake. I’ll always remember the ovation.” (OC Register)

–Like all of us, Jets winger Patrik Laine is impressed by Selanne’s 76-goal rookie record he set in 1993. Laine can’t imagine anyone will ever touch that one. “Thirty-six, that was hard,” Laine said of his own rookie total. “So imagine if I had to score 40 more on top of the 36 I scored. I would say it’s pretty hard.” (NHL.com)

–Jets prospect Jack Roslovic is ripping it up in the AHL, but Winnipeg shouldn’t recall him yet. He needs more time to grow in the minors. (Jetsnation.ca)

–Preds forward Craig Smith had been doing all the right things on paper last season, he just couldn’t buy a goal for long stretches. Now, Smith’s hard work has paid off, as he’s finally starting to produce with a little more regularity. (Ontheforecheck.com)

–The pairing of Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy has worked out well for Boston because there’s a terrific teacher and a willing student. What does Chara like best about his defense partner? “That he’s quickly able to adapt to our system and our game. We saw it in the playoffs [last season]. He stepped in and gave us a contribution right away. He didn’t seem to be nervous, or caught in a situation where he’d be distracted.” (ESPN.com)

–Filmmaker Damon Kwame Mason believes Willie O’Ree (first black player to play in the NHL) and Herb Carnegie (Jean Beliveau said that he was one of the best players to never play in the NHL) should both be in the Hockey Hall of Fame. (Colorofhockey.com)

–Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is the top prospect available for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. How we he help every one of the struggling teams in the NHL? The Hockey News breaks it down for you. (The Hockey News)

–Canadiens goaltender Antti Niemi is already on his third team this season. Since he’s been on the move a lot, he’s decided to go with the plain white goalie mask. He should embrace the simple mask. (Puckjunk.com)

–How can the NHL spice up some of the stale rivalries in the league? Scottywazz.com believes that handing out a trophy could help. (Scottywazz.com)

Auston Matthews suited up in his 100th NHL game, so The Score breaks down the top 5 moments from his young career. To no ones surprise, the top moment came in his first game. (The Score)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid have wrong things in common right now

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As the top two picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, faces of beleaguered franchises, and recipients of eight-figure salaries starting next season, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel share a lot in common.

Sadly, though the first quarter of this campaign, their similarities mostly leave you kind of bummed out.

Sure, there are key differences, but if you paint in broad brushstrokes, the similarities are striking.

Varying degrees of blame

Look, it’s almost human nature to blame a team’s failures on its best player. The logic goes: they have the most power to change things, and they often draw the biggest checks (technically not true for McDavid and Eichel until next season), so they need to take the heat, right?

Well, maybe, but in almost every case in a team sport like hockey, it’s usually not on the best guy or even top guys on a team.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sure seemed “in decline” for a while there, and then the Penguins brought in Phil Kessel, played to their strengths as an attacking team with Mike Sullivan in charge, and are now repeat champs.

Here’s hoping that McDavid and Eichel get some help, but with things sour for the Oilers (middle of the pack with contender aspirations) and Sabres (cellar dwellers despite dreams of big strides), the two are getting thrown under the bus at times.

The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington wrote this about Eichel, and keep in mind this was before Buffalo dropped its sixth in a row in falling short against Columbus on Monday:

Eichel has five goals in 20 games, tallying just once in his last 11. He’s got a minus-9 rating for the season. Those are the numbers. Now let’s move to things you can’t measure.

Eichel’s body language has been terrible much of season. It’s a dirty little secret fans are finally figuring out that he floats off the ice far too much on the end of his shifts.

McDavid, meanwhile, saw his defensive struggles magnified during Edmonton’s frustrating loss to the Dallas Stars this past weekend:

Oilers Nation’s Cam Lewis felt the need to defend McDavid, and he wasn’t alone. That’s how bad things are getting for fans of the Sabres and Oilers, two teams who have been through these growing pains so often, they probably wonder if the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a mirage.

Varying degrees of success

You really don’t have to dig that deep to see that McDavid and Eichel stand among a handful of Oilers/Sabres who are carrying the scoring burden for their teams.

