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HEAD Vishnevski May Be the Physical Defenseman Ducks Have Been Waiting For

March 21, 2000|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mighty Duck defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski has spent the last two months introducing himself around the NHL.

Hello, Joe Sakic . . . bam.

Being a 19-year-old kid straight out of Russia, naturally there's a language barrier. Vishnevski, though, seems to be able to make himself understood.

Nice to meet you, Glen Murray . . . crash.

Vishnevski does make a first impression . . . and leaves behind forget-me-nots. Bruises. Bumps. A few bad feelings.

Pardon me, Owen Nolan . . . crunch.

Welcome to the National Hockey League? Heck, Vishnevski already has made himself at home.

"I don't think he shows any respect for those guys," Duck defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky said. "He's going to break the boards one of these days.

"It takes awhile to get comfortable in this league. I still don't think he's feeling as comfortable as he will and he still puts people on their butts."

Although there has been some low-level grumbling about Vishnevski's jaw-jarring checks, the Ducks are just wild about him. He might be the physical defenseman the team has needed for so long.

Vishnevski was called up from minor league Cincinnati after the Ducks were embarrassed by Buffalo, 5-0, on Jan. 17. Since his arrival, there has been a noticeable difference in the team's defensive style.

By now, opponents have been served notice. Keep your head up or else.

"He doesn't shy away from anything," Duck defenseman Kevin Haller said. "If he gets hit hard, he comes right back at the guy. That's awesome.

"He loves the physical part of the game, which is a good indication that he is going to be a solid player. If you shy away from that at a young age, it takes a bit out of you. Your talent doesn't show. He enjoys that part."

Enjoy it? He seems to thrive on it.

"It's my game," Vishnevski said, through Tverdovsky's translation. "It's what I'm known for. I'm getting comfortable picking my spots."

*

Duck General Manager Pierre Gauthier practiced great restraint last week as the trade deadline approached.

"I had a team call me to make some kind of offer for Vitaly Vishnevski," he said.

Gauthier, to his credit, refrained from a belly laugh.

"I said, 'That's a very nice offer, but thank you very much,' " Gauthier said. "Vitaly Vishnevski is going to be with us for 12 years minimum [players are restricted free agents until they are 32]."

Vishnevski hasn't come from nowhere, merely Kharkov, Russia. Every NHL general manager was aware of him and most had him on their short list. The Ducks, drafting fifth in 1998, got him.

They signed Vishnevski last summer and brought him to training camp for a look, and he opened a lot of eyes.

On the first shift of his first NHL game, he dropped Colorado's Sakic--an NHL all-star--at the blue line. Sakic looked at him as if to say: Kid, it's an exhibition game.

"Players know when there's a good player among them," Duck Coach Craig Hartsburg said. "It didn't take them too long with Vitaly. Even at training camp, I know our guys were talking about him quite a bit. They know now he's here to help us win."

Well, there is only so much a 19-year-old can do. Still, it would be hard to imagine the Ducks this close to a playoff spot--they are two points behind eighth-place San Jose--without Vishnevski.

He has added an element of danger to skating through the Ducks' zone. Rank and status are not considered.

The Vish List already includes some of the NHL's elite--Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Brett Hull and Ziggy Palffy--so there's another reason Wayne Gretzky should be happy in his retirement.

Last Wednesday, the Kings' Murray tried to keep the puck in the Ducks' zone, dropping his head for a second. When Vishnevski hit, he not only rattled the glass with Murray's body, but the boards bent back as well.

The same night, Vishnevski knocked Palffy down in the corner, forcing him from the game with a sprained shoulder, and sent Kelly Buchberger to the ice with a broadside.

The Kings had no complaints about the Palffy hit, calling it fair, but Coach Andy Murray grumbled some about the Buchberger hit.

Not that it matters to Vishnevski.

Said Haller: "He got some big hits the first couple games, like huge hits. I remember the next few games where a couple teams tried to get the best of him. He doesn't back down."

*

Hartsburg went on and on about Vishnevski, almost gushing, after a recent practice. Then he put on the brakes.

"We don't want to put too much pressure on this kid, that he's going to be our leader in the physical department," Hartsburg said. "He's a 19-year-old kid that is still learning the league, but he's making his mark every night."

And leaving a few as well.

Already, players are starting to compare him to Darius Kasparaitis, the Lithuanian hit man, who is now with Pittsburgh.

"I was nervous the first few games," Vishnevski said. "Guys here have a lot of skill. But the puck is round and the sticks are wood. It's the same game."

The "game" is not usually the obstacle.

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