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Artyukhin Taking A Gamble

by Lonnie Herman / Tampa Bay Lightning

Evgeny Artyukhin is 6-foot-5, weighs 259 pounds and skates like the wind. He was born in the Soviet Union, 25 years ago. He also leads the team in hits and every one of them is hard enough to register on the Richter Scale.

Now, time for a brief quiz:

In Moscow, Evengy Artyukhin’s father was:

a)A tour guide in Red Square
b)A nuclear physicist
c)A professional wrestler who was Heavyweight World Champion in 1983.

The correct answer is C. If you got it wrong, go back and read the first paragraph of this story again.

Wrestling is what Artyukhin’s dad did; hockey was what he loved. He tried to get his oldest son on the ice, but Sergey didn’t take to the sport. His youngest son, Evgeny, did. Sergey went on to become a wrestler, like his father. He recently retired after representing Belarus in the Beijing Olympics. His brother, the hockey player, is here in Tampa playing right wing for the Lightning. But even in his career in hockey, there’s been some wrestling and take-downs involved.

Artyukhin became the property of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft when then-General Manager Rick Dudley took him in the third round, 94th overall.

“Evgeny Artyukhin is arguably the best skater in the draft,” Dudley said at the time. “And, he hits with a vengeance.”

After signing with the Lightning in 2003, Artyukhin made his professional debut with the Hershey Bears of the AHL, appearing in 36 games while recording three goals and three assist. His offensive production might have been higher except that most of his minutes were spent in the penalty box, 111 penalty minutes to be exact. He dropped into the ECHL for six games with Pensacola, netting one goal and adding another 14 minutes in the penalty box.

“I enjoyed a couple of weeks in Pensacola,” Artyukhin recalls. “It was hot there.”

Hotter than in Springfield, Massachusetts, which was Artyukhin’s next stop. For 2004-05, he spent the entire season with the Falcons. He picked up 28 points, but he was most notable for the penalty minutes he continued to collect, 142 in 62 games. The pattern was set, and Artyukhin recognized it. He was big and aggressive and a target for the referee’s whistle.

“Yeah I’m big and tall, but where is the crime in that?” Artyukhin wondered. “I’m used to finishing checks and it’s not my fault that the opponent is smaller than me.”

He brings a real unmistakable presence to the ice as soon as he comes over the boards. - Brian Lawton, Lightning GM
Not his fault, to be sure, but when he finally was called up to the Lightning in the 2005-06 season, the fans took as much note of him as the on-ice officials did, cheering loudly each time he drove down the boards and attempted to cut in front of the opposition net.

His first NHL season ended with 4 goals, 13 assists and 90 minutes in the box.

Artyukhin’s biggest challenge came at the conclusion of the season, when a contract dispute with Tampa Bay saw him pack and head back to Mother Russia, spending the next two seasons playing in the Russian Super League

Vacating the NHL at that point in his career was a major gamble for Artyukhin. There was no guarantee a return to the NHL was in his future. Leaving could easily have meant that he wouldn’t get the opportunity to return, although once the ownership change in Tampa Bay took effect, his gamble showed signs of paying off.

New ownership for the Lightning brought a renewed opportunity for Artyukhin when Tampa Bay General Manager Brian Lawton signed him to a multi-year contract.

“We’re extremely happy to have Arty back in the fold,” Lawton said at the time the signing was announced. “He brings a real unmistakable presence to the ice as soon as he comes over the boards.”

Unmistakable presence, indeed, as Artyukhin has picked up where he left off in Tampa, an exciting work in progress that on some nights will rattle the boards with hit after hit.

His offense has improved and at the All-Star break Artyukhin had collected 4 goals and 6 assists for 10 points. He also led the team with 69 penalty minutes. Artyukhin’s game is as aggressive as ever, as evidenced by the 125 hits he had recorded, ninth best in the NHL. He was the only player in the top ten in that category with less than 40 games played.

And, he remains a fan favorite, though the self-effacing Artyukhin doesn’t understand why.

“Marty [St. Louis] and Vinny [Lecavalier] - I can see why they are favorites, but not me,” Artyukhin said. “I don’t score too much. I’m not a superstar.”

Maybe not a superstar, but certainly tantalizing to watch.

For Artyukhin, there are still adjustments to be made when it comes to life in the United States. Most of his spare time is spent on the internet, keeping up with news and friends back in Moscow.

“I like movies a lot, too,” Artyukhin said. “Robert DeNiro in Casino. That’s my favorite. I’d like to go to Vegas some time and play poker.”

Why not? He’s gambled before and it’s paying off.

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