The long-awaited Boris Valabik got a taste of the NHL this year. The question now is whether he can parlay that taste into a full-time spot in the fall. Given the support system and the work ethic he has, don’t bet against. him.
Late in the season, with the Thrashers out of playoff contention, they did what’s been done most years — give a look to some of their prospects. Valabik nervously made his NHL debut and played seven games. There were valid questions about his skating going into it, but the second-year pro kept up with the play and his defensive positioning was good. By the end, he was fairly pleased with his performance, though still thought he could do better.
Earning penalty kill minutes as well as even strength, Valabik seemed to fit in well. Defensive partner Mark Popovic, 25, said it was a good situation for Valabik to come in when there wasn’t so much pressure on him and he could just get some experience and confidence in his game. GM and head coach Don Waddell said at the end of the season, "in the last few games he’s proven he can play."
Now with the Thrashers season over, and the team looking to upgrade its defensive corps, the 22-year-old has his work set out for him in order to gain a full-time spot.
In December, he wasn’t playing at all, having taken ill while with the AHL Chicago Wolves. His spleen became enlarged, though the doctors never diagnosed exactly what the illness was. "But thank god it’s passed," Valabik said. A lingering ankle sprain in 2006-07 limited his games played to just 50. This year he played much closer to a full schedule, 58 plus seven with the big club.
Most hockey players don’t spend a great deal of time on-ice during the summer, working instead on rebuilding their bodies after tearing them down all season. But Valabik’s homework is different. He needs the skating and skill work more than the weight room.
"He keeps himself in great shape. He just needs more ice time," Waddell said, specifically pointing to agility and handling the puck. Waddell was confident that Valabik would find that ice time wherever he was this summer.
Last summer, Valabik skated with Wolves skating and skills coach Kenny McCudden in Chicago for one or two weeks and worked out with Ray Bear, the Thrashers strength and conditioning coach, during the month of August. "I think it was a good summer. I think I may do the same thing because it helped me a lot," Valabik said.
McCudden works with the prospects in Chicago during the season, and it was via this constant contact that the two came to know each other well.
"It’s not just good practice, but it’s always fun," Valabik said.
His relationship with McCudden is special, and Valabik was surprisingly open when talking about it.
"I can’t say enough about Kenny. He’s a great, great guy. I think we became really really close over the last two years and I haven’t gotten so close with anybody. It usually takes me a long time to get close with somebody, I’m that kind of guy. With Kenny it was different. He fits me as a person and on the professional side he helps me a lot — skating, puckmoving. I think I improved the last two years."
The sink or swim atmosphere of moving to the pro ranks can be tough for a rookie. McCudden’s work, being more one on one, can take a more nurturing angle. He often goes out for meals with players and is very approachable.
"We’re really close as friends and as a coach," Valabik said. "I can ask him anything. We can joke around, but then especially last year when it was my first year and kind of hard for me, he was kind of like my psychologist too."
They are so close that other people notice and comment on it.
"He loves Kenny McCudden," Waddell said, unprompted.
For his part, McCudden is positive, and realistic, about what Valabik still needs to do. He thinks it’s the mental game that’s going to be critical in getting Valabik to the next level. It’s something McCudden, who you could call a life coach on top of a hockey coach, can help with.
McCudden talked about Valabik’s progress this year as the Wolves regular season wound down, saying it was better than in his first year pro. Where he improved the most was in trusting himself with his skills.
"He tried a play in Rockford last night — it didn’t work — but at least he tried," McCudden described. "He could have made a simple play by keeping it deep, but he tried something that very gifted players have tried. Did it cause an odd-man rush? No. Did it cause the puck coming out of the zone? Yes. Things like that, Boris never tried last year. I believe he’s using his overall sense of the game, just feeling confident out there. At one time he used to rush himself, but I don’t find him rushing himself so much just to get rid of it. He realizes that he’s not being forced, and he’ll hold onto that puck a little bit longer and make the proper play."
Regarding their personal relationship, McCudden said it’s based somewhat on some shared personal history. McCudden’s own parents were first generation Scottish immigrants.
"I have a soft spot for him for the fact that he had to come here in a tough way to play junior hockey," he said. "As a European, probably his English wasn’t very good and he had to adapt to North America."
The Slovakian played his junior hockey for the OHL Kitchener Rangers, under coach Peter DeBoer, who happens to be a candidate for the open coaching position in Atlanta. It took Valabik less than a year to become completely fluent, so he had no language issues when he turned pro.
"I think where we hit it off right off the bat is that he has a good sense of humor. I like to joke with everybody and Boris and I became close."
Valabik is a receptive student of not just McCudden, but anyone who he thinks can help him. And McCudden said Valabik can’t get enough work in. The team often plays three games in three nights on weekends, so the players are given Monday off to rest. But Valabik will go to McCudden and ask if he’s open for skating on Monday.
"I’ll say ‘no problem, Boris, but we have the day off. Go speak to the coaches.’ He’ll go in and ask," said McCudden. "Sometimes we do skate, but probably 80 percent of the time we don’t because the coaches will want him to have the day off like everyone else. That shows you how intense he is with his training."
To cite another example, the Thrashers held Valabik out of prospects camp last July because he was still rehabbing his ankle, and knew he wouldn’t be able to hold himself to below full speed.
It is perhaps because of his deficiencies that Valabik has made a habit of outworking other players. With the smaller, quicker defensemen that now make up the NHL, Valabik is a bit of an anachronism. His size at 6’7 was what got him drafted 10th overall in 2004. He uses both the wingspan and the power that comes with it. But it’s also what hinders him. Mobility, particularly laterally, is a concern.
