Thrashers stock up on defense

By Holly Gunning

Many young Slovakians come to play hockey in North America because they think it will give them a better chance to be drafted into the NHL. Boris Valabik had an additional reason: the rules against fighting were cramping his style.

“Back home I had one fight and I got suspended for eight games so I didn’t try it again,” he explained at the draft, having just been chosen 10th overall by the Atlanta Thrashers. “I want to play hockey, I don’t want to be sitting in the penalty box or in the stands watching my friends play. So that’s why I came to North America, to play this style of hockey…I think it was a good move for me that I went to North America.”

The 6’7” 210-pound Valabik had 278 penalty minutes and18 fighting majors in 68 games last season with the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL. His penalty minutes led OHL rookies and all defensemen.

“Obviously it’s part of the game and I’d say I’ll step up for my team and myself…I can’t change and I don’t want to change. I think it’s good.”

Although he’s a tough customer, Valabik wouldn’t call himself an instigator.

“Most of the year, and most of the fights they were coming after me. It wasn’t all the time or I would have 500 penalty minutes not 270 or something. But when the playoffs came, I was more on the ice, I didn’t fight.”

A stay at home defenseman, he spent most of the year paired up with 20-year-old free agent Andre Benoit. Valabik complimented Benoit’s abilities.

“He’s a good offensive defenseman. I mostly stayed back. It was good cooperation I think. He’s a great great player. I really enjoyed this year.”

Being a tall Slovakian defenseman, the comparisons to Ottawa’s Zdeno Chara are natural, but Valabik is humbled by them at this point.

“Obviously a great honor to be compared to that guy. I never saw him play in the NHL, I saw him play five or six years ago back home. I still have lots of work to do. I’ll see in five or six years.”

One thing many criticized Valabik for going into the draft is his skating. He doesn’t disagree with the criticism, but wouldn’t single it out as the main thing to work on either.

“I have to work on everything, every single part of my game. Skating is one of them, obviously. I’m a big tall guy. I know I have to improve that, so they’re right.”

Valabik’s English is remarkable for having spent only one season in North America. Total immersion and wanting to communicate with teammates did the trick for him.

“I learned two years back home but (it was) high school English so it didn’t really help in the dressing room. I’m not the type of guy who stays quiet so you have to learn. If you have to learn, you’ll get it faster than in school.”

The Rangers organization had to separate the living quarters of Valabik and teammate Petr Kanko, a Czech, who like to speak with each other in their native tongues early in the season.

“They wanted to separate us because we were talking in our language because it’s so similar and I couldn’t really learn anything in English.”

The move was a good one, because now Valabik can be himself in the dressing room.

“I’m not the same guy on the ice, but anyway, I’m not quiet.”

Valabik was very happy to be the newest Thrasher.

“I’m really happy I’m picked by Atlanta, it’s a great organization, great team.”

Grant Lewis’ stock rose rapidly over the course of the season as he adapted to college hockey at Dartmouth very quickly. He could hardly believe how far he had come himself as he answered questions as the 40th overall pick by the Thrashers.

“Two years ago I was still playing midget hockey — actually less than that. And now I’m standing up here, drafted in the second round. I’m excited, I never expected to be here. It shows what hard work will do.”

In the beginning of the 2002-03 season, Lewis played midget hockey, then later for the Pittsburgh Forge (NAHL) where he had nine points in 50 games played. He was twice named to Mid-American teams (16 and 17 year olds) that participated in the United States National Selects Festivals.

This year at Dartmouth, he had an outstanding rookie year, with the second highest points total among freshmen in a single season in Dartmouth history. Looking at his numbers, one might make the mistake of thinking this defenseman is a forward.

“I think I’m a solid defenseman, who has a lot of potential I think. I can play the defensive game as well as the offensive game. I think eventually in the NHL I’ll be a good two-way player.”

Slim for his 6’3” frame at only 190, Lewis knows what he needs to work on most.

“My biggest weakness is probably my strength. As time goes, I’ll slowly be getting stronger and better in every aspect of my game.”

Lewis was used in all situations at Dartmouth by head coach Bob Gaudet, on the first power play and first penalty kill. Notably, he shoots right-handed.

“I was out there at the end of the game when we needed a goal or we were down by a goal. My coaches showed a lot of faith in me from the start and it was just a great opportunity coming in.”

The newest Thrasher talked about why he chose the Ivy League school.

“I saw a great opportunity. They were losing a few defensemen. The combination of athletics and academics was something I couldn’t pass up.”

Lewis will be a sophomore this fall and says he is looking into studying psychology.

This summer he’s back in Pittsburgh suburb Upper St. Clair and out to LA for about a month to train at Athlete’s Performance. He was also invited to the USA World Junior tryouts in August.

Even with his meteoric rise, Lewis is making no projections of when he’ll land on the NHL stage.

“I’m not sure, I guess I’m just going to go back to school and develop and whenever the time is right, they’ll let me know. When they’re ready for me, I’m ready to go.“

Lewis is part of a growing crop of guys from the Pittsburgh area who are knocking on the NHL’s door, including RJ Umberger and Dylan Reese.

“When I started playing hockey was when the Penguins were in their prime, winning the cups, when I was like 6 or 7. I think this is all from (Mario) Lemieux. When we were growing up we were all watching him. This is our generation coming through.”

At becoming the second Thrasher defenseman that day, Lewis was happy.

“It feels great. I wasn’t sure exactly what team was going to get me. I interviewed with Atlanta at the Combine and I think the interview went very well. They have a great staff and I’m looking forward to becoming part of their program.”

Scott Lehman from Windsor, Ontario, was the third defenseman taken by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2004 Entry Draft. The big smile on his face did most of the talking for him.

Lehman was rated 87th among North American prospects by Central Scouting heading into the draft, but was taken 76th overall. He brought two suits with him to the two-day event.

“I didn’t think I was going to go on the first day, I was just hoping.”

Lehman was happy, but not shocked that it was Atlanta who took him.

“They were the team who I talked to the most. That’s where I hoped to go and it happened.”

Interviewing with the team at the Combine in Toronto was pretty straightforward for both sides.

“They kept it pretty simple. I heard stories about other teams asking weird questions, but they kept it pretty simple and honest.”

In 66 games with Toronto St. Michael’s last season, Lehman had 32 points (five goals, 27 assists) and 189 penalty minutes.

“I think I’m a defenseman who can move the puck well. Play tough in my own end. Do my job first and then be offensive…I get to play specialty teams in Toronto, so hopefully role will get a little bigger this year.”

Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without written permission of the editorial staff.