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#TBT: ALEXEI ZHITNIK

by Chris Ryndak / Buffalo Sabres
(Getty Images)

ALEXEI ZHITNIK
How Acquired: Trade from Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 14, 1995
Buffalo stats (1995-2004): 712 games; 55-234-289, 822 PIMs
Career NHL stats (1992-2008): 1,085 games; 96-375-471, 1,268 PIMs

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Alexei Zhitnik was a stalwart on the Buffalo Sabres blue line, logging big minutes in all situations.

Zhitnik dressed for 712 games over the course of 10 seasons for Buffalo, playing at least 68 games in each season. He finished his career with 1,085 games played and developed a reputation as a reliable defenseman with a heavy shot.

After his days in Buffalo, he signed a free-agent deal with the New York Islanders in 2005. He then spent time with the Philadelphia Flyers and Atlanta Thrashers. He returned to Russia to play for Moscow Dynamo of the Kontinental Hockey League for two seasons before hanging up his skates for good in 2010.

Now, he’s simply enjoying retirement.

“I’m living on Long Island. I’m enjoying my time with family, watching hockey. I follow the NHL, KHL. Basically that’s it,” he said this week at First Niagara Center. “I’m spending all my summers overseas. In probably two months, I’m going back home for a few weeks to the Ukraine.”

Sabres coach Ted Nolan, who coached Zhitnik in his early days in Buffalo, doesn’t remember Zhitnik ever really fatiguing, especially in practice.

“Not so much now, but maybe that’s why they have the mandatory days off. When you didn’t play very well, you bring the guys down to the rink and you skate them for a while,” Nolan said. “For whatever reason, we could skate for 45 minutes and he still would never get tired. He was just one of those natural skaters who could skate forever.”

He came to Buffalo from the Los Angeles Kings in a blockbuster trade in February 1995. The Sabres traded Philippe Boucher, Grant Fuhr and Denis Tsygurov to the Los Angeles Kings for Charlie Huddy, Robb Stauber, a fifth-round pick in 1995 – which turned out to be Marian Menhart – and Zhitnik.

During his rookie year with the Kings in 1992-93, he had played 78 regular-season games and 24 playoff games as the Kings reached the Stanley Cup Final. While they eventually lost to the Montreal Canadiens, led by Patrick Roy in five games, he tallied three goals and nine assists during L.A.’s postseason run.

At that point in Zhitnik’s career, he was in his third professional season. He was coming off a 52-point season (12+40) with the Kings and with the Sabres, developed into a reliable workhorse.

The Kings had selected him in the fourth round of the 1991 NHL Draft (81st overall), so when the trade was completed, it marked the first big move of his NHL career.

For the Ukraine native, moving from the West Coast to the East Coast was quite an adjustment, especially when the transaction wasn’t up to him.

“It was a little bit difficult in the beginning but that’s part of the business,” he said. “Nobody asks you if you want to be traded or where you want to be traded, only if you’re a superstar. At that time, I got traded, so I had to play in a different conference, different division, from West to East. I still live on the East Coast. Sometimes you can choose, sometimes you don’t. That’s part of the life.”

His early playoff experience proved to be invaluable as the Sabres made the playoffs six times during his tenure with the team. Twice they made the Eastern Conference Finals (1998 and 1999) and in 1999, Buffalo reached the Stanley Cup Final. During the 1999 playoffs, he totaled four goals and 11 assists in 21 games.

He was in town this week to celebrate the jersey retirement of his longtime teammate Dominik Hasek, whom he played in front of for parts of seven seasons, including those two deep playoff runs.

“He was my roommate on the road for almost five years. I spent a lot of time with him,” Zhitnik said. “He was always great. You felt like if you made a mistake, you know he’s going to help you on the ice. He was a big part of the Buffalo Sabres.”

During his career, he got to suit up with all-time greats like Hasek and Wayne Gretzky. But he couldn’t help but make a joke during his interview with the media Tuesday when he caught the eye of former teammate Rob Ray down the hallway by the Sabres locker room.

“I was fortunate. I was lucky,” Zhitnik said when asked about playing with Hasek and Gretzky. “I played with Rob Ray, who was the No. 1 tough guy in the League for sure. I played on great teams with great guys.”

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