Boris Valabik is skating and feeling good – and that’s a big deal.
The Thrashers defenseman was limited to 23 games last season that started with an ankle injury and ended with a torn ACL in his left knee.
“I feel good and I feel confident,” Valabik said last week. “I really hope to stay healthy this year. Enough is enough.”
Valabik, the Thrashers first-round pick (No. 10 overall) in 2004, missed the first 16 games of the season after injuring his ankle in training camp. His season abruptly ended in February when he tore his knee ligament in a game at Washington. He knows the importance of the upcoming season, which will be his third full year in the NHL.
“I need to feel confident in order to play well,” Valabik said. “In order to feel confident I need to play. It’s a vicious circle. My first year, I didn’t feel confident – new guys, new team, new league. My second year, last year, I played well when I was healthy and I felt really good when I was healthy. I finally told myself, I can play in this league. That was very important. That was a big turnaround for me. Then I got hurt. At least now I know if I keep working, I can be successful. It’s huge for me. This is the year to be successful.”
Valabik said that his knee is completely healed and he expects to be 100 percent healthy by the start of training camp next month. He did rehab and conditioning work during the offseason, which included a trip home to Slovakia. Valabik reported to the Thrashers practice facility last week for voluntary on- and off-ice workouts with other players and the team’s training staff.
“I feel good out there,” Valabik said. “This is the first week skating out there, so considering that, I feel really good. Obviously, I need to get my feet under me, but that’s every summer. … I’m really progressing. Just like the doctors, we didn’t expect it to heal this quickly. I’m really happy.”
Valabik is training 16 hours a week Monday through Friday at the IceForum. After his injury plagued season, that in itself is an accomplishment. “I like [training],” he said. “That’s why I came over here. You appreciate it when you can do it. I’m at that stage where I appreciate that I can do it.”
Part of Valabik’s training includes Olympic-style weightlifting under new strength and conditioning coach Barry Brennan. Brennan explained to me last week (for a future story) that the process is aimed at turning slow-twitch muscle fiber into fast-twitch muscle fiber, creating more explosive movement.
“It’s definitely new for me,” Valabik said of the weightlifting style. “I haven’t done much of it before. It’s good. It’s definitely for that quick first step. Not a lot of reps, just heavy weight and push it as fast as you can. Just explode as hard as you can. That’s exactly what I need, that first step to power my hips. It’s going to help me with my knees. It’s going to help me with my stride. It’s going to help me with my speed. Barry knows his stuff. I will see where this approach takes me. We see eye-to-eye on everything. I’m expecting a whole lot. I know my stuff, but when I see someone who knows his stuff and can put something on top of what I know or something extra that I don’t know, that’s the kind of person I can respect.”
The Thrashers will enter training camp with plenty of defensmen. Including Valabik, Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Ron Hainsey, Arturs Kulda and Johnny Oduya all played games on the Thrashers blue line last season. Add Brent Sopel, acquired in the offseason trade with the Blackhawks. Don’t forget others such as Grant Lewis, Freddy Meyer, Paul Postma, Jaime Sifers, Noah Welch and Andrei Zubarev competing for spots. Valabik will become a restricted free agent after the season.
A bigger Thrashers defense suits Valabik, 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, just fine.
“Honestly, I think this is the best team we’ve had, at least the years I’ve been in the organization,” he said. “I like our size up front. I think it’s great. This is my kind of team, let’s put it that way. Maybe different people have different opinions but I like the physical style. I like the big guys. I can guarantee you one thing, no team is going to like to play in our rink. That’s huge. You don’t want to be an easy team to play against. I can guarantee you there are going to be teams that don’t want to play the Thrashers on the schedule. You have a lot of hard working guys. I think we are going to be just fine.”
*As I reported last week that was imminent, the Thrashers officially announced the signing of Zubarev to a twoi-year, two-way contract Tuesday. The deal will pay him $625,000 in the NHL and $65,000 in the AHL. “I’m so happy,” Zubarev told me last week while participating in voluntary workouts with the team. “It’s been a dream all my life, now that I’m here, I’m so happy.”