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Palffy still dominates Slovak hockey

by Bill Meltzer
Zigmund Palffy always has been a player who has skated against the grain. During his 12 NHL seasons, he was one of the League's more unconventional stars. At a generously listed 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds, the right winger was an undersized player in an era where size dominated.

Palffy consistently put up impressive scoring numbers at a time when league-wide scoring was down. He was generally a member of also-ran clubs and was known as a purely offensive-minded talent, but he landed on the positive end of the plus-minus ledger eight times.

Two years ago, Palffy came out of retirement to sign with his hometown HK 38 Skalica team of the Slovak Extraliga. It's somewhat unusual for the top returning Slovak players to play in the domestic league. Instead, the majority of Slovak veterans opt for the Russian, Swiss, Swedish, Czech, German or even Austrian leagues. It's not a matter of lack of patriotism. Rather it's because the salaries, the quality of play, and the standards of coaching are not up to the standards of other prominent European hockey countries.

Palffy, whose retirement from the NHL in January 2006 came about as a result of chronic injuries, has dominated Slovak hockey ever since his return. Last season, he tore apart the competition to the tune of 52 goals and 99 points in 53 regular-season games, missing only one game due to injury.

So far this season, Palffy has picked right up where he left off. In 11 league games to date, the Skalica native leads the league with 21 points (7 goals, 14 assists) and has exhibited strong chemistry with center Miroslav Zalesak. Combined, they've tallied 16 of the 40 goals the team has scored this season. Palffy also is tied with veteran HC Slovan Bratislava right winger Lubomir Vaic (a former Vancouver Canucks player) with a league-best plus-18 rating.

At 37, Palffy doesn't have quite the explosive speed he had in his prime, but he is still plenty fast enough to beat most Extraliga defensemen to the outside. His shot release is still world class and he can pick corners or deke goaltenders almost at will when he's in the clear.

Coached by Peter Oremus, HK 36 Skalica currently sits in third place in the league, six points behind perennial powerhouse Bratislava and two points behind HC 05 Banska Bystrica. Apart from Palffy, Skalica's most prominent players include Zalesak, former Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Filip Novak, forward Richard Hartmann and starting goaltender Martin Falter.

Before the start of the season, Palffy received an invitation from the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation to join the national team on its preliminary roster for the upcoming Olympics in Vancouver. Other prominent names on the list include reigning Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik, Lubomir Visnovsky, Pavol Demitra, Miroslav Satan, Michal Handzus, Jaroslav Halak and former NHL left winger Ladislav Nagy (now with Severstal Cherepovets of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League).

With the IIHF World Championships slated to come to Slovakia in the spring of 2011, Palffy may elect to play an additional season beyond the current one. With Palffy, however, the only thing that's for certain is that he'll make his own decision without paying much mind to outside pressure.

Despite his decision to play at home and his dominance of the league, Palffy has been a vocal critic of both the level of play in the league and the depressed state of Slovak hockey in general. Earlier this year, Palffy made headlines at home for a diatribe on the problems with hockey in his homeland and has not backed off any of his statements. In the meantime, he's doing his part to raise the caliber of domestic hockey by continuing to build his legacy for Skalica.

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