VANCOUVER – Fyodor Tyutin of the Columbus Blue Jackets is a rare specimen in today’s NHL: a proven, veteran Russian defenceman who logs more than 20 minutes of ice time a night.
When Montreal power play quarterback Andrei Markov finally returns from injury after a year’s absence, the grand total of Russian defencemen playing in the world’s top league this season will sit at nine. Three are rookies: Washington’s Dmitri Orlov, Los Angeles’s Vyacheslav Voinov, and Montreal’s Alexei Yemelin.
Understandably, Tyutin hasn’t recently pondered how or why his nation’s blueline representation has dropped from 10 years ago (2001-02), when 22 Russian NHL rearguards suited up. He’s been more focused on getting to know one particular fellow countryman.
Tyutin, 28, has been partnered with fellow Russian Nikita Nikitin, who was acquired on November 11 from St. Louis in exchange for a two-time World Junior gold medallist, Canadian defenceman Kris Russell. Nikitin, a strapping 25-year-old who previously played for the KHL’s Avangard Omsk, is performing respectably so far in his sophomore NHL campaign.
“He’s a good player,” Tyutin said. “I enjoy playing with him, especially since he’s Russian. It makes it easier on both of us in terms of the communication on the ice.”
Tyutin, a 188-cm, 98-kg veteran from Izhevsk, brings a solid all-around game, from his hard point shot to his vaunted hip check, but that hasn’t been enough to keep Ohio’s largest city out of the Western Conference basement.
“I think we’ve started playing better in the last few games,” Tyutin said. “But we’ve got to be consistent. We can’t let up. We can’t afford to lose points. It doesn’t feel good when you don’t come out with the win.”
The state of Ohio named the tomato its official fruit in 2009, and frankly, the Blue Jackets are lucky they haven’t had more tomatoes thrown at them after making the playoffs only once in their 10-season history. Attendance at the 18,144-capacity Nationwide Arena is averaging close to 13,500 this year.
If Columbus is ever to be known for having the NHL’s best hockey team, instead of just the USA’s best zoo, Tyutin will have to be part of the solution. He signed a six-year, $27-million contract extension in August. That kind of coin leaves no room for monkeying around. But it’s also given some peace of mind to the ex-SKA Petersburg player.
“Now I don’t have to worry about contracts and stuff like that,” Tyutin said. “I can concentrate on hockey and the goals that we want to achieve with this team.”
Achieving goals has come naturally to Tyutin with Russia in IIHF competition. He owns gold medals at three World Championship levels: U18 (2001), U20 (2002, 2003), and men’s Worlds (2008).
Tyutin’s two World Junior triumphs were not only memorable, but also highly topical when you consider the storylines heading into the 2012 tournament in Calgary and Edmonton. In both finals, Russia rallied to defeat Canada, claiming gold with a 5-4 win in 2002 and a 3-2 victory in Halifax the following year. It was much like what happened in the 2011 showdown in Buffalo, when Vladimir Tarasenko and Yevgeni Kuznetsov’s offensive heroics keyed the Russians to a stunning, come-from-behind 5-3 win over the favoured Canadians.
“I think we had pretty good teams, and we just played as a team,” Tyutin said of the ‘02 and ‘03 teams. “Everybody was able to gel pretty well back then. That was the big key for our success. We all played for each other.”
Unsurprisingly, the two-time Olympian remembers where he was when Russia won the last World Juniors.
“We were on the road in Anaheim, and I just watched the game on the internet,” he recalled. “I was pretty happy, pretty excited for the guys and their achievement. For then, it was amazing to come back in the third period from a three-goal deficit. I know what it feels like to beat Canada in the final. I’ve been there.”
With some luck, Tyutin will be suiting up for Russia on home ice at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. And when he watches the 2012 World Juniors, he just might be looking at some of his future national team partners. After all, new Russian national team coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov has made it clear that infusing more youth into the roster is a priority.
“To be honest, I haven’t had a chance to follow who’s going to be on the [2012 World Junior] team,” Tyutin said. “But we always have a good squad. When they come to the tournament, their goal will be the gold medal, that’s for sure.”