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The Z Factor

by Doug Brumley / Nashville Predators
Just like any other workplace, the Predators’ locker room is populated with a wide range of personalities. If the affable Darcy Hordichuk--a hard-hitting, quip-spinning winger who has never met a stranger--stands at one extreme, 29-year-old Predators defenseman Marek Zidlicky would have to be positioned at the other. Quiet and reserved, Zidlicky shies away from interviews and remains a bit of a closed book even to some of his teammates and coaches. While he might lay low in the locker room, the man they call “Z” certainly stands out on the ice, where his play speaks volumes.

“If you were around the team, you probably wouldn't even know he was around,” Zidlicky’s teammate Paul Kariya says. “He doesn't say too much, but he definitely has a presence to him and you know that when he's suiting up for you, you've got a lot better chance of winning than when he's not.”

A sixth-round draft choice by the New York Rangers in June of 2001, Zidlicky was acquired by Nashville 18 months later and has only played in the National Hockey League for the past two seasons. Before his NHL career, the Czech Republic native spent the previous nine years with teams in Czech and Finnish leagues. “He didn't go through that stage where guys come out of junior or college and go through the transition,” says Predators assistant coach Peter Horachek. As a result, Zidlicky was relatively unknown when he came to North America. That’s not the case any more.

In his 2003-04 debut campaign, Zidlicky was one of seven NHL defensemen to eclipse the 50-point mark. His 53 points that season--14 goals and 39 assists--still stand as the Predators’ franchise record for scoring by a defenseman. His 49 points in 2005-06 cemented his reputation as one of the most dynamic and skilled defensemen in the sport.

“He has some of the greatest talent I've ever seen in any player, let alone a defenseman,” says Kariya, who has skated alongside legends in seven NHL All-Star Games. “He's a terrific passer. He sees the game well. He has a great shot. He just does everything extremely well. He has that knack, that offensive gift that very few players have.”

Those attributes led Predators general manager David Poile to sign Zidlicky to a four-year contract in May, locking in a player who could have marketed his skills to the highest bidder had he not re-signed with Nashville by July 1.

“He is just a unique player that does things with the puck--shooting it, passing it--that really separate him from almost every defenseman in the league,” Poile says. “We feel that he's a young 29 getting to free agency and a young NHL player in the fact that he's only played two full seasons over here. We think and hope that the best is yet to come. We think it was the best thing to do for our franchise.”

Friend and Predators teammate Tomas Vokoun, who says he’s known Zidlicky since 1993 when the two played for the same Czech league team for a couple of seasons, was excited by the signing. “I was very happy for him,” Vokoun says. “He certainly deserves it. It's a big contract for Nashville. I think they did the right thing to keep him, because in my opinion he's an impact player.”

“I think what makes Marek special is he doesn't have a panic point,” Predators head coach Barry Trotz says. “His ability to move the puck and handle the puck in tight spaces is amazing. He's got great vision, and more than anything he's got that great poise that separates a lot of the elite players from the ordinary players. He's got that special quality. Take that and the way he can shoot the puck, it makes him a real special offensive weapon.”

No one on the Predators roster knows more about Zidlicky’s shooting ability than Vokoun, a goaltender who has faced the defenseman’s blasts in practice for years. “Personally, I don't think his shot is any harder than other people’s, but he just knows where he's shooting and he can actually hit it,” Vokoun says. “And it takes him a really short time to fire the puck. That's so much better for you as a player than standing there and waving your stick for two seconds and then taking a shot, because everybody's ready by that point.”

When teams successfully guard against Zidlicky’s shot, he can burn them with his keen passing ability. “He sees the ice quicker and moves the puck quicker,” says Horachek, who coaches Zidlicky on the Predators’ top power-play unit. “He sees things that most people don't see, or it takes them longer. He sees it instantly. He can make those passes across ice, 60-foot passes. He can make them through legs. He can make little saucer passes over the stick. He can pretty much pass as good as anyone I've ever seen in the National Hockey League.”

“A lot of times he'll sell shot and then he'll pass it across the crease,” Trotz says. “A lot of times
Zidlicky and fellow Czech Martin Erat
[his teammates] aren't ready for it.”

