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.

PHT Morning Skate: Is it too early for the Caps and Pens to be meeting?

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–Here are NHL.com’s 10 storylines to keep an eye on in the second round of the playoffs. Obviously, Crosby vs. Ovechkin is up there, but so is a matchup between Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne (who would’ve thought). Both goalies were incredible in the first round.  (NHL.com)

–The Edmonton Oilers were able to knock off one team from California in the first round, and they’ll look to do the same in round two against Anaheim. The Edmonton Journal looks at eight positive and eight negatives for the Oilers going into the series. The Ducks are a little banged up right now, and the Oilers did pretty well against them during the regular season. On the downside, Anaheim is a deeper team, and they’re fully capable of playing a nasty brand of hockey. (Edmonton Journal)

–Former NHL goalie Corey Hirsch breaks down the five different types of playoff beards. No surprise that Joe Thornton and Brent Burns‘ beards find themselves in the “jumbo” category. (The Score)

–Everyone is looking forward to the series between the Pens and Caps, but is it too early for them to be playing each other? Washington Post writer Dan Steinberg isn’t impressed with the way the playoff format works. Steinberg writes: “The Caps and Penguins-the first- and second-best teams in the NHL- both won in the first round, and will face each other this week, starting Thursday night. Seven other teams finished with at least 100 points; four have been eliminated. And so the second-round matchups have all the logical consistency of a third-grader’s Pynchon plot diagram.” (Washington Post)

Mark Scheifele had some interesting things to say during a Q&A with Sportsnet. One of the things he touched on was the NHL deciding not to go to the Olympics. It’s safe to say he’s not a fan of the decision. “I look at it as it’s misrepresenting our sport. I think [Jonathan] Toews said that. The Olympics is a big honor, and for us to turn that honor down is junky.” (Sportsnet)

–The Hockey News’ roundtable looks at the four teams that should be most disappointed by their first-round exit from the playoffs. After finishing at the top of their respective divisions during the regular season, the Blackhawks and Canadiens being bounced early has to be incredibly difficult for each of those two markets. (The Hockey News)

It doesn’t sound promising for Matt Murray

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Matt Murray wasn’t available for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Columbus Blue Jackets. If he ends up being an option vs. the Washington Capitals, it might not be for a while.

The Penguins provided a less-than-promising update on Monday: he hasn’t yet resumed skating.

Now, there is some time for him to even get ready by Game 1, as their second-round series doesn’t begin until Thursday.

Considering Washington’s firepower, it would be nice for the Penguins to have two championship goalies to choose from in case things get ugly, but at the moment it seems like it’s Marc-Andre Fleury or bust.

“MAF” has his critics, but his overall work was strong vs. Columbus.

He won four of five games, generating a fantastic .933 save percentage. That’s a promising start to the playoffs, providing some hope despite a shaky .907 career playoff save percentage and a middling regular season (18-10-7, .909 save percentage and 3.02 GAA).

The less-than-positive aspects of Fleury’s numbers make Murray’s continued injury issues more unsettling, but Pittsburgh will just need to hope for improvements.

Or for Fleury to remain at the top of his game.

Kings want to increase scoring, but can Stevens make it happen?

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If sheer exposure to a team translates to make that team better, then no candidate can lift the Los Angeles Kings quite like John Stevens.

The hockey world tends to lose track of assistant (or “associate”) coaches far more easily than the main guys, and that is the case with Stevens. Seriously, Stevens has been with the Kings since 2010-11. How many Kings fans occasionally forgot he was there?

(Be honest.)

Anyway, Stevens has been able to keep an eye on the Kings for some time, so does he really have a chance to make them better? That remains to be seen, but give Stevens and new GM Rob Blake credit; they at least seem to offer some specifics about improving Los Angeles’ offense beyond “score more goals.”

The presser starts around the 8:00 mark:

Stevens provides a fun line about wanting to “lead the league” in goalie interference challenges which …

*gets interrupted by Bruce Boudreau GIF*

No, but really, LA Kings Insider transcribed some of the more interesting bits about how management believes that they’ll approach zone entries and attempting to score from the center of the ice. Here are some choice bits via Rosen’s transcription:

Blake: “We were at the bottom of controlled entry, goals off of controlled entry … We were near the bottom at getting the puck to the slot whether we were skating it or passing it so there were a lot of things that, the way goals are being scored now, that we weren’t having success in.”

Stevens: ” … Analytics tells you we don’t get enough scoring opportunities from the middle of the ice and that’s clearly an area where, whether it’s quickly off a transition forecheck and you’re going to try to get to those areas, you’re going to have people there more, and spend more time around the net. But it’s clearly an area we’re going to focus on.”

***

OK, so there’s a blueprint. But roster construction matters as much as system – let’s not forget that the Kings remained a possession mammoth until the end and that Darryl Sutter remains a respected coach – and that’s where the real questions come in.

