Jori Lehtera or Roman Cervenka?
That's the question to ask about Viktor Tikhonov's and Artemi Panarin's respective futures. According to a report from TASS, converted to English via Google Translate, the SKA Saint Petersburg teammates want to play in the NHL next season. Their KHL contracts expire after the league playoffs this spring. April 30, to be exact.
So the question is: who are these guys, and will their NHL futures go the so-far-successful route of Lehtera or the short-and-not-so-sweet way of Cervenka?
It won't be the first rodeo for Tikhonov, 26, who shares a name with his grandfather, the legendary Soviet national team coach. The then-Phoenix Coyotes chose the young Viktor 28th overall in 2008, one pick after Washington nabbed John Carlson. Tikhonov's 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame translated well to the NHL, and he did a nice job as a penalty-killing checker during his rookie season under some coach named Wayne Gretzky. The offense didn't flow, though, as Tikhonov tallied eight goals and 16 points, albeit at just 20 years old.
Tikhonov remains a two-way forward with strong hockey sense by trade, but his offense has developed a bit back home with SKA. He set career highs with 18 goals and 34 points last season. The year prior, he went on a playoff mission with 10 goals and 18 points in 15 games. He played two games for Russia at the Sochi Olympics and went nuts at the 2014 World Championship with eight goals and 16 points in 10 contests.
Tikhonov is also versatile. He can play wing and center, and he once centered Vladimir Tarasenko and Ilya Kovalchuk for SKA. That said, his 2014-15 season has been fairly pedestrian. The Coyotes have Tikhonov's rights at the moment, but his NHL deal expires this summer. He'll be an unrestricted free agent this July.
The bigger wild card is Panarin, 23, who trails Alexander Radulov by three points for the KHL scoring lead, though Radulov has played 12 fewer games. Panarin's ability tantalizes, as he can rack up points, he's fast and he has natural scoring ability. The most rabid Panarin fans compare his shifty skill set to Patrick Kane's. Panarin's 5-foot-11, 170-pound frame faces an uphill climb, however, as he's not used to the more physical North American game on an NHL-sized ice surface. Panarin also lacks international experience at the highest level. He's never represented Russia at the worlds or the Olympics, though he did make the 2011 world junior squad. He offers greater boom-bust potential than Tikhonov. Higher ceiling, lower floor. The report claims at least 10 NHL teams have expressed interest in Panarin already.
It will be interesting to see if Tikhonov and Panarin try to sign with the same team, as the two have played well as linemates with SKA before. TASS' source puts Tikhonov's odds of bolting for the NHL at 95 percent, while Panarin will decide his fate at season's end. Ex-KHL president Alexander Medvedev, now the chairman of SKA's board of directors, stated he still hopes to re-sign both players.
The question now is: how much does their imminent departure have to do with wanting to test themselves in the NHL, and how much has to do with the declining Russian ruble?
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin