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.

The Buzzer: Big nights for McDavid, Vasilevskiy

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Three Stars

1. Andrei Vasilevskiy

On paper, Thursday seemed like a rough draw for Vasilevskiy.

A foot injury sidelined him since Nov. 10, so you’d expect some rust. This was also a much-hyped game against a high-powered opponent in the Maple Leafs, and Toronto didn’t ease Vasi in, firing 49 shots on goal.

Only one of those attempts beat Vasilevskiy, however, as he returned to action to make 48 saves, a new career-high. The Lightning have now won eight in a row, and while seven came without Vasilevskiy, he absolutely earned this one.

Click here for more on that game, and Vasi’s big night.

2. Nino Niederreiter

Niederreiter ranked among three players who scored three points on Thursday, with Wild teammate Ryan Suter (three assists) also included.

The winger enjoyed the best all-around statistical night of the three, scoring two goals and one assist, generating a +4 rating, getting the game-winner, and firing four SOG.

Minnesota just seems to find ways to win under Bruce Boudreau, and maybe a hot streak from Niederreiter will power the latest surge. This strong night extended his goal streak to three games (four goals), giving him five points during that span. As is often the case with the underrated forward, Niederreiter stood out from a possession standpoint, too.

3. Mark Scheifele

Rounding out that trio of three-point nights, Scheifele scored one goal and two assists as the Jets narrowly edged the Oilers in overtime.

Scheifele logged quite a bit of ice time (23:55), enjoying a +2 rating and generating two SOG. He’s even hotter than Niederreiter lately, as Scheifele is now on a three-game multi-point streak, giving him two goals and six assists for a batty eight points in the past three contests.

While Niederreiter’s been up-and-down this season, Scheifele remains an elite point producer. He now has 40 points in just 31 games. tying Scheifele with his wingman Blake Wheeler for eighth in NHL scoring.

Highlights of the Night

This Vasilevskiy save is great enough to be worth another look (it originally appeared in this post):

This face is highlight-reel-material.

Speaking of other posts, Andrei Svechnikov‘s nice goal is probably worth your time. He might not have the best power-move-type goal in that game, judging by this Artturi Lehkonen tally:

Put your paws together for Barclay:

Ouch

Basically, James Reimer suffered through the opposite of that amazing Vasilevskiy stop.

Factoids

Connor McDavid hit 300+ career points before reaching age 22. Click here for a lot more perspective on his first 240 regular-season games.

Speaking of history, more astounding Patrik Laine fun:

Patrick Marleau‘s a machine.

Scores

BUF 3 – ARI 1
CBJ 4 – LAK 1
MTL 6 – CAR 4
TBL 4 – TOR 1
NSH 4 – VAN 3 (OT)
MIN 5 – FLA 1
WIN 5 – EDM 4 (OT)
SJS 3 – DAL 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Where Connor McDavid ranks after racing past 300 points

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The Edmonton Oilers saw their four-game winning streak end 5-4 in overtime against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday, but they should feel some satisfaction in hanging with such a great team, and getting a standings point for their troubles.

Sometimes thoughts like those can soothe the irritation of a close loss. If that doesn’t work, the Oilers should find perspective in remembering how special superstar Connor McDavid truly is. Reaching a big milestone can do that.

With two assists in that 5-4 OT loss, McDavid crossed the 300-point barrier, finishing the night at 301 points in just 240 career regular-season games. As you might guess, the 21-year-old ranks among the best in league history in that regard:

If you’re like me, you muttered “imagine what McDavid could have done if his rookie season didn’t end with that unlucky shoulder injury?”

Interesting to see how closely McDavid’s work is paralleling that of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin, eh?

Let’s consider a few other enticing and impressive things about what McDavid has accomplished, and what might still come.

  • McDavid could probably argue that he’s been the best scorer since the moment he entered the league.

Using Hockey Reference’s fancy season tools, you can see that Patrick Kane (308 points) is the only player with more points since McDavid entered the NHL in 2015-16. That shoulder injury muttering comes into place here, though, as Kane hit 308 in 278 games, versus 240 for McDavid.

McDavid’s 1.254 points-per-game average easily ranks as the best in the NHL during that span.

  • If healthy, McDavid should compile three consecutive 100-point seasons. He scored 100 in 2016-17, while setting a career-high with 108 last year. With 45 points in 31 games this season, with one contest missed, McDavid could play 50 more games this season. He’d easily hit 100 at this pace, as he’d hit about 117-118 at this rate.
  • McDavid remains a premiere playmaker (Alex Chiasson‘s accountant is nodding so hard right now), as you can see most clearly with 28 assists in 31 games. But he’s becoming a more dangerous goal-scorer, too.

Sometimes that comes down to being more assertive as you spend more time in the NHL, and become more confident in your abilities. Sidney Crosby seemed to enjoy a similar growth in making defenses and goalies respect both his shot and his passing more or less equally.

With 111 SOG in 31 GP so far in 2017-18, McDavid’s averaging 3.58 SOG per contest. That’s a significant jump from last season’s 3.34 SOG per game, and he’s fired the puck more frequently in every season of his NHL career. It wouldn’t be one bit surprising to see him enjoy closer to a 1:1 ratio in goals to assists after collecting 104 goals and 197 assists for his first 301 points.

That’s not the most pleasant thought in the world for opposing goalies and defensemen.

  • It probably wouldn’t hurt if the Oilers get it together.

