When the New York Rangers liquidated their roster during the days leading up to the trade deadline, their goal went beyond simply ridding the team of aging veterans and high priced contracts. The Rangers, led by fourth year GM Glen Sather, had a much more difficult task before them: bringing in a core of youth around which to build the future. This was done through the adding a dozen young players, four draft picks in the 2004 NHL entry draft, and two more in 2005.
One player who has already impressed is Jozef Balej, the 22-year-old Slovakian winger acquired from Montreal in the Alex Kovalev deal.
Balej was born in the city of Myjava, in what was then Czechoslovakia, and played a year for Dukla-Trencin before coming to North America to play in the USHL. He split the 1998-99 season between Rochester and Thunder Bay, and was selected 18th in the 1999 CHL import draft by the Portland Winter Hawks.
After a successful rookie year in Portland Balej was Central Scouting’s 34th ranked North American Skater for the 2000 NHL entry draft, one place behind fellow WHLer and former Ranger prospect Filip Novak, and was eventually selected by the Canadians in the third round, 78th overall. Though his skills were apparent, it was speculated by some that he was also drafted to help ease the transition of Montreal’s first round pick, Marcel Hossa, who was Balej’s linemate and friend.
Three and half years later, buried behind a great stock of Montreal prospects but having an outstanding year playing for Hamilton of the AHL (58 points in 55 games), Balej found himself the centerpiece of a trade to the rebuilding Rangers. With New York’s roster stripped down, Balej made his Rangers debut March 9 against the Atlanta Thrashers.
After two games playing limited time on the fourth line, Balej was switched to Mark Messier’s wing for the Rangers March 13 contest against the Florida Panthers. He skated for a total of 12:43, registering three shots on goal and almost beat Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo for his first goal.
Though his frame is not likely to scare opposing defensemen, listed as 6’0”, 187 lbs, Balej has a great skating stride and world-class wheels. And while the ice at Madison Square Garden is not always kind to players who rely heavily on speed, it did not appear to have much of an effect on Balej, who scored his first NHL goal in his first Rangers home game, March 15 against the New Jersey Devils. Balej outwaited Martin Brodeur, feathering the puck past the sprawling Devils goalie to score what would end up being the only Rangers goal in a 3-1 loss.
This goal showed a few important things. First, that Balej has a willingness to go to the net to make things happen, a quality missing among many Ranger players in recent years. Second, that he has the speed, skill and balance to actually get himself to the net, without being knocked down or losing the puck. And last, that he has a bit of a scorers’ touch: a combination of talent, positioning, and patience mixed together with a little bit of luck. Balej loves to shoot the puck, a under-appreciated quality.
On the whole Balej continues to show flashes of offensive flair, as well as a continued willingness to go to the net, but still needs work on the defensive side of things. While his speed makes him a valuable forechecker, he has appeared to have problems physically covering his man, which led to a goal in a recent game against Pittsburgh. Of course the biggest difficulty is gauging how much of the problem is Balej’s shortcomings and how much is the Rangers team simply being in extreme disarray. In that respect we will simply have to wait until next year to get a better look. The good thing is that the Rangers are continually giving him minutes at both even strength and on the second unit of the power play. He has averaged 12:19 minutes for his 12 games with the team. He’s had several different linemates, most recently Lundmark and Green.
Of course the question remains, what is Balej’s full potential? In the days after the trade he has garnered comparisons to everyone from perennial all-star Peter Bondra, to Russian sniper Sergei Berezin, to one-time Rangers forward Vladimir Vorobiev. The one thing that everyone agrees on is that he needs to continue to get a chance to play and develop.
“We all heard that the Rangers were trying to get younger players, so it’s a great opportunity for younger players, especially me,” said Balej.