by Ihor Stelmach

Ponikarovsky a new Leaf

Talk about using some special super powers. One day after a late morning practice right around Halloween, Toronto's Eric Lindros made a joking suggestion to teammate Alexei Ponikarovsky. Lindros hinted the up-and-coming Ukrainian star should paint himself green, put on some ratty clothes and go out trick or treating as the Incredible Hulk.

This physical comparison gives you an idea of Ponikarovsky's well-developed muscle tone, but, like the Hulk, his effectiveness also depended on his frame of mind. Sometimes he could be a Hulklike force; at other times, he could take on the persona of a mild-mannered Dr. Bruce Banner, the Hulk's alter-ego.

For the past several years the Maple Leafs waited for Ponikarovsky to make major league progress, heck, any kind of progress, with his God-given 6-foot-4, 220-pound athletic build. The turning point finally happened in the 2003-2004 season when he played with ex-Leaf Joe Nieuwendyk. The savvy veteran took the young Uke under his wing, effectively teaching him the required practice habits/work ethic of a true NHLer. This season, despite last year's lockout, Ponikarovsky has truly blossomed into a legitimate offensive threat and a physical force every night.

Despite more than their share of ravaging injuries to key players, this Ukrainian winger has enjoyed a successfully productive breakout campaign. His 18 goals and 28 points through some 70 games is proof a 25-goal season is within easy reach.

Babchuk a wanted hulk

The official press release from Chicago claimed that in trading defenseman Anton Babchuk to Carolina for defenseman Danny Richmond, the Blackhawks insisted they never gave up on Babchuk, their 2002 first-round selection (21st overall), but instead really liked what Richmond brought to the rink on an everyday basis. And perhaps Richmond would have more to offer long term.

From the other team's perspective, Carolina acquired Babchuk in a swap of 21-year-old blueliners, whose prospects looked more promising in their new surroundings. The Hurricanes obtained the 2002 first-round pick from Chicago for 2003 second rounder (31st overall) Danny Richmond.

Wasting precious little time upon his arrival from Chicago, via their AHL affiliate in Norfolk, Babchuk skated right into the line-up, playing nine minutes in his Carolina debut on January 21. Ten days later, in a game against Montreal when his new club was down to only four defensemen, new-guy Babchuk played more than a whopping 28 minutes as Carolina came back from being down a goal to win going away in a rout, 8-2.

Being yet another Ukrainian blessed with physical prowess, being big - at 6-foot-5 and 212 pounds - armed with a cannon laser-type shot from the point, Babchuk was criticized in Chicago for his noted lack of consistency. Perhaps this 21-year-old is beginning to get the message, as his first 10 plus games with Carolina were quite excellent. If he were to maintain this high level of play, the 'Canes would certainly be bolstered at the appropriate time of season. Nothing like quickly getting acclimated just in time for the post-season.

At the March trading deadline, Carolina's brass decided the recently acquired Babchuk's high level of play would make any additional moves unnecessary.

Zajac future Devil, current Sioux

A very young Travis Zajac caught the eye of New Jersey General Manager Lou Lamoriello and his scouting staff before deciding to enroll at the University of North Dakota. The Devils certainly were never upset their highly regarded center opted for college hockey in the fall of 2004.

Hoping to add Zajac to a roster already including former North Dakota stars David Hale and Zach Parise, the Devils traded up to get the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder, who played Junior A in Salmon Arm, B.C.

"We didn't want to take a chance," said GM Lamoriello to Devils beat writer Rich Chere (Newark Star-Ledger), shortly after the 2004 NHL entry draft. Lamoriello traded his first-and third-round picks (22nd and 88th overall) to the Dallas Stars to obtain Zajac 20th overall.

"You'd rather get somebody you really want than take a chance," Lamoriello told Mr. Chere. "He's going to get nothing but better. He competes every night. We know he's going to play."

At the time of the draft, Zajac was impressed the Devils traded up to acquire his services. "That means a lot," he admitted in a chat with Mr. Chere. "It shows they appreciate my level of development and the type of player I am. It's a great feeling to be picked by them. I'm going to a great organization."

Why Zajac?

Perhaps the key ingredient of an amateur scout's evaluation of a potential prospect is projecting how a player will turn out in five years. Travis Zajac really put the central scouting experts to the test.

"He played Junior A and you'd really like to see how he would do against his (draft eligible) peers in major junior," one scout was quoted as saying in The Hockey News.

In Junior A Zajac put up a lot of points and everybody noticed. It was because of his offensive numbers that a lot of teams scrambled to see him late in the 2003-2004 season.

"He can score and is very competitive," said another scout in the entry draft issue of The Hockey News that year. "He has a good feel for the net."

Scouts loved his skill and intensity, but questioned how he'd do when the going got rough.

"How tough was that league he was in?" asked a scout. "Can he put up big numbers when the other team is out to get him?"

Zajac's scouting report indicated lots of creativity on the ice, great hands and an innate ability to do the little things that win games. His defensive coverage was rated as sound and was predicted it would improve in a solid program the following season (2004-2005). He was off to join the well-established hockey program at the University of North Dakota. Scouts looked forward to getting a better read of his NHL potential.

The New Jersey Devils took a chance on this No. 15 North American rated skater in 2004. Kudos to them.

Zajac top Devils' prospect

Travis Zajac started 2005-2006 in the same manner he ended the previous year, when he was named an NCAA Frozen Four all-star. As a Fighting Sioux, in only his sophomore year, he is described as an elite player on an elite team. He sees regular time on North Dakota's No. 1 line, while still learning the game. Even though this 6-foot-2, 205 pound 20-year-old has yet to physically mature, he has shown the ability to effectively utilize his size. He has, on more than one occasion, been rather favorably compared to a young Joe Nieuwendyk, based on his hockey intelligence and quick hands.

Zajac's anticipation of the play has earned him ice time on the penalty killing unit, where he has become a shorthanded threat. Of course, being a top-line centerman, he also sees much time on his team's top power play unit. Most scouts agree he will be a top-line forward when he graduates to the show.

About halfway through the 2005-2006 season, Zajac was a point-per game scorer at North Dakota, with 5G-17A-22PTS in 22 games. At the time this article was written, the Fighting Sioux had earned a berth in college hockey's Frozen Four tournament for the second consecutive year.

Zhitnik and crew lacking in discipline

Coming out of the lockout season, Islanders GM Mike Milbury was forced to overhaul more than half his defense corps. Going into the current 2005-2006 campaign, Milbury was convinced he had put together a unit of blueliners who could adapt to the new NHL.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. New York's lazy, undisciplined approach to team defense has greatly contributed to the rise in scoring throughout the league. For all of the Islanders' opponents, of course.

The Isles missed the post-season for the first time since 2000-2001. Why? Not adhering to the newly league-mandated obstruction crackdown (a particular problem for free agent defender Alexei Zhitnik), poor positional play by both forwards and defensemen and some stabilized goaltending.

When questioned by the New York Daily News' Peter Botte regarding the overall performance of his revamped defense corps, GM Milbury replied: "Just unacceptable."

Brent Sopel has been a disappointment at both ends, while Janne Niinimaa was exiled to Dallas in a pure dumping of salary. As for expensive free agent acquisition Zhitnik? Well, he has managed to develop a first-name rapport with NHL penalty box attendants in rinks all over North America. Way too many trips, holds and hooks.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 30, 2006, No. 18, Vol. LXXIV

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