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Crash Course - Vitaly Vishnevski // The Sporting News
By Larry Wigge The Sporting News
Teemu Selanne makes a sharp left turn out of the locker room at First Union Center in Philadelphia recently, concentrating more on a conversation he's having with a reporter than paying attention to the dangers that lurk in the hallway.
As he turns the corner, he narrowly misses running into a hulking teammate. "Whew!" says Selanne. "That was close."
Vitaly Vishnevski has made an impression in the NHL this season, both in the minds of his teammates and opponents, and, well, on the bodies of his opponents.
"Now you know how opponents feel when they play us," Selanne says. "We've never had a fearless defenseman before, a defenseman who is looking to punish an opponent.
"He doesn't care who the player is-Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Owen Nolan, Peter Forsberg. ... It's like bam, crash, crunch whenever he's out there. And I'll tell you, for the guys on his team, it certainly gives you a sense of comfort, knowing he can take an opponent off his game." Earlier that night on the ice, Vishnevski became a marked man in Philadelphia, a place where fans have learned to appreciate a good hit. The second-year Mighty Ducks defender had dished out a career-high eight hits and sent Flyers left winger Keith Jones off the ice with a forearm to his jaw. Jones has since retired.
"He's going to attract a lot of attention if he continues to go after players like that," Flyers right winger Rick Tocchet says with a ou-know-what-I-mean look.
After delivering five hits in a 1-0 loss at St. Louis last week, Vishnevski entered the week with a league-leading 126 hits. It hasn't taken opponents long to learn about the 20-year-old defenseman.
"I remember facing him last year in a preseason game," Avalanche center Joe Sakic says. "I think it was his first shift in the game (and first in the NHL), and he came out of nowhere to knock me flying. I looked up at him and said, 'Hey, rookie, it's only a preseason game.' " Blues coach Joel Quenneville was gushing over Vishnevski in June, when talking about players he thought would be difference-makers in the Western Conference this season.
"Vishnevski's that sort of player," Quenneville said. "He jumps out at you. He's already made his mark in the NHL with the way he hits. He's left a few marks, too."
While Vishnevski still stumbles with English, he's comfortable letting his bodychecks do his talking.
"I need to be aggressive," he says. "I don't score goals, so I have to make an impact in other ways. Hitting is something I like to do. And I know I'm doing my job when players on the other team try to get back at me. Making them think about me, rather than Paul Kariya or Teemu Selanne or Mike Leclerc is good."
The bodycheck almost had become a dying art with the advent of the neutral zone trap as well as defensemen obstructing rushing forwards and limiting their space instead of crunching them to the ice. The new flow of the game, which helped inspire the return of Mario Lemieux, has changed things.
"With the NHL's crackdown on obstruction, we are beginning to see more speed through the neutral zone-and with it more opportunities for a good, clean bodycheck or three," says Bruins coach Mike Keenan, who also is a columnist for TSN Online.
Devils coach Larry Robinson, a Hall of Fame defenseman known for throwing his fair share of punishing checks, agrees that today's game allows greater opportunities for big hits.
"Remember the Bob Boughner hit on Keith Primeau and the Scott Stevens hit on Eric Lindros in the playoffs last spring?" Robinson asks. "Those were classic bodychecks. I think having two referees was a good start and having those referees mete out more penalties has created a better flow to the game.
"That, in turn, has changed the way players have to play defense. They can't grab an arm or a leg and hold on. Now they have to play an opponent honestly, and you see more defenders trying to make a big hit."
Says Stevens: "One of those bone-crackling hits can make a whole team disappear the rest of the night for fear that they might also pay the price for entering your zone."
Mighty Ducks G.M. Pierre Gauthier says teams noticed Vishnevski right away. Gauthier began getting calls from opposing G.M.s at the trading deadline in March after Vishnevski had played in 20 NHL games.
"It surprised me a little that there was so much interest in a player with no experience," Gauthier says. "But I told them, 'Don't waste your breath, this kid is going to be with our team for the next 12 years or so.'
"When you find a player opponents want on their side, you know you've come up with a cornerstone player."
Senior writer Larry Wigge covers hockey for The Sporting News.