Monday, December 17, 2007

Notes from the Russian Super League

As the NHL season approaches the halfway mark, the December break period in the Russian Super League (RSL) has just ended. The RSL is increasingly getting more attention due to the plethora of former NHL players in the league. For example, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl has 4 players who played in the NHL in 2006-07 on its roster. That being said, many hockey fans in North America have difficulty following the RSL because of the distance and time difference in Russia. Here are a few standout players (and PuckAgency clients) that are worth noting:

Ak Bars Kazan's Alexei Morozov, who last played in the NHL in 2003-04 in Pittsburgh, is leading the RSL in scoring for the third consecutive season with 19 goals and 23 assists in 36 games. In 2006-07, Alexei set a RSL scoring record with 83 points. Even in a notoriously low-scoring league, Alexei has put up gaudy statistics the past four seasons while leading Kazan to a Championship in 2005-06. Also, over the weekend, Morozov played for Russia in the Channel One Cup, posting 2 goals in 3 games and leading Russia to a tournament victory. Russia won all three games of the tournament, defeating the Czech Republic 5-1 on Sunday, December 16 to clinch the crown. Morozov's 1st period goal on Sunday was the game-winner.

Vityaz's Oleg Kvasha, who last played in the NHL in 2005-06 with Phoenix (after being traded by the New York Islanders) is playing at nearly a point-a-game clip, notching 14 goals and 16 assists in 33 games; he is in the top 10 in scoring in the RSL. NHL GM's could be paying attention to Oleg's stellar play as Kvasha looks to return to the NHL, where he is a 7-year veteran. Kvasha's best NHL season came in 2003-04 when he posted 51 points (15 G, 36 A) in 81 games with the New York Islanders.
Lastly, Avangard Omsk's 6'5" blueliner Anton Babchuk (Chicago's 1st round pick in 2002) is also putting up impressive numbers. Babchuk's 19 points (8 G, 11 A in 36 games) are good for 2nd on the team among defensemen. Anton played 52 games for Carolina in 2006-07, posting 2 goals and adding 12 assists. Omsk's roster also features New York Rangers 2007 1st Round pick Alexei Cherepanov and former Columbus Blue Jacket Alexander Svitov among others.

It has been an exciting season in the RSL to date and Salavat Yulaev Ufa (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year) is in first place and is 14 points ahead of SKA St. Petersburg. Ufa features a roster of former 1st round pick Stanislav Chistov (who played for Boston and Anaheim in 2006-07), Igor Grigorenko, who played briefly for Detroit this year and Oleg Tverdovsky, a former NHL All-Star and two-time Stanley Cup Winner.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Zubov leads defensemen in scoring

Last night in Dallas was significant for Stars’ defenseman Sergei Zubov in more ways than one. Not only did he post his 6th career 4-point night, he also passed Dave Gagner for 6th all-time on the Stars' scoring list and took over the lead as the top scoring defenseman in the league this season with 28 points (4 G, 24A) in 31 games.
Sergei is now on pace for his highest scoring season since the New York Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup season, in which he led the Rangers in scoring with 89 points (12 G, 77 A). Zubov is a two-time Stanley Cup winner as he also won with Dallas in 1999 and, of course, led the team’s defensemen in scoring both during the regular season and playoffs.

Zubie’s scoring prowess and consistency has been a trademark of his career. Indeed, he is the only NHL defenseman to register 30 or more assists and 40 or more points over each of the past 11 seasons (he is headed for a 12th consecutive season).

As can be seen here, Zubov stacks up quite favorably against other top offensive defensemen of his era:

Nicklas Lidstrom: 205 G, 689 A, 1206 GP - .74 PPG
Sergei Zubov: 152 G, 608 A, 1043 GP - .73 PPG
Sergei Gonchar: 179 G, 396 A, 852 GP - .67 PPG
Chris Pronger: 123 G, 416 A, 900 GP - .60 PPG
Scott Niedermayer: 140 G, 468 A, 1053 GP - .58 PPG

Zubov’s 760 career points are third among active defensemen behind only Chris Chelios and Lidstrom.

Although much is said about Zubov’s offensive output, there has been great recognition for his increased leadership and mentoring role, as well as defensive play. Zubie has played this season with the up-and-coming Matt Niskanen and Niskanen has flourished under Zubov's tutelage. Head Coach Dave Tippett has gone out of his way to make known his appreciation for Zubov's new found role.

Tippett has also recognized that Zubov should be a future Hall of Famer and that “there are very few people that have had the impact on the game like he has.”

We at PuckAgency have had the good fortune of witnessing firsthand Zubov’s stellar play and rise to becoming an elite level player in the NHL, as Jay Grossman has represented Sergei since he entered the NHL in 1992-93.

