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Volchenkov makes his presence felt // nhl.com
Shawn P. Roarke
Anton Volchenkov has been providing a physical presence for the Ottawa Senators ever since the club drafted him in the first round of the 2001 Entry Draft.
The Ottawa Senators were pretty sure about what they were getting when they drafted defenseman Anton Volchenkov in the first round of the 2001 Entry Draft.
Volchenkov, selected 21st overall that year, was believed to be a solid defense-first defender with a subtle mean streak and good hockey bloodlines.
The Russian defender proved that assessment to be spot-on during his first appearance as a member of his new organization.
Ottawa’s Wade Redden remembers that first impression like it was yesterday, not all the way back in the fall of 2002.
”His first rookie camp, he knocked two or three guys out of the mini-tournament we had there,” Redden said, adding a hearty chuckle. “Even his first year (in the NHL) he had four or five huge hits. He just has that knack and is so strong on his skates.”
Volchenkov has not stopped hitting since his emphatic debut.
Volchenkov played his way onto the Senators’ roster that first year by displaying the no-quarter style he used not only in that rookie camp, but also during a highly celebrated international career on the Russian national junior team.
Since Volchenkov’s impressive debut back in the rookie camp Redden so fondly recalls, the Russian has improved steadily each season -- except for a lost 2003-04 season that was marred by long-term concussion and shoulder woes.
“I’ve played five years in the NHL now and I have progressed every year,” Volchenkov says. “That’s my goal, to progress every year that I am here.”
The 2006-07 season, though, has to be classified as a breakout season -- even by the lofty standards to which Volchenkov will forever be held as a former first-round pick. In 78 regular-season games, the defenseman scored a career-high 18 points and finished with a career-best plus-36 rating, despite evolving into more of a shut-down defender than at any previous point in his pro career.
Volchenkov has been just as good in the postseason this spring as Ottawa has advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. In 15 games over the first three rounds, Volchenkov has one goal and three assists to go along with a plus-two rating. He led all playoff performers with 61 blocked shots and had registered a respectable 37 hits.
“He never gets rattled,” says Redden. “He’s been a real solid force for us.”
Volchenkov’s effectiveness rests in his ability to let his rock-solid, 6-foot-1, 226-pound frame do most of the work for him.
This regular season, he registered 205 hits, second on the team to wrecking-ball forward Chris Neil. That physical presence makes some opposing forwards take a more circuitous route top the net or arrive a second late for a 50-50 puck in the corners of the attacking zone.
Only four defensemen in the entire League recorded more hits than Volchenkov. He also blocked a League-best 273 shots, 45 more than his next closest competitor.
Volchenkov is one of only a handful of Russians in the NHL who have made an intimidating physical presence part of their calling card.
But Volchenkov insists he was a pretty physical player back in his homeland, as well. It was just not as obvious because of the stylistic differences inherent in the more free-flowing European game, which is played on a much larger ice surface.
“I play a little more physical here than in the Russian league,” said Volchenkov, who began his development with CSKA Moscow before joining Krylja Sovetov for three seasons. “It’s a smaller rink here and it’s more physical. I like the smaller rink. There’s a lot more contact and a lot more shots.
Volchenkov was one of the top hitting defenseman in the NHL this season.
Physical play, it seems, runs in those blood lines mentioned earlier. His father, Aleksei, was a physical defenseman for the Soviet Red Army team more than 20 years ago. Aleksei was part of the Red Army team that made a famous tour to play NHL teams in exhibition games during the 1975-76 season.
Ottawa coach Bryan Murray isn’t overly interested in how Volchenkov came into his hockey skills. But he does have a few theories about why the young man has improved by leaps and bounds this season. Interestingly, the coach believes the progress has a lot to do with the fact that the Senators lost No. 1 defenseman Zdeno Chara to free agency this summer.
“I guess Anton Volchenkov stepping up like he has helped fill that void a little bit,” Murray said in a classic understatement.
The loss of Chara opened up a lot of quality minutes for Ottawa’s other defenders to claim. It also forced the coaching staff to re-jigger the team’s defensive pairings. Eventually, Volchenkov landed opposite Chris Phillips and the chemistry was almost immediate. Soon, Murray realized he had a new shutdown pairing and the coach has yet to look back.
“I think two things happened (with the departure of Chara),” Murray said. “(Chris) Phillips became more important and certainly played at a real high level this year and Anton Volchenkov got a chance, moving from No. 5 really in our depth chart to No. 2 as a shutdown guy.
“I think the two of them have developed as a real solid pair and obviously are a big part of what has happened here. Defensively and shot blocking-wise, we haven’t taken a step backwards.”
So, just five years into his NHL career, Volchenkov has already begun to fill the skates of a perennial all-star in a hockey-mad town. Meanwhile, some of his hits are of the highlight-reel variety. And, he provides some occasional pop offensively from the blue line. Yet, outside of Ottawa, he is a relative unknown to most hockey fans.
How can that be? Volchenkov has some theories, but he is not overly concerned with his lack of headlines. He readily admits his inability to speak English comfortably – a shortcoming he continues to work at -- has hurt his profile among the game’s fans.
”It’s OK with me,” he says of the lack of publicity. “I just play the game.”
Plus, as Volchenkov learned his first rookie camp with the Senators, it is just as efficient to let his body checks do his talking for him.