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Zyuzin must maintain focus // St.Petersburg Times
The Lightning defenseman has plenty of talent. But he must reduce his lapses in concentration.
By JOANNE KORTH
TAMPA -- There is no doubt Lightning defenseman Andrei Zyuzin has the physical gifts and presence to be a dominating player. The question is: Where's his head?
"Andrei Zyuzin is probably one of the most talented players in the league, but where he struggles at times is with his concentration," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "It's the mental part of the game he needs to work on."
After four years in the NHL, including two disappointing seasons with Tampa Bay, Zyuzin said he realizes he must focus if he wants to realize his potential.
"I feel good right now," said Zyuzin, a 23-year-old Russian. "The legs are working. The head is thinking. I'm looking forward to this season. It's a big step for me."
At 6 feet 1, 210 pounds, Zyuzin (pronounced ZOO-zin) combines the size and aggressive mentality of a defenseman with the puck-handling flair of a forward. Sometimes, that duality gives him trouble.
Coaches love Zyuzin's goal-scoring ability and want him to lead the charge from the Lightning's blue line into the offensive zone. But they do not want him to shirk his defensive responsibilities. Striking that balance is tricky.
"Being a defenseman in this league is more about experience. It's a timing thing," said Lightning defenseman Jassen Cullimore, an eighth-year player who came into his own last season. "Andrei does have the talent and ability to be offensive, and that's the piece of the puzzle he's working on."
The Lightning's top-notch goaltending combo of Nikolai Khabibulin, acquired late last season, and Kevin Weekes will take some of the guesswork out of that dilemma, Zyuzin said.
"In the back of my head, I know I have a guy who is going to protect the net and stop 99 percent of the shots," Zyuzin said. "That lets me bring the puck up and help the forwards. I don't want to just stay back.
"At the same time, I have to think about defense. I can't just go, go,
go. The best defenseman is one who plays offense and defense. You don't
just go out and score 20 goals and you're minus-50 for the season. That's
not what I want. I want to play good defense and help our forwards."
"He's had a tendency to gravitate away from concentrating completely
on the game," Tortorella said. "Mental focus is something we have to unlock
in his head. It's very easy to tell when he's not concentrating, and that's
very frustrating because we see how much talent he can bring."
"It's not like losing concentration for one shift or two," he said. "I just have to be more loose in the game, be cocky; not like I don't care, but confident on the ice."
Zyuzin, the second overall pick in the 1996 draft by San Jose, also has been hampered by injuries since Tampa Bay traded for him before the 1999-2000 season.
Shoulder surgery caused him to miss the final 42 games of his first Lightning season, and he was hampered by a string of concussions last season. In 98 games with Tampa Bay, he has six goals and 25 assists.
This season, everyone expects more.
The Lightning management let Zyuzin know it believes in him by signing him in the offseason to a two-year contract worth $850,000 this season.
Now it's time to deliver.
"When he was drafted, he was one of the best players in the world at that particular time," Tortorella said. "That's a lot of pressure to be on a young guy.
"Now, a number of years into his career, he really wants to get within himself and play the way he can. I think he's turned a corner that way and is saying to himself, 'I've got to get this turned around and be the player people expect me to be."'
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