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.

Red Wings GM Holland isn’t ‘looking over his shoulder’ regarding Yzerman

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One way or another, Steve Yzerman’s future as an NHL GM is on delay for a season, as he’s technically still working for the Tampa Bay Lightning. If another team publicly acknowledged pursuing the Hall of Fame player and top-notch executive, they’d likely be guilty of tampering.

So, take Stevie Y-related comments with a grain of salt, whether they’re coming from people involved with the Seattle expansion franchise, Detroit Red Wings, or anyone else who might be linked to Yzerman.

It’s still worth noting those comments, though, so soak in what Red Wings GM Ken Holland said when The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell asked him about possibly “looking over his shoulder” at Yzerman.

“I’ve been a manager in the league for 23 years,” Holland said. “I’ve won three Stanley Cups, five Presidents’ Trophies.* I don’t look over my shoulder.”

Should Holland look over his shoulder, or – considering the temporary limbo involved – in his rear-view mirror at Yzerman?

Logically speaking, you’d think maybe he should. Yzerman didn’t leave his post with Tampa Bay merely to placate another promising executive in Julien BriseBois, who replaced Yzerman right before the season began.

We’ve seen some succession plans in other NHL franchises that would make a lot of sense for the Red Wings, at least hypothetically speaking.

Glen Sather, another long-time executive with many skins on his wall (and cigars in his vault), made way for a younger GM in Jeff Gorton as the Rangers entered a new phase. It would make a lot of sense for Holland to essentially “move up the food chain” with a new title in Detroit, while Yzerman takes the reins as the actual GM.

(There are also less-friendly transitions to note, like with the Capitals, Coyotes, and other franchises that transitioned to a younger GM.)

Of course, the Red Wings march to the beat of their own drum, likely arguing that their way has often been a successful way. The consensus around the hockey world is that, while Holland has nodded to a rebuild at times, Detroit’s also been pretty stubborn to fully commit. That same stubbornness could conceivably keep Holland in power, even if it might be wiser to move on, particularly with a GM who’s proven to be as shrewd as Yzerman was with Tampa Bay.

During the darker moments in Detroit, there’ve been times when it felt like Yzerman was the one that got away.

There’s also the possibility that Yzerman would like to see if he can meet or exceed what Vegas GM George McPhee accomplished with an expansion franchise by building the Seattle team.

As appealing as it would be for Yzerman to swoop back into Detroit and save the day, just about any GM – not to mention plenty of sports fans who’ve daydreamed while playing “franchise” or “GM” modes – would delight in building a team from scratch. There’s something to be said, after all, for not having to deal with lingering mistakes from the previous GM; the Red Wings certainly have some shaky contracts remaining on their salary structure.

Maybe Ken Holland doesn’t feel threatened. Perhaps he’s just deflecting since the Red Wings can’t really show their hand now, anyway.

If the Red Wings are smart, they absolutely pursue Yzerman once they’re allowed to, even if it means ruffling Holland’s feathers.

* – Sportsnet indicates that Holland actually won four Presidents’ Trophies. Either way, the man is seasoned executive.

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.

Penguins – Maple Leafs is about as fun as it gets

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It’s too early to make sweeping observations about the quality of a team in 2018-19 (sorry Canadiens; you’re welcome, Coyotes), but it’s never too early to get excited about a game. You know, if your soul is still attached to your person, and you’re not too cool to get excited about things in general.

Now, sure, circumstances could change matters. Players could be tired or just have an off night. Maybe a coach will bench an exhilarating talent because they hit the snooze button one too many times.

But, at least on paper, it’s really difficult to imagine a more exciting matchup than Penguins – Maple Leafs, a matchup taking place in Toronto tonight.

(Yeah, it doesn’t hurt that the hockey-mad city gets to channel its sometimes over-the-top excitement into this one, either.)

Just consider all of the factors, narratives, and certain statistics that make this game stand out like a sign for “Kenny Rogers’ Roasters.”

[Maybe this is the perfect opportunity for Crosby to shake off a relatively slow start?]

The Ridiculous Wattage of Star Power

No matter how Mike Babcock and Mike Sullivan deploy their lines, you’ll see high-end talent during almost every shift on Thursday.

Most obviously, we’ll get to see a clash between two premium one-two punches at center, as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin trade scoring chances with Auston Matthews and John Tavares. That’s the sort of matchup that marketers and hockey fans alike would normally only dream about.

You could manufacture an exciting game if you sent out a bunch of fire hydrants with those guys, but the Penguins and Maple Leafs deploy other dangerous scorers, even with William Nylander‘s contract situation stuck in limbo.

Phil Kessel could easily have the best night of anyone in trying to spite his former team. Jake Guentzel tends to play his best when the spotlight shines brightest. Mitch Marner is a sensational talent who can take over a game in his own right.

