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Konopka's statistical value goes beyond PIMs

Tuesday, 12.28.2010 / 1:49 PM / Features

By Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Konopka's statistical value goes beyond PIMs
Step out of line with Zenon Konopka on the ice, and the NHL's leader in fighting majors the past two seasons won't hesitate to straighten you out with a flurry of devastating punches.

Misquote some of Konopka's minor-league statistics while in his presence, and the same principle applies; he'll make sure to set you on the right path, only he won't rearrange your face for that infraction.

"You better do your research," Konopka said when asked about his 40-point seasons in the AHL. "Closer to a point a game."

Konopka, who joined the New York Islanders this season after stints with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Columbus Blue Jackets and Anaheim Ducks, is known for his hands, sure. But they're known more for dispensing hockey justice than dancing through traffic to score goals.

The 30-year-old from Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, led the League in penalty minutes with the Lightning last season and he's on pace to do it again with the Islanders. Konopka has dropped the gloves 44 times in 108 games the past two seasons, a number that would impress the toughest of tough guys from the days when fans would show up for a fight and a hockey game would break out.

Konopka has fought regularly at every level, but he wasn't kidding about his production in the minors, where he delivered plenty of offense to go with his overhand rights and lefts.

In 91 ECHL games with the Wheeling Nailers and Idaho Steelheads, Konopka racked up 28 goals, 98 points and 313 PIMs. It was much of the same during his 350 AHL games played between six cities over seven years: 103 goals, 166 assists and 1,023 PIMs.

It's not quite the point-per-game pace that Konopka boasted, but they're still pretty impressive numbers for a guy who considers "going top shelf" a punch to the face.

"I fought everywhere I've been, but I've also had an opportunity to play and put up points," Konopka said.  "At the end of the day, you have to figure out what your role is on the team and do that to the best of your ability. Looking toward the future, you want to show some of those offensive numbers eventually. I know why I'm here. You have to understand why you're here. Hopefully over the next few years I can start putting the puck in the back of the net."

Does Konopka think he can eventually duplicate those numbers in the NHL?

"Nine years ago, 10 years ago, no one thought I had a chance to be a 15-goal, 60-point guy in the AHL. They'd think you were crazy if that happens," Konopka said. "I don't like putting limitations on your career or your life because too many people put limitations on it. I just want to compete every night and try to help our team win. I think over the next few years, the offensive numbers should go up."

While Konopka waits to figure out the offensive side of his game in the NHL -- he had 2 goals and 5 points in 74 games last season and has just 1 goal and 4 points in 34 games this season -- he's been arguably the League's best faceoff man.

It's difficult to find someone in the game today who fights as often as Konopka but also has secondary skills to be a valuable hockey player. Yet he's won 59.6 percent of faceoffs this season, ranking him sixth in the League. Among players to take at least 500 draws, that percentage ranks fourth.

His dominance on faceoffs isn't a fluke, either. With centers Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos taking most of the draws in Tampa last season, Konopka only took 462 with his former club. Perhaps he should've taken a few more, seeing as how he won 62.3 percent of them.
Almost fittingly, Konopka said he had the importance of winning faceoffs drilled into him at a very young age.

"When I was 12 years old, we had a coach, Al Boone, who kept track of a lot of stats, and faceoffs was one of them," Konopka explained. "Obviously when you get a piece of paper every week and you compare it to your buddies that you go to school with, and you play hockey with, you want to be the best. That's where it started.

"Playing in Ottawa (with the 67's of the OHL) with (coach) Brian Kilrea, he put a lot of emphasis on faceoffs as well. It kind of came as a passion. The better you get at it, the more you realize life on the ice is a lot easier when you start with the puck. Especially for the fourth line in the AHL, when you have guys that can bang and fight and forecheck quite well, it's a lot easier when you have the puck and you can dump it in and go after them rather than be on the defensive side of it."

Konopka's value on faceoffs earned him a role as one of the Islanders' primary forwards on the penalty kill. At 80.8 percent, the Isles' PK ranks a pedestrian 19th. But with Konopka as a major part of the unit, it's far improved over last season when it ranked 29th at 76.3 percent.
It's an added but welcomed responsibility for Konopka, who rarely saw any penalty-killing time with the Lightning.

"Tampa was a unique situation where they had a lot of players who played that role," said Konopka, who averaged just four seconds of shorthanded ice time per game last season.  "There wasn't a lot of opportunity there. Before last year, I PK'd a lot in Anaheim when I played 23 games. It was something I missed out of my game and missed contributing in that way.

"I'm getting the chance to PK now and it's going pretty well. Obviously faceoffs are a big part of it as well. You win faceoffs and you can get the puck down, your two-minute power play turns into 1:45."

Now that Konopka is carrying so much value as a faceoff man and penalty killer, will all the fighting get in the way? There was a point earlier in the season when Konopka was on pace for 390 penalty minutes, which would have been the most in the NHL since 1983-84.

He's slowed a bit over the last 10 games and is now on pace for a mere 297 penalty minutes, which would be the third-highest total since 2001-02. Is it possible Konopka is realizing he's too valuable to spend so much time in the penalty box?

"Nope. It's just coincidence," Konopka said. "I take it one game at a time. You take one game and you bring a passion and intensity. I've lived my life off intensity and passion, and maybe in everyday life it gets me in trouble once in a while, but on the ice it's gotten to me where I am right now so I've never changed my game.

"Even though I can be somewhat reckless on the ice and intense, it's all pretty much calculated and nothing's bigger than the team."

It's that free-wheeling, reckless attitude with a pinch of smarts that got him to the NHL in the first place, so why change now? As long as Konopka sticks in the NHL, he's going to use the same philosophy that got him from the ECHL to the NHL as an undrafted free agent.

And really, who could blame him?

"I was asked last year in Tampa, 'Is it all worth it?' " Konopka said. "My hands were mangled and my face, I've had over 500 stitches in my face during my career. He asked, 'Is it worth it? Do you think about your future when you're 40, 50, 60 years old?' I said when I played in Wheeling, West Virginia, I made 300 bucks after taxes a week. I didn't care about it. I loved it.

"It's a process like any other job. Sometimes you have to run the coffee or run the mail before you get to actually work. Obviously right now you're on cloud nine because you're doing what you love to do for a living and you get to play with a great bunch of guys and have that outlet for that intensity."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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