Simply put, there are some reasons to wonder if things might actually get worse.

The Kings will find out if Anze Kopitar merely experienced a down year or if this is the new reality as he turns 30 in August. Jeff Carter could hit the wall some expected him to already hit. Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are two rare Kings scorers who are in their primes … but they’re not going to be nearly as cheap after getting new deals this summer.

Ultimately, Stevens can only do so much. Blake will need to be creative to help this team … be more creative.

But hey, at least they have a plan that seems a bit more concrete than only spewing out buzzwords like “being tough to play against.”

Blues think they’re ‘as sound as ever’ on defense without Shattenkirk

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Knowing Kevin Shattenkirk wasn’t in their long-term plans, the St. Louis Blues traded the talented defenseman and braced for the immediate blow to their playoff hopes.

That never happened. The Blues actually got better without him.

When the Blues dealt the pending free agent at the trade deadline, they seemed to be creating a giant void on their blue line and gift-wrapping the NHL-best Washington Capitals with their deepest defense in a decade. Yet St. Louis has thrived thanks to the elevated play of captain Alex Pietrangelo and second-year defenseman Colton Parayko while Shattenkirk plays a limited, specialized role for Washington.

With Pietrangelo taking over top power-play duties, Parayko pitching in and 6-foot-4, 221-pound Robert Bortuzzo providing some bulk on the back end, the new-look Blues cruised into the second round with a 4-1 series win over Minnesota and haven’t missed a beat without Shattenkirk.

“We’re bigger, all six guys are big men, and now we have two players that play with a little more nasty than we had when we had five guys that played one way and sort of Joel Edmundson doing the majority of the physical work,” general manager Doug Armstrong said. “Now we have two players that are bringing some of that physical play.”

Armstrong won’t mince words: He didn’t trade Shattenkirk to shake things up. He dealt the 28-year-old for picks and young forward Zach Sanford because there was no chance of re-signing him this summer.

On the flip side, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan only got involved in the bidding when it became clear Shattenkirk was a rental and not long-term commitment.

After being a top-four defenseman in St. Louis, Shattenkirk is a third-pairing player and power-play specialist for Washington. He was among the team leaders in overall minutes in Games 1 and 2 before having his ice time slashed to a career playoff low 12:54 in Game 4 and ranking fifth or six on the Capitals’ blue line the remainder of their first round series against Toronto.

Shattenkirk said he’s fine with that and doesn’t need an explanation from coach Barry Trotz, who called ice time “irrelevant” to players this time of year. He’s still on the top power-play unit, is counted on to feed Alex Ovechkin the puck from the point in crucial situations and leads Capitals defensemen with three points.

But he’s not in St. Louis anymore.

“I do think that we roll our D pairings a little bit more here, and everyone gets to play a regular shift for the most part,” Shattenkirk said. “St. Louis, we were a little more reliant on our top two guys of playing the big-time minutes, and then power plays and penalty kills kind of determined where the rest of us played more or played less.”

Saying so long to Shattenkirk shifted the big-time minutes on the right side to Pietrangelo and Parayko. Ranked 26th among NHL defensemen in points and 11th in ice time before the Shattenkirk trade, Pietrangelo was second with 18 points and fourth at 26:35 a game after it.

Thrown into tougher situations than his first playoffs last season, Parayko has grown up fast without Shattenkirk around.

“It’s good for me,” the 23-year-old said as the Blues prepared to face the Nashville Predators. “I think that’s the best way to do it, get in there and learn from experience.”

Even the experienced Blues defensemen like Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson have thrived since the trade. Part of it is the structure of Mike Yeo, who replaced Ken Hitchcock as coach in early February, but the defensive improvements have made up for the loss of Shattenkirk’s offensive talent that will earn him a big contract somewhere July 1.

“Defensively I think we’re sound as ever,” Gunnarsson said. “Without Shatty I think we were lacking, especially the first couple games (of the playoffs), some offense. He was huge on the power play for us and that poise with the puck. Some guys stepped up.”

Yeo said his team being in must-win mode from the deadline on helped spur a late-season run that allowed them to also eliminate the Wild in five games. And if the Blues need an offensive spark from a right-handed-shooting first-round pick, they can plug 23-year-old Jordan Schmaltz into their lineup.

In Washington, Shattenkirk is glad to be on a Stanley Cup contender readying for a second-round matchup against the defending-champion Pittsburgh Penguins. He doesn’t mind St. Louis enjoying success without him.

“When I was there this year, we knew we had that capability. For whatever reason we just couldn’t get to our full potential,” Shattenkirk said. “They were a group that believed that they could play this way all year, and they’re doing it at the right time.”

AP freelance writer Nate Latsch in St. Louis contributed.

More AP NHL: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

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