Even the defensemen can bring some offense to the table, as Kris Letang and Morgan Rielly have begun 2018-19 on torrid scoring paces, while Jake Gardiner and others can contribute, too.

All the silliness that stems from all that star power

The goofy debates that stem from Auston Matthews vs. Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby vs. McDavid, and on and on, ultimately translates to entertainment. That goes for if you take barroom debates seriously, or are simply bemused by people believing that Matthews has reached McDavid after a couple scorching-hot weeks.

It’s not just columnists pumping out hot takes.

As you may remember, Lars Eller dismissed Matthews – Tavares because of the “been there, done that” feeling of facing Crosby – Malkin for all those years. You then have Babcock saying that McDavid vs. Crosby “isn’t even close,” while Mark Scheifele seems to feel the same way about McDavid vs. Matthews.

(You think we could get Edmonton to loan Connor to this game to really hammer home all of these points? Might be good for the fella’s morale.)

Oh yeah, there’s also Brian Burke comparing Rielly to … Nicklas Lidstrom?

Some of this stuff is dopey. Some of it is instructive. Maybe there’s a combination of both at times. But it all adds to the fun, if you ask me.

All offense, no defense?

By winning two consecutive Stanley Cups while playing an attack-first, play-defense later style, the Penguins played a big role in the NHL placing an increased emphasis on skill, scoring, and more exciting hockey.

So far this season, the Maple Leafs feel like the gnarly evolution of that style.

By just about any measure, Toronto’s been playing high-event hockey this season. They’ve been scoring so much that it’s generally allowed them to shrug their shoulders at what’s frequently been a leaky defense.

The Penguins haven’t been as crisp so far this season, failing to walk the high-risk tightrope because their defense has really cratered.

That’s bad news for Pittsburgh’s hopes of, say, winning its division … but it sure opens the door for tonight to be fun.

Big goalies back in net

Barring late-breaking setbacks, the teams’ two starters (Matt Murray and Frederik Andersen) should suit up for their respective teams on Thursday.

If they play well, this showdown could feature at least some slowdown. Perhaps we’ll see a spectacular save or two from both goalies to keep the score reasonable? If they’re rusty, then the floodgates may open even wider.

Either way, the returns of Murray and Andersen add another wrinkle to a game that’s jam-packed with intrigue.

***

Again, it’s possible that this game might not deliver the thrills you’d expect. Sometimes hockey is just that way in 2018, even with some progress made – thanks in part to these two talented teams.

Still, if you had to wager on a game being a ton of fun, Penguins – Maple Leafs is as safe a bet as you can get. You know, unless you’re the coach breaking down defensive lapses or the goalie trying to put out all of those fires.

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.

Looking at Johnny Gaudreau’s career, 100 goals in

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Johnny Gaudreau and the Calgary Flames likely experienced mixed feelings following their 5-2 win against the Boston Bruins last night.

Looking at the good side, the Flames won in part because a line other than Gaudreau’s top trio stepped up, as Michael Frolik trumpeted the reunion of the often-puck-dominant “3M Line.” Wednesday also represented a milestone moment for Gaudreau, who scored the 100th goal of his NHL career in his 318th game, putting him at that mark at age 25.

That milestone tally happened during a stretch where the Flames really overwhelmed the Bruins:

The bad news came right after Gaudreau narrowly fell short of NHL goal 101, as Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy injured the spritely forward with this questionable, late hit:

As much of a bummer as the injury is – especially if further updates indicate that “Johnny Hockey” would miss some time – it might be fitting that such an event happened. After all, defenders realize that they’re not often going to catch or out-think Gaudreau, so they often try to outright bully him. Let’s not forget that the many slashes he took during certain stretches helped inspire the NHL to cut down on the infractions heading into last season.

Generally speaking, such a vicious approach hasn’t stopped Gaudreau from lighting up scoreboards.

To review, the 25-year-old now has 100 goals and 197 assists for 297 points over 318 NHL games, so Gaudreau could hit two other noteworthy milestones in the near future — health permitting.

It’s fitting that Gaudreau scored a goal in his lone 2013-14 appearance, as he’s been a delight to watch basically since he entered the NHL. Perhaps it might be helpful to consider his place among the elite scorers after hitting the 100-goal plateau?

  • Since Gaudreau entered the NHL, he ranks 12th among all players with those 297 points. Gaudreau stands in front of Vladimir Tarasenko (293), Jakub Voracek (291), and Phil Kessel (290) despite appearing in fewer games.
  • That 100th goal stands out as a rare instance where Gaudreau was the player scoring the easy tap-in. Typically, he really sets the table for his linemates with brilliant playmaking, which is part of the reason why many pundits have been so reluctant to praise Sean Monahan.