Zidlicky’s vision and skill set make him a natural fit for the Predators power play, which he has sparked since coming over from Europe in 2003. According to Poile, the 5-11, 190-pound native of Most, Czech Republic balked at moving to North America when the Rangers offered him a “two-way” contract that would pay him one scale at the NHL level and a lesser rate if and when he was reassigned to a minor-league affiliate.

“We'd made a decision that we were going to trade [goaltender] Mike Dunham,” Poile said, providing the backstory to the Dec. 12, 2002 transaction that made Zidlicky a Predator. “The places that we could trade him were really limited, and basically it came down to the Rangers. They were not offering too much off of their team, and they were saying that they had some prospects in Europe.”

Of course, one of those prospects was Zidlicky, whom Predators European scout Janne Kekalainen was familiar with from the Finnish league. According to Poile, Kekalainen believed that the Rangers draftee was one of the best offensive defensemen in Finland. As a result, the Predators agreed to the trade, in which they also received Tomas Kloucek and Rem Murray from New York, and gave Zidlicky a one-way contract that lured him across the Atlantic.

Zidlicky played his first NHL game on Oct. 9, 2003, and according to Vokoun, the defenseman is still adjusting to North America. “He's a funny guy,” Vokoun says. “He's just one of those guys who's not as outgoing at first as some other people, but once you get to know him he's not as quiet as you would think. It takes a while to adjust in a different country, and it's not just that he seems shy--he is shy.”

As for his off-ice interests, Zidlicky is a husband and father who likes cars, working out and a variety of other sports. “I think he's the No. 1 ping-pong player on our team,” Kariya says. He also spends a lot of time with teammates Vokoun and Martin Erat, the other two Czech players on the Nashville roster. “I think everybody [on the team] is interacting with everybody, but obviously you do a little bit more with the people who speak your native language,” says Vokoun, who sees Zidlicky come out of his shell once around close friends or in his homeland.

“I think that's the biggest thing people probably don't know about him, how he would react especially with the media guys and all that,” Vokoun says. “It's a lot different when he's back home than here in North America.”

In the Czech Republic, Zidlicky has taken on a larger role with his country’s national squad since becoming an NHL player. He tied for second among tournament defenseman in scoring at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey then was instrumental in securing gold and bronze medals for the Czechs at the 2005 World Championship and the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, respectively.

“He only started two years ago, playing for the national team, at least at the big tournaments,” Vokoun says. “He was part of it, but coaches never seemed to give him chances until he broke into the NHL and did really well. He's been unbelievable.... He always scores a lot and he plays really well for the national team.”

Zidlicky’s contributions in Nashville have been fantastic too. He has clicked especially well
Zidlicky and Paul Kariya
with crafty wingers Kariya and Steve Sullivan. In Sullivan’s storybook Predators debut on Feb. 18, 2004--when he scored a hat trick after being acquired in a trade--it was Zidlicky who assisted on all three of Sullivan’s goals plus two others, tying the franchise record for the most points in a game by an individual. And this January in Detroit, when Kariya’s breakaway game-winner in overtime gave Nashville a sweep of back-to-back games at Joe Louis Arena, it was Zidlicky who set up the play.

“He threw about an 85-foot saucer pass that landed flat on the ice to Paul Kariya for the overtime winner,” Trotz says. “I can't think of too many guys in the world that can do that. He's one of the guys that can.”

Trotz has also frequently used Zidlicky’s unique offensive skills when tied games came down to a shootout to determine a winner. The NHL’s newly instituted showdown that pits a shooter against a goaltender in a one-on-one battle may seem better suited to a forward than a defenseman, but not when that defenseman is Marek Zidlicky.

“In a shootout, he's one of the most creative guys with the puck,” Trotz says. “Also, he's one of the most accurate shooters. He can throw the puck in his feet and bump it up to his stick in one motion without any break in momentum or anything. He is really a talent when it comes to handling the puck and doing things with it.”

As it turns out, Zidlicky doesn’t need to say much to make an impression. The quiet and reserved individual in the Predators locker room is turning heads anyway.

“I think now [teams are] starting to respect the fact that he is so capable of making that special play to break a game open or get those goals,” Horachek says. “I definitely think that he was under the radar but I think that the league is starting to recognize his abilities.”
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