It’s especially stark with McDavid, who has 25 points while the second-highest Oilers scorer is currently Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (who has 15). Things are a little more even among Eichel and guys that he spends much of his ice time with, like a resurgent Evander Kane, but the broader view is the same: only four Sabres skaters are above 10 points while the Oilers only have five.

Yes, you can nitpick both players at times, but that requires the willful ignorance of looking the other way on an important point: few, if any, skaters are perfect. Especially during every night of an 82-game season.

The painfully obvious truth is that both McDavid and Eichel need more help and are being asked to do far too much. Harrington made an interesting point with this tweet, as it actually might apply to McDavid more than Eichel:

Deck chairs

From my vantage point, the situation might be more dire for the Oilers than the Sabres for a few reasons.

For one, it seems like Edmonton’s management has made its bed and now must lie in it. The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis said it well (sub required) in a piece titled “There’s no retreat from the course Peter Chiarelli has plotted for the Oilers.”

Chiarelli has essentially cast his lot with the likes of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell as key supporting cast members, and that hasn’t gone well, at all. Their bad contracts and trade clauses make them difficult to move.

And, really, how much do you trust Chiarelli to get the most out of moving, say, Nugent-Hopkins after he’s left behind a trail of shaky (at best) moves during his last years in Boston and his stay in Edmonton? To a lot of fans, he’s already a punchline.

Yikes.

In the short-term, the Sabres’ roster probably has bigger holes. Perhaps things might change as Kyle Okposo gets healthier, but the offense is a little slim beyond Eichel, Kane, Ryan O'Reilly, and Jason Pominville (though Sam Reinhart‘s showing some signs of promise).

While Edmonton’s actually fashioned a half-decent defense for itself, Buffalo’s a mess in that regard.

That said, this is the first season of the Phil Housley – Jason Botterill regime, and they deserve time to get things together. The best thing about this situation is that, while there’s a tough deal or two like that of Zach Bogosian, it’s a fairly clean slate in Buffalo. They don’t need to cling to bad moves out of pride or even to protect their jobs like, say, the Capitals stubbornly hanging onto Brooks Orpik and letting quality players slip by.

Essentially, these two teams are on different points in the board game that is team-building. The Oilers are advancing close to that make-or-break spot, which to some extent makes it scarier to see the same old problems bubbling up.

***

No, their situations aren’t exactly the same, but it’s remarkable to see the parallels between Eichel and McDavid right now. You can even meme them in similar ways.

With the right mixture of luck, progression, and good management choices, maybe we can go back to focusing on the delightful things that make them similar: financial security and being absolutely spellbinding at hockey.

Right now, that’s a difficult thing to do.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: His name is Joonas

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Choice PHT cuts

Shockingly, Radko Gudas is not on board with a 10-game suspension. Shocking.

Yahoo for Aho.

Johnny B. Very Good.

Blue Jackets are looking like contenders (again).

Players of the Night

  • Joonas Donskoi scored two goals for the Sharks and also found the net during the shootout. The Ducks still won as goaltending continues to shine for them (Reto Berra played the role of John Gibson tonight), but it was quite the game by Donskoi.

This is now his third two-point night of the season.

  • Also in the running: Mikael Granlund, who two goals and also grabbed a primary assist. He collected the last two goals of regulation, helping the Minnesota Wild secure a standings point. Like Donskoi, his work wasn’t quite enough, as the Devils won in overtime.

Highlight of the Night

Kevin Fiala has been on a tear since Kyle Turris arrived in Nashville. Sometimes Turris factors into that, sometimes it’s Fiala, who might be enlivened by the addition. This time around, P.K. Subban deserves a lot of credit for setting up what ended up being just a brilliant goal:

That goal is almost poetic.

Factoids of the Night

The Devils won thanks to this 3-on-3 OT goal from John Moore, which apparently is a fairly frequent occurrence.

We might as well go for a trifecta of specific-but-impressive defensemen facts:

Scores

Blue Jackets 3, Sabres 2
Coyotes 4, Maple Leafs 1
Flames 4, Capitals 1
Predators 5, Jets 3
Devils 4, Wild 3 (OT)
Ducks 3, Sharks 2 (SO)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.