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Coyotes’ Tikhonov: A good depth addition with upside

Arizona Coyotes' Viktor Tikhonov (9), of Russia, gets tripped up as he loses control of the puck in front of New York Islanders' John Tavares (91) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Cardinals general manager Steve Keim would approve of the Coyotes’ recent decision to claim Viktor Tikhonov off waivers. Allow us to explain.

While much of the outside attention on the Coyotes’ forwards focuses on improving the top-six group, most fans believe the Coyotes have a surplus of third- and fourth-line forwards. Keim would disagree.

The Cardinals GM has said repeatedly that he is always looking to turn over the bottom of the team’s 53-man roster in an effort to constantly upgrade, and his actions the past few seasons have supported that claim.

While top talent is difficult to find, depth players may be more readily available if you’re keeping a vigilant watch on the waiver wire and other avenues of acquiring players in the midst of the season. Tikhonov fits that mold.

With Martin Hanzal back in the lineup for Saturday’s 1-0 win over the New York Islanders at Gila River Arena, Tikhonov dropped down from a top-six center role to a fourth-line, right-wing role alongside center Boyd Gordon and left wing Jordan Martinook. The results pleased coach Dave Tippett.

“That line was really good tonight,” Tippett said after the game. “We’ve been trying to find a line like that that just can really stabilize things for us.”

Like every player, Tikhonov would prefer to play a top-six role and the minutes it affords, but he was perfectly comfortable shifting gears when his coach asked.

“I’ve been doing that since I came back to the NHL; jumping around from role to role,” he said. “As long as there’s a spot for me, I’m happy playing with those two guys. Everyone knows they’re really good defensively and when you watched them on the penalty kill, I thought they played a really big role in our win.”

Tikhonov wasn’t as comfortable in a defensive role when he first came to the Coyotes in 2008 after the team selected him in the first round (28th overall) of that year’s draft. At age 27, however, and with four years of KHL play under his belt, his confidence has grown.

“My first few years, I didn’t quite have the patience and I was really still a little star struck by being in the NHL,” he said. “That part of my game has definitely improved.”

With Tikhonov in the lineup on Monday, forward Steve Downie was a healthy scratch. That is the sort of roster flexibility Tippett would like to have to shuffle his lineup based on injuries and players’ recent performances. That said, Tippett isn’t pigeonholing Tikhonov as a bottom-six forward.

Tikhonov has already played some center, he has logged power-play time and Tippett expects to use him on the penalty kill sometime in the near future. Tippett’s comfort hints at the confidence he already has in Tikhonov, as does his decision to use him in a late-game situation against New York with the Coyotes nursing a one-goal lead.

“Tikhonov is a smart player,” Tippett said. “He can take faceoffs, he can play center. The last shift of the game out there he had with their goalie pulled, (he was) strong on the wall, didn’t throw the puck away, did some smart things.

“We’re going to try to build him into a good player and there’s going to be a process. We’re going to put him in some different situations, but he’s smart enough and he’s got enough skill that there’s something to work with there.”

Maple Leafs at Coyotes

When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Gila River Arena, Glendale

TV: FOX Sports Arizona

Radio: Arizona Sports 98.7 FM

Injury report: Coyotes — F Joe Vitale (concussion symptoms) and G Mike Smith (abdomen surgery) are on IR. D Zbynek Michalek (lower body) is out until after Christmas. C Martin Hanzal (lower body) is questionable. Leafs — G James Reimer (IR, groin), D Stephane Robidas (IR, groin), F Nick Spaling (IR, upper body) and G Garret Sparks (lower body) are out.

Scouting the Leafs: The Maple Leafs are 10-5-5 after losing 10 of their first 12 games under first-year coach Mike Babcock. … Leafs RW Leo Komarov has five goals and three assists during a four-game point streak and LW Michael Grabner has three goals and two assists in his past three games. … Komarov leads the team with 15 goals and 24 points. … Reimer has a 2.02 goals against average (third in the NHL) and a .935 save percentage (second in the NHL) for a team that sits dead last in the Eastern Conference.

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