On August 25th, the Atlanta Thrashers dealt enforcer Kip Brennan to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks for defenseman Mark Popovic. It was the first trade of the soon-to-be 23-year-old’s professional career, having been picked in the second round of the 2001 draft by Anaheim.
Now in Thrashers training camp, the newly-acquired player is such a smooth talker that you’d expect him to open his briefcase to display foldout samples. The product he’s selling these days? Mark Popovic.
Here’s his pitch: “I’m a very smooth-skating defenseman who takes pride defensively. I’ve always been a match-up type player against the other teams’ top lines. Great penalty killer and not afraid to move the puck. In this day and age the first pass by a defenseman is very important and I feel I do that very well.”
Sounds pretty good, but he may not need to argue his case as strongly as he thinks. Three rules in the new CBA have converged to make Popovic more valuable to the Thrashers, and thus more likely to make the team.
First, the push to take obstruction out of the game has put a premium on the ability to skate, something he does very well. Second, Popovic would have to clear waivers to be sent to the minors, and the organization won’t want to just give away an asset, no matter how recently acquired. And third, the salary cap has made relatively cheap players like Popovic more appealing as Atlanta tries to stay under the limit.
Popovic isn’t taking any chances, however, reporting to camp in his usual good shape, ready for a Bob Hartley training camp.
“I really pride myself on that and train extra hard in the summer. I did very well in the testing, and hopefully that will reflect positively upon me.”
On Friday, dressed to head out on a sales, er, road trip, he talked about how camp had gone so far.
“It’s been a great camp, extremely tough. Bob Hartley is a demanding coach and he expects 100 percent effort every day from his guys no matter who they are, veterans or rookies. I’m here to try to make a good impression because I’m coming into a new situation – new GM, new team, new coaches – and right from day one I wanted to be on the positive side and I want to make an impact.”
The camp differs from those he experienced in Anaheim, but in ways that are increasingly hard to argue against.
“It’s a lot different, the first three days he really emphasized conditioning, conditioning, conditioning, and I think with these new rules, that’s going to be the biggest factor. We know if we’re the best in-shape team, we’re going to have a better chance than the other guys most nights and that’s how we’re going to play in two weeks when the season starts.”
Though he’s the type of defenseman who skates well and jumps into the play, he agreed that his 18 points in 74 games in the AHL last year didn’t reflect his offensive instincts as well as they could.
“Sometimes in professional hockey as a defenseman your stats come from the power play, and I was sporadically on it this last season and it’s hard to get numbers then. Most of the offense last year in Cincinnati came off our power play. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to still move the puck and create offense. There’s other ways of doing that than just being on the power play.”
It was definitely hard to compete for minutes on the power play with the personnel the Ducks had, former Atlanta prospect Kurtis Foster and his slapshot among them. The pair did play together at even strength for the last few months of the season.
Cincinnati, no longer affiliated with Anaheim, and indeed not playing in 2005-06, was infamous around the league for its poor ice conditions at the Gardens, built in 1948.
“I didn’t mind it because I knew the other teams hated it,” Popovic recalled. “You know you have a big home-ice advantage when the other team doesn’t want to play there. The ice wasn’t good, but we practiced on that rink and that’s one of the advantages we had, we were there every day and we got used to it. We knew the bounces. There were always funny ones off the glass. Our home record really reflected that, we played well there.”
During the 2003-04 season, Popovic was called up to play with Anaheim, as coincidence would have it, due to a family situation of another newly-acquired Thrasher.
“I just got back from the Spengler Cup in Switzerland,” he recalled. “Just when I got back to Cincinnati from Davos, I got a call and they said get on a plane and go to Buffalo. And then my equipment was lost. It was in Buffalo an hour from home, so I got my father to drive over an old pair of skates. So I had all brand new stuff for the game and they said ‘can you play with this stuff?’ and I said ‘heck, yeah’ (laughing). It was interesting, I think with all that distraction with the equipment I was actually more relaxed, because I didn’t have time to think about it.”
The call-up would just be for one game, however, and the one and only NHL game on his resume to date.
“I played the game and afterwards they called me in and told me Nicky Havelid was having a child. That’s why I got called up, they needed someone, but he was coming back the next night.”
Havelid, who was acquired by the Thrashers for Foster at the 2004 draft, was only one of two Thrashers that Popovic knew coming into training camp. The other was Garnet Exelby, who he had met at Canadian national team tryouts several years ago.
“No, I didn’t really know anyone coming in which is why I got here about a week early, get to know the guys, get comfortable, get ready for camp,” Popovic explained.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. After three years in the American League, if Popovic is going to break into the NHL, this is the time, and his urgency is clear.
Popovic played in both preseason games this weekend, picking up a goal and an assist.
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