Gaudreau’s 197 assists places him in a tie with Brent Burns for ninth-best in the NHL, and the burly Sharks defenseman played in 16 additional games (not to mention logging Norris-level minutes).

  • One remarkable thing about those impressive numbers is that Gaudreau hit the ground running right away as a rookie, while other players were, in many cases, far more experienced.

Gaudreau’s really impressed lately, generating 93 points in his last 86 games between this early season and 2017-18. Despite Sidney Crosby playing in two additional games last season (82 to Gaudreau’s 80), he tied the Penguins playmaker for seventh in the NHL with 60 assists.

While Gaudreau is – understandably – leveraged for heavy offensive usage, it doesn’t hurt that the puck tends to go in the right direction when he’s on the ice, either.

The Flames would be missing one heck of a scorer if Gaudreau needs to heal up before shooting for goal 101 (not to mention assist 200, and point 300 …). Beyond that, hockey fans will miss out on one of the NHL’s most splendid playmakers, so here’s hoping that this is just a minor hiccup.

Update: It looks like things are going well in that regard.

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.

Blackhawks finally get Crawford back

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The Chicago Blackhawks are off to a strong 3-0-2 start this season, but that doesn’t mean that Corey Crawford‘s absence hasn’t been glaring.

In those five games, the Blackhawks have scored 22 goals and allowed 21. They can attribute taking at least one standings point in all five games to some clutch performances from Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Alex DeBrincat.

Cam Ward? He’s been … well, like most critics expected. In starting all of Chicago’s games, Ward’s numbers are hideous: a 4.06(!) GAA and .879 save percentage is lousy stuff, even if the Blackhawks’ defense leaves a lot to be desired.

So … yeah, getting Crawford back is a huge deal.

The would-be workhorse goalie hasn’t played since Dec. 23, so you can’t really blame the Blackhawks for this adorably excited tweet:

Of course, as Bob McKenzie detailed last night (see the video above this post’s headline), the return of Crawford doesn’t exactly guarantee that he’ll return to the putting-the-team-on-his-back form that he developed in recent seasons for Chicago.

There were very reasonable concerns about Crawford even playing this season, as he’s battling brutal concussion symptoms.

Even with Crawford coming back, there’s no guarantee that he won’t suffer another setback, possibly as soon as Thursday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes. As former Blackhawk Dave Bolland told the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus (sub required), the fear can linger, and previous concussions increase the chances of history repeating itself.

“It’s easy to come back from a groin or a broken arm or something like that,” Bolland said. “Coming back from a concussion is a little tougher. You don’t know if you’re really ready. If you take another hit, you’re probably prone to taking another one. It’s hard not to think about that. Knowing when you’re ready to come back from a concussion, it takes a bit of time. You have to know that your brain is healthy and that it’s good. When I came back, it was always pretty tough convincing myself I was ready. I never wanted to come back and not be ready and end up hurting myself.”

On one hand, Crawford isn’t going to be engaged in the frequent puck battles that a skater would deal with. On the other, goalies must be mentally alert the entire time they’re on the ice, tracking the puck even when it’s not in the attacking zone. (Otherwise, you risk allowing a humiliating, long-distance goal, or simply not being ready if an opponent springs a quick breakaway.)

TSN’s Frank Seravalli reports that the NHL is increasingly concerned with goalie concussions, noting that 13 goalies were diagnosed with 15 concussions in 2017-18 alone. It’s such a serious consideration that the league is looking into ways to improve protection as soon as possible.

Servalli’s story focuses on shots off of goalie masks, yet this Marc-Andre Fleury quote from the article really cements the notion that Crawford might not be up to full speed, possibly for quite some time.

“I do think about it,” Fleury said of the dangers of being a goalie, and concussion risks in general. “This last one lasted a little longer than the previous ones, so I’m still thinking about it. Every day you wake up, you don’t feel great, you’re dizzy. It’s disturbing.”

Overall, there are a lot of obstacles in Crawford’s way.

Goalies can see their play slip for a ton of reasons. Sometimes they merely suffer an off year. Perhaps a change in system or new faces on defense can lead to confusion and miscommunication. Aging can mean a slight slip in reflexes, which can sometimes mean the difference between making that quick-twitch save or glove stop or allowing a goal (Crawford’s 33, so he’s vulnerable to Father Time’s attacks).

But beyond those universal factors, there’s also the threat of concussion symptoms resurfacing, or another one being suffered.

No doubt, Crawford’s return is huge for a Blackhawks team hoping to claw its way back into the playoffs. And, in all honesty, Crawford at 80 percent might be better than Cam Ward in the twilight of his up-and-down career.

The Blackhawks would be foolish to assume that this will be a seamless transition for Crawford, though.

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.