The Ken Hitchcock Era is off to a booming start, but that should inspire Edmonton to continue to make shrewd decisions, rather than rest on its laurels. At minimum, it can’t hurt McDavid’s spirits – and numbers – if he’s playing competitive hockey deep into the season, and ideally into the playoffs. Still, things could be even merrier if there was more help around number 97.

Imagine what McDavid can do with higher-quality teammates beyond Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?

Other NHL Teams: “We’d rather not.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Did Svechnikov make big gains in Hurricanes’ loss?

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The Carolina Hurricanes are justified in their search for a top-six forward/sniper, but whenever a team goes shopping for a trade, they should also ask if they’re taking advantage of the ingredients at hand.

That’s a long way of saying that the Hurricanes possess at least one player who could score more goals for them: Andrei Svechnikov.

Looking at certain underlying numbers (as PHT did earlier in December), it seems fair to wonder if Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour should take the training wheels off of Svechnikov, and just let him fly. Yes, there are risks when it comes to really unleashing rookies – particularly in Svechnikov, who’s made an immediate jump after being the second pick of the 2018 NHL Draft – but the rewards can often be worth it.

After all, this is a young man’s game. Besides, Svechnikov frequently looks fully-grown on the ice, even this early in his NHL career.

Sometimes advanced stats don’t slap you in the face like highlight-reel work, though. Svechnikov scored two goals in Carolina’s 6-4 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, and his first one was absolutely gorgeous:

Might that demand Brind’Amour’s attention? There’s some reason to hope for even more.

“We did have a coming out party, for me, out of Svechnikov,” Brind’Amour said, via Sara Civian of The Athletic.

It’s not like Svechnikov is getting totally buried in the Hurricanes’ lineup, yet here’s a pushy request: just keep ramping up his minutes and opportunities, seeing how much he can handle. Carolina needs goals, and maybe they’d get more with more Svechnikov, risks and all. Brind’Amour could even do so selectively, by handing him more reps on the power play, preferably on a top unit that hasn’t exactly been lightning the world on fire, based on full-season stats.

As of Thursday night, the Canadiens are where the Hurricanes want to be (comfortably in a playoff spot), while Carolina’s sitting in Montreal’s expected position (searching for answers, seven points out of the wild card). You can chalk that up to a lot of things – Carey Price has now won four games in a row – but it’s worth noting that the Canadiens are embracing speedy and/or skilled young players like Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi, while shrugging their shoulders and just letting Jesperi Kotkaniemi play. There are quite a few stories of immediate successes this season, with Elias Pettersson and top 2018 pick Rasmus Dahlin also coming to mind.

So why not see what Svechnikov can do? For all we know, rolling the dice might just help the Hurricanes break out of this frustrating funk.

Here’s Svechnikov’s other, nice goal from Thursday:

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Lightning ride Vasilevskiy’s spectacular return to beat Maple Leafs

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The Tampa Bay Lightning remained one of the best teams in the NHL even with Andrei Vasilevskiy missing 15 games, taking a seven-game winning streak into Thursday’s best-versus-best clash against Toronto. All due respect to Louis Domingue, but the Lightning wouldn’t have won their eighth game in a row without a vastly impressive Vasilevskiy.

Honestly, you could make a sane argument that no other goalie in the world could author such a masterpiece, but that’s a debate for your local, hockey-friendly bar.

Speaking of debates, NHL fans were treated to what could potentially be an epic, too-good-for-the-second-round series, with the Lightning beating the Maple Leafs 4-1.

Prediction: a lot of people will look at that 4-1 score and believe that the Lightning absolutely dominated the Maple Leafs. That wasn’t the case, at all, as Vasilevskiy showed the opposite of rustiness in stopping 48 shots.

Vasilevskiy set a new Lightning franchise record for saves in a home game, and tied the overall mark. To review: Vasilevskiy set a new career-high for saves against one of the most explosive offenses in the NHL, and he did it in his first game back since Nov. 10. Tremendous.

Many of those saves were jaw-droppers, rather than run-of-the-mill, with this making a late push for Save of the Year contention:

You can’t really put the Leafs’ lone goal on Vasilevskiy, either, as Kasperi Kapanen stole an ill-advised pass, getting a ton of time and room to score:

After an evenly-matched, exciting 1-1 first period, the Lightning pulled away by scoring three times during the middle frame. All of those tallies were painful for Toronto. Tampa Bay made it 2-1 when Nikita Kucherov scored a barely-goal that Frederik Andersen seemingly gloved, and then the game really got away from the Maple Leafs when the Lightning scored two more times in the final minute of the second period.

Overall, the Maple Leafs generated a gaudy 49-21 shots on goal advantage. While you could accuse the Bolts of sitting on their lead late (they were outshot 16-2 in the third, and endured at least a 13-minute SOG drought), Toronto generated an edge during each period. It didn’t matter, because Vasilevskiy was a human highlight reel in net.

It’s foolish to read too much into a single night during an 82-game season, but perhaps a night like this might give the Maple Leafs that extra push to add that missing piece or two? If nothing else, the Lightning only strengthened their stranglehold on the Atlantic Division crown, not to mention the top spot in the East, and the Presidents’ Trophy.

Sure, the score was lopsided, yet this game made a best-of-seven series that much more tantalizing to imagine, even if getting there would be easier said than done. You know, kind of like getting pucks past Vasi.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.