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Can Team Russia’s defense keep up with their skilled forwards?

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We didn’t need yesterday’s line combinations to tell us how stacked Team Russia is up front.

The team’s top two lines have Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Kuznetsov, Nikita Kucherov, Evgeni Malkin and Valdimir Tarasenko. That doesn’t include Artemi Panarin and Pavel Datsyuk.

With Russia, skilled forwards are never the issue. Their defense is another story.

A pair of Montreal Canadiens lead the way in Andrei Markov (pictured) and Alexei Emelin. Both players bring different elements to the game, but neither one is overly quick.

Dmitry Kulikov, Alexey Marchenko, Dmitry Orlov, Nikita Nesterov and Nikita Zaitsev round out Russia’s blue line.

For this team to be successful (unlike in Sochi), they’ll need this group of defensemen to push the pace from the back.

“We need to make quick decisions with the puck and give it to our forwards because that’s the most important,” explained Orlov, per NHL.com. “We have good forward lines and I think we need to play more in the offensive zone and give our forwards a chance to make some plays and score goals. Tarasenko, Ovechkin and Malkin, all these guys are stars in the NHL, so the quicker you give them the puck, they can make a play and get confidence to play every moment, every shift.”

On paper, it’s simple enough. But it seems to be the blue line that holds them back in most major tournaments.

So, how can new head coach Oleg Znarok make this work?

“Our star forwards have to work in defense,” Znarok said. “Then everything will be OK.”

Like every other team in the tournament, he’ll have to figure out how to get a group of star players to buy what he’s selling.

Every team in this tournament has a number of star players in their lineup, but the one that usually wins it all is the team that comes together quickest.

With the disappointment in Sochi still fresh in everyone’s mind, Russia has an opportunity to prove that they’re still a powerhouse in international hockey. No one doubts the talent, but the ability to come together as a team has been questioned plenty of times.

Would a World Cup win make everyone forget the disappointment in Sochi? No, but it would help put Russia back on the international hockey map.

It’s Ottawa Senators Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Ottawa Senators.

2018-19
29-47-6, 64 points (eighth in the Atlantic Division, 16th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Nikita Zaitsev
Connor Brown
Michael Carcone
Ron Hainsey
Tyler Ennis
Artem Anisimov
Ryan Callahan (LTIR)

OUT
Brian Gibboons
Oscar Lindberg
Zack Smith
Cody Ceci
Ben Harpur
Aaron Luchuk

RE-SIGNED:
Josh Norris
Anders Nilsson
Anthony Duclair

2018-19 Summary

Last year was an eventful year for the Senators organization. Not only did the Senators finish last in their devision, conference and league, they also traded away their best forward, Mark Stone, and their franchise defenseman, Erik Karlsson. That’s rough.

Despite the fact that they traded Karlsson in September, the team got off to a decent start. They weren’t lighting the league on fire, but they had a respectable firsts two months of the season. Things turned after they dropped a pair of games to the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 4 and 6. In the 10 games following those two losses, the Sens came away with just two victories.

Things ended up getting so bad for Ottawa that they finished in the basement of the NHL. The second-to-last team in the league was the Los Angeles Kings and they finished seven points ahead of the Senators. That’s a significant gap. The big issue, was that the Sens didn’t have their own first-round draft pick because they traded it the Colorado Avalanche for Matt Duchene.

Everyone in the NHL knows that the biggest issue right now is the owner. Eugene Melnyk doesn’t appear to be interested in spending the money to keep his star players in the fold and the fact that he’s turning off the fan base in the process isn’t helping either. Whether or not he’s capable of surrounding his team with the tools to succeed remains to be seen.

The Sens have a lot of good young prospects, but they’re in the middle of a rebuild that should take quite some time. Former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach D.J. Smith was hired to be the head coach this off-season and it’ll be up to him to get this group of youngsters ready to perform on the ice.

“Now it’s about trying to push kids to realize their potential,” Smith said, per NHL.com. “There is nothing more satisfying than to watch a guy push himself past the limit and become better than even he thought he could be. It’s in most kids; you just have to find a way to get it out of them. It’s something I really enjoy.

“We’re in a division (Atlantic) with some of the best offenses in the League — the Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s going to take time, but we’ll learn to get better together. We’re only going to get better by learning to play against teams like that.”

Cutting the goals against will be one of Smith’s biggest challenges. The Sens were the only team in the league that allowed more than 300 goals (302) last season.

Building this team from the ground up isn’t going to be easy and it’s going to take time, but Smith has to get them to take a positive step or two this season.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Marner may practice in Europe; Coyle has success in Boston

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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.

