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Visnovsky emerging from radar blackout

by Larry Wigge
Defensemen not named Nick Lidstrom, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara and Dion Phaneuf often fly under the radar. But those who play in the Western Conference often are anonymous because of the time change between East and West.

Take Lubomir Visnovsky as our prime example.

For seven seasons, Visnovsky played in Los Angeles, but still flew under the radar because of the team's struggles over the last five seasons. Still, Visnovsky led Kings defensemen in scoring in three of the last four seasons and topped the entire roster in points in 2005-06 (67).

Now that he calls Edmonton home, Visnovsky is beginning to get some recognition. Perhaps it's the fact the games in Edmonton start an hour earlier, or even more so because of his play. Visnovsky's already drawn a lot of attention with his ability to move the puck up ice, jump into openings and create offense, as well as his puck skills and hard shot.

Some Oilers fans might see similarities between Visnovsky and former Oilers great Paul Coffey. There is the skating speed, the puck skills and the hard shot. But for now, Visnovsky prefers to get established in Edmonton, rather than elicit comparisons with a Hall of Famer like Coffey.

"I didn't know what to think when my agent called to let me know about the trade," Visnovsky said after he learned he had been traded on draft day in June to Edmonton for center Jarret Stoll and defenseman Matt Greene. "My fiancee and I were already nervous, because we were expecting our first child. I was looking for security. I thought I had it when I signed a long deal with the Kings. The trade? That made me mad. I thought I had their word I wasn't going anywhere."

Oops. Something must have been lost in the translation.

"I was confused," he further explained. "I thought I could not be traded (as part of his five-year contract)."

But the no-trade part of his contract apparently didn't officially kick in until one day after the draft. Now that Visnovsky has had time to digest the ramifications of the trade and the ensuing move, new addition to his family, and new teammates, he has no complaints.

"I still don't know why they traded me, but it doesn't matter now," the 32-year-old defenseman said. "I'm starting a new life here. … Sometimes in February we'd be out of the playoffs already. That was tough. In Canada, hockey's the No. 1 sport like it is in Slovakia. Here, I have a chance at the playoffs on a team that has won the Stanley Cup five times. That's good, right?"

Even after seven full NHL seasons, Lubomir apologizes for his halting English. But while he may still be a little hesitant about opening up to the media about his past, he speaks volumes with his play. And he knows a little more about NHL history than you might think.

He laughed when asked about arriving in Edmonton and being assigned No. 71, but he showed an insight about hockey in Edmonton, when he added, "I've had 17 all my life, since I was 5-years-old, but I know about Oilers history, the championship teams ... Gretzky, Messier, Paul Coffey and the others. I also know that Jari Kurri wore No. 17 and the number is hanging in the rafters."

Visnovsky, who's played in three Olympics for Slovakia and a couple of World Cups, seems a perfect fit for the Oilers.

"We feel we've made a step toward improving our overall offense," Oilers President Kevin Lowe said. "Lubomir is a world-class defensemen who has been one of the premier offensive-defensemen over the past five years."

Teamed on defense with Sheldon Souray at the start of the season, Visnovsky may remind a lot of Oilers fans of Coffey the way he skates, moves the puck and shoots.

"He's a very creative player," Souray said. "With his shot, he opens things up and he sees the ice really well."

And with Souray's heavy shot, the Oilers have three offensive defensemen, along with Tom Gilbert, who have the knack of getting the puck up to Edmonton's quick forwards like Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Andrew Cogliano and Ethan Moreau.

"'Vis' is so good on the one-timer," said Calgary Flames forward Mike Cammalleri, who played the past five seasons in Los Angeles with Lubomir. "With him and Souray back there, you can take away one, but you can't take both away. It's pick your poison."

Visnovsky went from 17 goals and 67 points in 2005-06, when he led the Kings in scoring, to 18 goals and 58 points the next season and fell to eight goals and 41 points last season.

"I wasn't as effective because Marc Crawford put me on the left side," he said. "On the right side, I can get off my one-timer quicker and I have a better angle on the net."

At 5-foot-10, 188 pounds, Visnovsky is on the smallish side. Still,  his skill should have made him better than a fourth-round draft choice (No. 118) in the 2000 Entry Draft. Still, teams continue to be surprised by Visnovsky's skills -- his speed, quickness, puck skills and shot.

Not Blackhawks coach Joel Quennevile though.

"He's more than that small guy on defense who has some skills,"  said Quenneville, who in St. Louis and Colorado would always have to include a warning to his players in the pre-game speech to keep an eye on Visnovsky. "You really have to watch for him coming in late because he's got such great speed and power and a rocket shot."

"Maybe a lot of fans don't know how good he is, but the people who have to play against him know what skills he brings to the game," Blues coach Andy Murray seconded. "To me, you've got Lidstrom and Pronger and Niedermayer, but Lubie has to be among the top eight defensemen in the NHL.

"He's one of fastest skaters among defensemen in the game and he just pounds the puck," Murray continued. "But what I liked about him most when I coached him in Los Angeles was that he came to the rink with a smile on his face every day. On the ice, he's grittier than most would think. He's really tough. He'll play through injuries."

Murray wasn't finished. He then told me about the first time he had Visnovsky on the ice with him.

"I was told he understood English pretty well," Murray laughed. "So I started to explain to him what we want our defensemen to do and how I thought it was really important for our 'D' to move the puck quickly out of our zone and keep a tight distance between them and the forwards in transition, so that they could jump in late and take advantage of scoring opportunities. He looked at me with a big smile and said, 'Hockey good, coach.' "

Oilers Coach Craig MacTavish laughed and said, "He's come a long way from that day, hasn't he?"

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