by Alan Adams - Special to newyorkrangers.com
HELSINKI, Finland - Ivan Baranka
(right) plays for a team based in the United States that belongs to the Canadian Hockey League. He represented Slovakia here in the Finnish capital and loved being part of the World Junior Hockey Championship.
But night after night, guess what he dreamed about doing at the World Junior.
"Playing for the New York Rangers," says Baranka. "I had dreams every night about playing for the Rangers."
Baranka was the Rangers' second pick, 50th, overall in the NHL draft last June after having a great season for playing junior hockey in his homeland of Slovakia. The 6-foot-two, 180-pound defenseman had one goal and eight points in 27 games but his contributions can't be measured by statistics alone.
Baranka is a smooth skater who is a fierce competitor, and there is a great future ahead of him in the Rangers' organization.
He left his homeland last summer to test his wares for the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League. He realized the best way for him to make the jump to the NHL was to make the move to Everett where he coached by ex-NHL coach Kevin Constantine. Everett is 25 miles from Seattle, Wash.
There's no doubt that scouts can get a better read on whether players like Baranka have the right stuff to make the step up to the NHL by seeing how they handle the rigors and routine of major junior hockey.
Don Maloney, the Rangers' Assistant General Manager and VP of Player Personnel, says the move has been beneficial and he's noticed the improvement in Baranka at the World Junior Championship where the prospect measured himself on the top teens in the world.
"He is a big kid who has to get stronger. He has to get thicker but he skates really well and he has excellent hands and moves the puck well," says Maloney. "He has excellent potential. We encouraged him to make the move.
"He plays a lot there in all situations and I think it is a great environment. If he got stronger over the off-season, he would look harder at putting him in Hartford as a 19-year-old. He has that ability."
Like all Europeans who cross the sea to North America and major junior ranks, there is an adjustment period on and off the ice and Baranka was no different. He was basically a stranger in a strange land. His English was spotty but thankfully he's a quick learner.
"I learned English there quickly. I live by myself. My parents are in Slovakia so I am alone. Nobody takes care of me, just my host family takes care of me," he says. "The first two months, I felt terrible but now it is OK. I have new friends and I am going to school and I've met my teammates."
The learning curve on the ice was equally challenging.
"I played many years in Slovakia so when I came to the Western Hockey League I had some problems. I always stayed on the blue line when I should have gone to the red line, things like that. But I've learned and have been taught well."
Maloney says the fact that Baranka was willing to make the move speaks well of his character.
"It is impressive. More and more of the serious players are doing it. He has had good success. He just seems to fit into the smaller rink and it does not bother him a bit. And for us that is encouraging."
Baranka was asked to give a thumb-nail sketch of himself.
"I think I am a hard worker and a strong skater. I am a good passer and I can think quick on the ice. I have good hockey sense but I have to be more physical and get stronger and make quicker decisions. It is my life to play in New York. I think about it every day, to play for the Rangers. I'll play there but I have to get better. I have to work on it."
Baranka went to the Rangers' prospect camp last August and he crossed paths with a couple of other recent Blueshirt draft picks - Nigel Dawes and Ivan Dornic - in his tour of Western Hockey League arenas. Dawes (149th overall in 2003) plays for Kootney (British Columbia) while Dornic (176th in '03) is in Portland, Ore. After the game, they'd talk about becoming teammates in the NHL.
Maloney sees a bright future in the Rangers organization for Baranka.
"For him it is an issue of strength and filling out and if he can gain that 15 pounds without losing that mobility and speed," says Maloney. "He has a real chance of being a good player. He is still kind of a growing kid but is more of a thickening of him than anything. We are really high on him."
Dawes, meanwhile, scored twice in Canada's 4-3 loss to the United States in the gold medal final on Monday and finished the tournament tied for first among all players with 11 points. His six goals also led all skaters. Dawes rifled a wrist shot into the top left corner of the net on Canada's first shot of the game and then he deflected a shot in the second period to give Canada a 2-1 lead.
The Americans rallied for three goals in the third, giving Team USA its first gold medal in 28 years.
Dawes took the loss hard.
"We thought things were going pretty well and we kind of sat back in the third period and made a couple of mental mistakes and it kind of cost us," he said afterwards. "The last goal was self-explanatory. Things weren't meant to be tonight."
One day, Dawes will overcome the sting of losing and realize that a silver medal is a great accomplishment.
"You learn from these experiences," says Maloney.BARANKA WJC NOTES:
Baranka finished the World Junior Championship with two points (one goal, one assist) and eight penalty minutes in six matches with Slovakia, who finished sixth overall.RELATED WJC LINKS:Dawes Shining at World JuniorsNHL.com WJC Coverage