Tampa Bay Lightning
Artyukhin Stepping Up
TAMPA - Right wing Evgeny Artyukhin has been the subject of many conversations inside the offices of the Lightning coaching staff. On some nights, the 6-foot-5 Russian freight train is the most dominant force on the ice, using his speed to float around defensemen while using his brute force to separate defensemen from the puck on the forecheck. Other nights he looks like a shy teenager at his first dance leaning against the wall and waiting for an invitation to the floor instead of making the first move. That inconsistent play has tested the patience of interim coach Rick Tocchet, who has scratched Artyukhin four times in 19 games. No doubt Artyukhin's immediate future became a hot topic behind closed doors."I think the one thing for him, he wasn't pouting or he wasn't upset. It was almost like we didn't forget about him, we just didn't like his focus, so it's just like we don't have time to babysit guys," Tocchet said. "I think Arty realized, 'I better get my act together,' and we've started working with him more in practice and he's kind of taken the ball and ran with it. The last week, I've seen a different hockey player." The latest installment in Artyukhin's improved play happened during the team's two days of practice on Dec. 21 and 22 in Pittsburgh. Tocchet said he saw how tuned-in Artyukhin was during a punishment skate and the following day, so he told him to be ready to play. And play, Artyukhin has. In the three games since being reinserted into the lineup, Artyukhin has scored twice and also has engaged in two fights, registered 16 hits and has been a plus-three. In Saturday's victory against Florida, Artyukhin was on the ice for the opening faceoff and helped set the tone early, picking up a shot on goal, a hit and forced turnover on the opening shift. "I don't want to say sitting out was a lesson for me, but it was good because I can watch and practice harder, which is good mentally for me, it helped me a lot," said Artyukhin, who ranked 26th in the league with 82 hits entering Monday's games. Since being drafted in the third round of the 2001 draft, Artyukhin has been considered a raw talent with untapped potential. He is tantalizing to watch, armed with a seemingly unnatural blend of incredible skating ability and hulking size. According to Tocchet, however, the days of looking at Artyukhin as a work in progress are over. "To him, now, he has to take that project into an NHL player," Tocchet said. "And this past week he has, he's really elevated his game."
Erik Erlendsson can be reached at (813) 259-7835.