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Valentenko set to cross ocean again

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
DAY 17

Pavel Valentenko (D)
'20 Prospects' Series Home Page
Valentenko 2009-10 Game-by-Game Review

By Dan David,

When a European player leaves the NHL to go back home, the assumption among North American fans might be that he was homesick, uncomfortable with the NHL game or lifestyle, or never really serious about pursuing an NHL career.

In the case of 22-year-old defenseman Pavel Valentenko, a highly-rated prospect whom the Rangers acquired from Montreal last June 30, any of these assumptions would be completely incorrect. The truth is that Valentenko wants nothing more than to play in the NHL, and he wants to do it as a Ranger.

Four years ago, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Valentenko was not among the 2006 NHL Entry Draft's high-profile prospects -- ranking No. 123 on NHL Central Scouting's European skaters list -- when the Canadiens drafted him 139th overall in the fifth-round at Vancouver. Over the next two seasons, however, he raised his stock dramatically, beginning with his final year in the Russian league on his hometown Nizhnekamsk club team. That was followed by an impressive 57 games with the Habs' AHL affiliate in 2007-08.

Playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs in his first North American pro season, Valentenko emerged as a strong NHL prospect. He showed great promise as a shut-down defender who routinely made it a long night for the other teams' players. Coming off his big AHL rookie season, he reported to the Canadiens’ 2008 training camp but was among the final cuts. He went back to Hamilton, where he played four games before making the difficult decision to accept an offer from Moscow Dynamo of the KHL.

Valentenko's reason for going home came down to a dire need to help provide for members of his family, including his parents. Having missed his shot at the NHL roster, he had an opportunity to go back to his native country with a substantial KHL contract that would mean the world to those he so desperately wanted to assist.

Injuries limited defenseman Pavel Valentenko's action over the past two seasons in Russia, but he is fully healed and ready to make a mark in North America should he arrive at training camp this fall.
"He (Valentenko) was concerned about how his family would survive. It wasn't a situation where he just took off," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel. "He went to the Canadiens first, unlike some other guys who just go home. He told them that he didn't want to leave, but he had to for the best interest of his family. So he did it, and he had to set his pro career back for that. Now he's ready to come back to North America."

At the time he left, Valentenko had every intention of returning once his family's finances were more stable. The Canadiens, however, did not wish to wait, so they traded him to the Rangers as part of the June 30, 2009, trade involving Scott Gomez. That trade brought two strong defense prospects into the organization in Valentenko and University of Wisconsin standout Ryan McDonagh.

As he prepared for the 2009-10 season with Dynamo, Valentenko suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery just before the start of the year. After diligently rehabbing, he returned on Jan. 5, 201 at Novokuznetsk in a 4-3 victory. He would go on to play six more games before the nagging injury brought an end to his season on Feb. 7. Clark said Valentenko has completed his rehab from the shoulder injury and is now 100 percent healthy.

Although it was brief, there was a truly notable statistic that came out of Valentenko's 2009-10 season. When he was in the lineup, Dynamo was a perfect 7-0. While he was out with shoulder problems, his team lost 23 of its 49 games.

Valentenko's value to Dynamo was no surprise to anyone who has seen him play, particularly Vladimir Lutchenko, the Rangers' Russian-based amateur scout. Lutchenko, himself a legendary Russian defenseman who played in the 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series, has nothing but good things to say about Valentenko and compares his style of play to a young Ken Daneyko.

"Pavel worked hard in his recovery from the shoulder surgery and improved his physical conditioning in the process," said Lutchenko. “I like his desire and attitude. He is strong on his skates, good with the puck, physically strong and plays a North American style. He is a stay-at-home, solid defenseman and a character guy and good teammate, who plays hard and is hard to play against."

Clark and the Rangers scouts remembered Valentenko well from his draft year, which included six games with the Russian Select Team against major-junior All-Stars in the 2005 ADT Canada-Russia Challenge. He emerged as one of the more physical Russian players in that series, much like Rangers 2009 draftee Mikhail Pashnin did three years later.

"He was always in your face and taking the body and agitating, so we always kind of liked him," said Clark. "Then we had seen him go into the AHL and watched Hartford play against him, and he still played like that."

When the Canadiens were willing to include Valentenko in the big trade last summer, the Rangers jumped at the chance to add such a prospect, particularly since they knew through Lutchenko that he was intent on coming back to North America as soon as it was feasible.

After two seasons in the KHL, Valentenko has earned enough to take care of his family concerns and resume his pursuit of an NHL career. His pending return to North America was helped this spring when Dynamo merged with another KHL team due to financial difficulties. The merged team’s web site recently quoted its general manager, Andrei Safronov, as saying that Valentenko would be free to re-enter an NHL team’s organization this fall.

As a result of these developments in Russia, Valentenko will attend the team's main training camp when it opens on Sept. 17 and compete for a roster spot on the blueline.

Given all he has been through over the past two years and his three years of pro hockey experience, Rangers fans can expect to see Valentenko doing everything it takes to fulfill his NHL dream. If there was ever a determined prospect to keep an eye on, it's Valentenko.

"He wants to play in the National Hockey League for sure," said Clark.
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