• 2010-11 Connecticut Whale Game-by-Game
• Your View: Will Valentenko Make Roster?
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
The reason Rangers fans can expect Russian defenseman Pavel Valentenko
to make a very strong run at one of the team's roster spots in training camp is simple: He's already done it once.
If you saw Valentenko, a 6-foot-2, 225-pounder, come off an injury-plagued KHL season to turn a lot of heads at the Blueshirts' 2010 training camp, then you already know what the man nicknamed "Tank" is capable of becoming at the NHL level. Those who have scouted and coached him have equally high hopes.
Prior to last year's training camp, most Rangers fans likely didn’t know much about Valentenko, who still has virtually his whole pro career ahead of him at age 23. Obtained along with Ryan McDonagh
as part of the June 30, 2009, trade involving Scott Gomez, the former Montreal Canadiens fifth-round pick did not actually make it to New York for a full year. When he finally did arrive, he was sure to make his mark.
When he was traded to the Blueshirts, Valentenko had time remaining on his KHL contract with Moscow Dynamo. After spending a full season with the Canadiens' American Hockey League affiliate in Hamilton, Ontario, Valentenko had gone back to Russia in the hope of earning more money to support his family there. The two year-deal enabled him to do that, but it didn't work out nearly as well on the ice, because a series of injuries limited him to just eight games in 2008-09 and seven more in 2009-10.
Upon returning to North America last fall, Valentenko was determined to make the Rangers roster. He showed up early to work out and skate with the Rangers veterans at the MSG Training Center, and once the preseason began, he was on a mission to survive the cuts.
In four 2010 preseason games, Valentenko saw plenty of ice time, led by his 20:09 at Detroit on Sept. 26. He also got shots through to the net in every game he played and picked up an assist on a goal by Derek Stepan
for a 4-1 lead in a 5-1 win over the Red Wings on Sept. 29 at MSG.
|Pavel Valentenko won praise from the Connecticut Whale coaching staff for the guts he displayed on defense, particularly his willingness to block shots. |
Cut after cut came and went during that 2010 training camp, and Valentenko survived until the final one, when he, McDonagh, Dale Weise, and Mats Zuccarello
all narrowly missed spots on the opening-night roster. In just over one year, Valentenko had emerged from the background of the Gomez trade to the foreground of the Rangers' pipeline.
At the time Valentenko left training camp, Rangers head coach John Tortorella made mention of the contributions he had made, noting that he had "a chance to be part of the core here."
Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel, said he wasn't at all surprised by Tortorella’s reaction or the impact Valentenko had on training camp.
"Valentenko is someone we've always referred to as a 'North American type of player'," said Clark. "We had watched him the draft year, and we had watched him in Hamilton for the amount of time he was there, and we still saw those attributes that he had as far as really giving you a lot of heart in the game and playing physical."
Assigned to the Hartford Wolf Pack to begin his 2010-11 season, Valentenko remained with the AHL team through the historic season in which its named changed to the Connecticut Whale. He finished the season tied for the Whale lead with a plus-21 rating, while contributing five goals and 12 assists for 17 points in 79 games.
Three things marked Valentenko's second full AHL season and first in the Rangers organization. The first was his tendency to crack the scoresheet in big moments. The second was his ability to rapidly pile up numbers in the plus side of the plus-minus ledger, and the third was his remarkable month of March, when he scored seven points and was plus-15 for 14 games. Valentenko was playing his very best hockey by the end of the season – right when crunch time arrived in the playoff race.
In the Whale's 7-2 win at Worcester on March 6, Valentenko erupted for a goal and assist to go with his season-high plus-4 rating. That was his biggest game in terms of point production and plus-minus, but it was hardly his biggest moment. He had four games during the season with a minimum plus-3 rating, and on a team that went 9-4-2 when Valentenko registered at least one point, there were three unforgettable games when he made the difference between victory and defeat.
|Defenseman Pavel Valentenko takes New Jersey's David Clarkson down to the ice during a 2010 NHL preseason game. Hits like this one are evidence of what Valentenko can become at the NHL level. |
The first big moment came on Dec. 1 at Worcester, when Valentenko assisted on a goal that forced overtime at 15:40 of the third period. The second moment came during a 3-2 home win over Springfield on March 2. On that Wednesday night, Springfield had tied the game on a power play with 42 seconds remaining. Not to be denied, Valentenko set up John Mitchell for the game-winner with only eight seconds left.
Perhaps Valentenko's biggest moment took place at home during a 3-2 overtime shootout win over Charlotte. The Checkers were leading that March 25 game 2-0 with less than three minutes remaining, but Valentenko opened the door to victory by scoring at 17:39 of the third period. Fellow defenseman Stu Bickel
followed with the tying goal just over a minute later, and the Whale went on to win in overtime.
While his offensive contributions are noteworthy, the thing that really stood out about Valentenko in 2010-11 was something that would have made him a good fit for head coach John Tortorella's Rangers, too. He was the best shot-blocking defenseman on the Whale last season, as he possesses a skill that was so important to the Blueshirts' success and will serve him well in the 2011 preseason.
"One of his strengths would be shot-blocking. He loves to block shots and he's fearless in that regard," said Connecticut Whale head coach Ken Gernander. "So that makes him a pretty strong penalty-killer. He's going to be a defensive type of defenseman."
The other quality of Valentenko's that should make him a good fit on any Tortorella-coached team is his high level of competitiveness. When the fire is in his eyes, Valentenko can be a real physical force.
"He did have a good push and a good camp, and the (team) loved him" Jeff Gorton, the Rangers' Assistant GM, said of Valentenko. "It's typical sometimes for the coaches to feel out the players coming over from Russia to see what kind of guys they are as teammates. Everybody loved this guy for his heart."
One of the things Connecticut coaches worked on with Valentenko was his ability to read situations in his own zone and play the best positional game possible.
"Defense is a tough position," said Gernander. "There are a lot of adjustments, and there is a lot of learning to be done. And I think he did a very good job."
In fact, Gernander thinks Valentenko could be NHL-ready if he can just improve his consistency in the long grind that is a pro hockey season. After playing only 15 games in two KHL seasons, Valentenko was thrown right back into non-stop hockey with 79 games in the AHL. Keeping his battle level high was more of an issue due to the limited playing time in the previous two seasons, but Valentenko will likely be more in the swing of things this fall – particularly in light of how well he finished the season.
Clark has praised Valentenko for his ability to deliver big hits, and Gernander saw that ability throughout the 2010-11 season. The Connecticut head coach says the next step for the defenseman is to keep hitting at the forefront of his mind whenever possible.
"His ability to hit guys is there and he doesn't shy away from it," said Gernander. "He's got that ability, but he's just got to do it consistently so that every night when the opposition leaves the rink they are thinking: 'Holy smokes, do we really have to play against that guy again?'"
Given how well he played in last season's training camp, and the arc of his season with the Whale, Valentenko can be counted on to make the fight among defensemen for spots on the Rangers' 2011-12 opening night roster even more competitive. There will be a wealth of talented defensemen in camp, but only six or seven can expect to make it to the start of the season.
"It's wide open, and it's going to be wide open," Clark said of roster spots on defense. "We have a variety of different defensemen, and it's going to depend on how the coaches want to fill those positions. It might come down to just the type of player they feel they need."