December 11, 2007

Time to show more love for veteran Stars defenceman Sergei Zubov
He's never won a Norris Trophy. Actually, he's never even been runner-up. He's third in career points among active defencemen. His passing game is among the very best in the league. He's routinely among the leading offensive defencemen in the league. Right now he actually leads all NHL defencemen in scoring.
So why is it Dallas Stars veteran Sergei Zubov doesn't get the same kind of attention as perennial Norris Trophy candidates Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger or Scott Niedermayer?
"That's just the way he wants it," Stars head coach Dave Tippett said with a laugh.
Zubov's 760 career points (152-608) are third among active blue-liners behind only Chris Chelios and Lidstrom. The 37-year-old Moscow native leads all NHL defencemen this season with 28 points (4-24) in 31 games, two more than Lidstrom. But he ranks only ninth among defencemen in Western Conference all-star fan balloting.
Is he overlooked?
"No doubt. That's the biggest understatement I've heard in a long time," said Stars goalie Marty Turco. "But he doesn't mind."
Zubov agreed to do a phone interview with The Canadian Press on Tuesday. But it's clear early on in the conversation that talking about himself ranks about as high as a trip to the dentist. He tries to re-direct every question about him to an answer about the team.
"He is who he is and he's very comfortable," said Tippett. "You always want to see a player like that recognized because he means so much to our team and how good a player he is for the league. So to not get the recognition that he deserves is certainly something that is wrong, but on the other side he's not a guy that wants to be individually recognized.
"He wants our teams stats to do the talking for him."
Zubov has been lost in the Lidstrom/Pronger/Niedermayer shuffle all decade long. His only Norris Trophy nomination came in 2005-06 and he finished third. The last defenceman not named Lidstrom, Pronger or Niedermayer to win a Norris was Al MacInnis in 1999.
Believe him, Zubov says, he's not hurt by it at all.
"No, not really, honestly," said Zubov. "I'm not the guy who is looking for recognition - trust me, that's the way I am. I'm just trying to do my job. I just want to help my team win games, that's all I'm looking for basically."
But talk to people around the league, and they will tell you unequivocally that he belongs in the same class as Lidstrom, Pronger and Niedermayer.
"He certainly should be. But he doesn't look for it," said Turco.
"His skill and his skating and his shooting, there's no better than I can really think of," added Turco. "When I'm done my career he'll probably be at the top of the list of the best players I've played with. I'm nowhere near done playing but I can say that with confidence."
It's not just about offence with Zubov. He controls the game. He anticipates plays. His passing skills are Lidstrom-like. Other NHL coaches drool over the chance to have a blue-liner kickstart the transition game like Zubov can.
"I've talked to other coaches who ask questions about him all the time because they marvel at his ability to control the game," said Tippett. "We got into Detroit and we talk about Lidstrom the same way, the ability to control, same with Pronger or Niedermayer, the effect that those players have on the game because they play such big minutes and the effect on the tempo of the game for their given team."
Zubov came into the league in 1992-93 with the New York Rangers very much an offensive player, putting up a career-high 89 points (12-77) in 78 games in 1993-94, the year the Rangers won the Stanley Cup. He's had to work hard on becoming better defensively, a slow but sure transformation that in the last several years has made him the complete player that he is.
"I'd say that's the biggest improvement for myself and I'm really proud of it, actually," Zubov said of his defensive play.
Two things jump out at Tippett when thinking about Zubov.
"First, the consistency in which he's done it," said Tippett. "His stats and consistency over the last 10 years is phenomenal; and the other thing about him is that I don't think a lot of people know about him as a person - he's a very intelligent man. He's very team-first oriented, everything he does is towards the team and winning.
"That's where his focus is, it's never on himself."
The Hockey Hall of Fame may beckon one day, which surely will surprise many given the lack of notoriety Zubov received during his career.
"He doesn't want it, but he sure deserves it," Tippett said of the attention. "There's very few people that have had the impact on the game like he has."

Monday, December 3, 2007

An original member of the Wild, Minnesota's Wes Walz retires

The hockey community, especially in Minnesota, was dealt a tough blow when Wes Walz officially announced his retirement at a press conference at the XCel Energy Center Saturday afternoon. Walz enjoyed a thirteen-year NHL career, including playing 438 games for the Minnesota Wild.

Wes was originally drafted by the Boston Bruins and played for the Philadelphia Flyers, Calgary Flames and Detroit Red Wings before going to Switzerland to play for four seasons. Wes returned from Europe in 2000 to play for Minnesota’s inaugural team and we remember how forging a relationship with Head Coach Jacques Lemaire was so crucial to Wes’s success and redefined him as a player. Wes went on to become the Wild's all-time leader in games played (438) and the 2nd leading goal scorer (82) in franchise history, as well as the Captain of the Wild team.

The mutual respect and admiration between Walz and Lemaire was highlighted in both of their comments surrounding the retirement announcement. Wes explained that Lemaire was “a good man” and that he was grateful that Lemaire “moulded me into a player that I can be proud of". Lemaire was similarly proud of his relationship with Wes and compared Walz’s competitiveness and perfectionist ways to Wayne Gretzky. Lemaire stated that "There are a few guys, the top guys, who retire when they realize they can't be the guy they were," he said. "Gretzky was one of them. There's just handful of guys. Wes is one of them."

Walz's impact and value went well beyond his statistics. Walz excelled in all aspects of the game, most notably serving as one of the team's top penalty killers while still playing on the Wild's top line with Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra. Walz also served as a mentor to several of the Wild's up-and-coming players including Mikko Koivu.