Mitch Marner has reportedly been looking into practicing with the Zurich Lions of the Swiss League. (Swiss Hockey News)

Jesse Puljujarvi is looking for a team where he’ll play on the top two lines. (Oilers Nation)

• Miracle on Ice forward Mark Pavelich has been ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation after he assaulted one of his neighbours. (Duluth News Tribune)

• The NHL 20 video game has added coaches to their Franchise Mode. (PastaPadre)

• Carla MacLeod believes the women’s game is growing every day. (660 City News)

Charlie Coyle‘s short stint in Boston was a big success. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• Once he got healthy, Shea Weber was a huge asset to the Montreal Canadiens. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

Roope Hintz is one of the X-factors for the Dallas Stars. (Defending Big D)

• What can we expect from the 2019-20 Ottawa Senators? (TSN)

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.

Russ Conway, writer who brought down hockey union boss, dies

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LAWRENCE, Mass. — Russ Conway, a hockey writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992 for his stories about corruption in the NHL Players Association that helped bring down union head Alan Eagleson, has died. He was 70.

His death was reported by the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he had started at the age of 18 and later served as sports editor.

A longtime Boston Bruins beat writer, Conway published a series of articles that exposed Eagleson’s lucrative conflicts of interest as the union boss, player agent and organizer of international tournaments. Conway’s reporting spawned investigations in both the United States and Canada that resulted in Eagleson serving six months in prison and forfeiting his Order of Canada.

The Hockey Hall of Fame kicked Eagleson out and gave Conway its Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award in 1999 for bringing honor to journalism and hockey.

Can Henrik Lundqvist bounce back for Rangers?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

Let’s tackle three questions for the Rangers in 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in (and how many new guys will fit in)?

Don’t blame head coach David Quinn if he uses phrases like “learning process” a lot next season, as there are a ton of new faces in New York, including players who figure to be top scorers and minute-eaters.

It’s not just about getting the most from Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. Really, it’s not even about integrating likely rookie impact-makers like Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox.

The Rangers must also decide if prospects like Vitali Kravtsov will make the team out of training camp, and if they’ll stay long enough to eat up a year of their rookie contracts. Quinn must decide if players like Lias Andersson are ready to take another step forward.

From a forwards and defense level, this is a very different-looking team, something that was cemented by the Kevin Shattenkirk buyout. As far as chemistry experiments go, the Rangers are basically mad science.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. Is Henrik Lundqvist washed up?

If you had to choose one Ranger to forget all about last season, it would be Lundqvist.

The Rangers’ defense was abysmal in 2018-19, and Lundqvist buckled under the pressure of trying to carry that sorry bunch, suffering through a season where he had a very un-Hank-like .907 save percentage.

When you look a little deeper at the numbers, you’ll see that his 2018-19 season wasn’t that far from normal, or maybe a “new normal.” Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his even-strength save percentage has been nearly identical for the last three seasons, as it was .919 in both 2018-19 and 2017-18 and .918 in 2016-17.

Before that, prime Lundqvist was regularly beyond .930 at even-strength, and so frequently above .920 overall that you almost set your watch to his elite play.

Considering that he’s 37, maybe the window for his elite play has finally closed, but maybe Lundqvist can squeeze out one or two more great years? Let’s not forget that Lundqvist wasn’t exactly protected in Alain Vigneault’s latter years with the Rangers, as those teams were often horrendous from a possession standpoint.

If Quinn can create more of cocoon for Lundqvist (and Alexandar Georgiev), might the Rangers improve at keeping pucks out of their own net? Even with Panarin leading a big boost in offensive punch, you’d think they’d need a lot more than they got from their goalies last season, Swiss cheese defense and all.

3. Will the playoff picture be an open road or treacherous path?

The Rangers aren’t the only team in their division that should be tough to gauge once prediction time rolls around, making it difficult to tell if the Metro will compare to what was a mighty Atlantic Division last season.

The Devils are just about as wildly different as the Rangers, and the Flyers made bold moves in their own right.

It’s easiest to imagine the Rangers falling in the wild-card range, so a lot may hinge on how other teams perform, both in the Metro and Atlantic Divisions. If the Panthers and Sabres take big strides — as they’re paying to do — then the Atlantic teams could gobble up as many as five playoff spots, forcing the Rangers to break into the top three of the Metro. That might be asking too much, so the Rangers have to hope for a little bit of a buffer when it comes to the playoff bubble.

(You know, unless they end up being far better or far worse than expected.)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.