"He knows that’s the toughest thing, and it is tough for bigger players," McCudden acknowledged. "His mobility has gotten stronger overall through hard work and a lot of repetition with exercises we do on the ice along with bringing that to a game situation. The bottom line is starting to trust himself — realizing that he is getting to the next level. I think between the ears once you feel that way, you’re only going to progress."
It’s clear from his own comments that Valabik has the right attitude and high aspirations.
"I don’t want to just play in the NHL, I want to be a successful defensive defenseman and help my team, be on the ice the last five minutes of a game and on big PKs. To do that, I need to work on everything — skating, puckmoving, stickhandling abilities — everything."
Bigger players like him have another issue to contend with — they are very tough on skates. Valabik’s ankle problems last year had a good deal to do with the fact that he was wearing a very soft, broken-in boot, one which is in realilty not supportive enough for him. So, this year he is keeping to stiff skates, which means going through more pairs. Valabik went through three pairs this season, and indeed avoided the major ankle problems of 2006-07 in doing so.
Valabik scored eight points in 58 AHL games, and no points in seven NHL games. Offense isn’t his game, which he certainly realizes. His progress isn’t going to show up much on the scoresheet, but has him hearing encouraging words from above.
"Boris is liking what he hears from others, liking what people see in him," McCudden said.
When he came back from Atlanta when the NHL season ended, all agreed that Valabik, typically more of a follower, was more confident.
"There’s no doubt," McCudden said. "And I almost saw leadership abilities in him, and that’s not what Boris is about. Boris is out there to do his job as a third or fourth defenseman, but I almost saw leadership qualities coming out of him once he returned. You see that a lot with players who have played at the highest level and then come back to the American League."
Czech goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who also made his NHL debut this year, agreed that Valabik returned to Chicago feeling better about himself.
"You play in the NHL, you make it. It’s your dream. If you make your dreams, you feel stronger, more confident," Pavelec said.
As his his roommate and friend, Pavelec is one of Valabik’s biggest cheerleaders. "He played great all season. Has a good shot, he’s tough a little bit," he laughed, knowing it was an understatement..
Both his size and his temper make Valabik quite fearsome — a grizzly bear you poke with caution. He finds himself in plenty of altercations.
"I don’t feel like I need to do it, but I have always been like that," he said. "I got in trouble for it back home all the time because I was stepping up for my teammates."
It was in fact a reason that Valabik came to North America to play junior in the first place — his physical game was not welcomed in Slovakia.
Valabik had 229 penalty minutes in 58 AHL games this year, and 42 penalty minutes in seven NHL games. His are mostly aggressive penalties — fighting, roughing, elbowing, charging. They put the team down a man often, but Wolves head coach John Anderson said that Valabik needs to play on the edge to be effective. So at least publicly, he’s not discouraging him.
The real issue comes at the point that he would get a reputation as a loose cannon, taking retaliatory penalties. Valabik is in danger of a reputation as someone who can be goaded.
Popovic spoke to this, pointing out that sometimes Valabik takes the opposition’s top players off with him, but agreed, "It’s something he knows he needs to work on in terms of timing of penalties, but something he’s gotten a lot better at since he turned pro last year til now. I know he’s been working on it."
The Thrashers have a lot of defensemen under contract next year, including Toby Enstrom, Nic Havelid and Garnet Exelby. With upgrades added to the mix, it makes for a crowded blue line, one which will be tough for a rookie to crack.
Asked if he felt Valabik was ready for the NHL next season, McCudden said that if he had a strong playoffs with the Wolves, did the right things in the summer, and "comes out of the blocks properly" in training camp, he surely could.
In the playoffs, Valabik has maintained the confidence he gained by being called up, and contributed in places he’s not expected to, scoring three goals — two of them in one game. That’s as many as he’s scored the past two regular seasons combined.
Valabik has long had a good, strong slap shot, having registered a 93.3 mph shot at a Top Prospects game in his draft year. With his height, he has a lot of torque behind his shot. He just has a reluctance to use it.
Nevertheless, he’s using it now, and he surely knows that Atlanta is watching as well.
McCudden said a few days ago that he felt Valabik has played really well for the two rounds so far. "He came back from Atlanta a better player in every way."
His penchant for penalty minutes didn’t wane, especially given that the team has faced its two main rivals, the Milwaukee Admirals and the Rockford IceHogs. Valabik has 53 penalty minutes in just 13 playoff games. Now it’s on to the conference finals.
"We all know that he’s tough, he’s strong, he can fight. He’s not going to turn his back," McCudden said of Valabik’s chances in Thrashers camp the fall. "But the hands have got to be there, the skating’s got to be there, his all-around outlook of the game, seeing the game, and defensively playing the game have got to be there."
Meanwhile, in addition to his planned work with McCudden and Ray Bear this summer, another source of instruction is possible. Five or six Thrashers are considering attending a puckhandling camp in Sweden, "half vacation, half training," Valabik called it. The camp is popular with top pros in Sweden, becoming more popular in the past two years.
It may be a little less vacation for Valabik than the others, as his need for the camp is high, while his hold on a roster spot is only tenuous.
"Just being in the NHL is a great accomplishment, but you don’t want to stop working," he said. "Nothing’s for sure next year."
Asked if he thought he played well enough in Atlanta to be penciled in for next season, Valabik deflected that question to the coaching staff.
Waddell is putting down the coaching hat, but said Valabik needs to come into training camp in September with an eye on a roster spot, with an attitude of "it’s my job."
Is he prepared to have that attitude? The no-nonsense player said, "If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t go to the camp."