For us at PuckAgency, it has truly been an honor to represent a class individual dedicated to his profession. The Minnesota Wild and many, many others involved in the game of hockey will undoubtedly miss Wes’ professionalism, approach and sportsmanship.

A Wild original leaves an impression

Wes Walz held nothing back in his emotional farewell, just as he did night after night, flying up and down the rink at full tilt for the Wild.

By Michael Russo, Star Tribune
Last update: December 01, 2007 – 11:58 PM

So intense, he could pop a blood vessel talking penalty-kill intricacies. So dedicated, he would sprint on the treadmill until he was soaking wet. So passionate, he could resuscitate a dying team merely by opening his mouth. So maniacal, he would do countless 360s to test his skates while most his teammates were long gone.

And so good, he could shut down the NHL's most prolific stars with pure grit and determination.

Wes Walz, one of the NHL's smoothest-skating checkers and the longtime heart-and-soul backbone of the Wild dressing room, officially hung up his skates Saturday.

In front of heavy-hearted teammates, coaches and trainers, the respected 37-year-old center finally emerged after a month of soul searching and said goodbye during an emotional 30-minute news conference packed with laughs and tears.

Walz, always the character, announced his retirement so matter-of-factly, it seemed to even surprise him. With a beam, Walz said: "Wow, it's a full house. I thought press conferences were only for superstars. I guess if you retire halfway through the season, you get your own press conference."

Many believe this is a premature departure, but Walz, the Wild's all-time games-played leader at 438, said: "It's time. There's no use fighting it any more."

After last year's first-round playoff loss to Anaheim, Walz made no secret of his disappointment with his second-half play. But Walz trained "like a dog" last summer because "I had something to prove."But it's been a struggle for me," Walz said. "I have not been able to get back to the level that I expect of myself. And in my heart, I don't believe it's fair ... to play at anything less than what I expect of myself."

Walz continued: "The way I've been playing has really taken a toll on me and it's just worn me down. After many sleepless nights, I believe in my heart that it's time to move on into the next phase of my life."

Highest standards

Teammates, one by one, said there's no doubt Walz could still play at a high level. But as Brian Rolston said, "If you understand how Wes is, and I think a lot of us do, he expects the utmost from his performance."

Marian Gaborik, 18 when he met Walz and now the last original Wild standing, said: "It's so hard to see a guy go that you spent basically eight years with. Great guy, great teammate, great leader. He helped me through the beginnings."

All expansion teams eventually shed their early parts as the franchise matures and draft picks develop. But while player after player left the Wild since its 2000 inception, Walz remained and brilliantly resurrected what had been a fading career.

A star back in junior, Walz fanned out in 1995 after six years of high expectations. But he spent four years rediscovering his love for hockey in Switzerland before getting the call from Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough in 1999.

"As a 20-year-old, I thought I would play forever until I almost played myself out of the league," Walz said. "When I came back as a 30-year-old, I was a different person and way better hockey player. When Doug called me, I knew there was no chance I wasn't making the team."

Walz tried hard to fight back tears, but he became very emotional when talking about coach Jacques Lemaire's impact.

With tears flowing, Walz said, "Jacques' taken basically a slab of clay that was nothing and molded me into a player that I could be proud of."

Lemaire said: "I was really, really touched. I remember his first training camp, the first time I looked at the players, the first thing I said, 'At least we got [one] player.' "

A go-to player

In 2002-03, Walz was a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward. He also had a marvelous postseason in which he scored seven goals and shut down such stars as

Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund, as the third-year Wild shocked the NHL and advanced to the Western Conference finals. Walz's 82 goals and 182 points rank second in franchise history.

"The thing I'm most proud of is that I know when Jacques was behind me on the bench that he could look down at me and see my name and my number and feel comfortable throwing me onto the ice," Walz said.

The foundation Walz laid will be everlasting, especially for protégés Mikko Koivu, Brent Burns and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. He also has made a financial impact. By retiring, Walz comes off the Wild's salary cap, which is roughly $2.5 million south of the $50.3 million ceiling.

"He strived to be at his best all the time," defenseman Kurtis Foster said. "We all saw that. He's the guy running the treadmill after a game he just played 20 minutes and he's running at 9.5 where other guys are getting iced or in the showers and ready to go."

Added Lemaire: "When I was in New Jersey, I talked about [Scott] Stevens and how intense the guy was and how he prepared himself for games and how he was a great example.

"Wes Walz is exactly the same. He's a player you do not worry if he's going to get ready. If we played 100 [games], he's going to play 100 at his max."

A different playtime

Walz has been chasing a puck around his whole life. He knows retirement won't be easy, but he's looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Kerry-Anne, and his four children.

Asked what's next, Walz said, smiling: "Change a lot of diapers. My 10-month-old is in go-mode right now. I'll chase her around the house and get the kids off to school and hang out at Wal-Mart and Target and department stores and now at least I'll have no excuse getting my Christmas shopping done.

"I do have aspirations to stay in the game. It's what I've done my whole life. It's what I know best. I feel like I have things to give. ... I always hope that the foundation of hard work and what I've done from Day One is always something that will stick with the club."