by Larry Wigge || NHL.com
He was 15 and walking through the locker room at a rink in Russia with a couple of teammates. His agent walked in, handed out a few Dallas Stars caps and said, "One day some of you guys might be wearing these colors for good."
Ivan Vishnevskiy laughs at the irony of the prospects of wearing the Stars’ colors for good in a couple of weeks when he attends Dallas’ training camp with a great opportunity to win a full-time job on defense.
"I couldn’t be more excited," Vishnevskiy said Tuesday after a practice at Centre I.C.E. in Traverse City during the eight-team prospects tournament. "I’m looking at this as an opportunity to be more ready for the big camp."
For a young athlete trying to get his foot in the door at that elite level of the National Hockey League, it’s all about opportunity and taking advantage of it. And for the 21-year-old Vishnevskiy, a big hole was opened up on the Dallas defense when Sergei Zubov announced he was returning to Russia to play this season.
The Stars have relied on the puck wizardry and veteran poise of Zubov on their defense since they acquired him from the Pittsburgh Penguins for Kevin Hatcher in June of 1996.
Big hole? It might be more like a crater, if Zubov had not missed large chunks of the last two seasons with an assortment of injuries or if the Stars had not spent a 2006 first-round pick on Vishnevskiy, taking him at No. 27, after he led the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in scoring by a rookie defenseman with 48 points while playing for Rouyn-Noranda.
Last season, Vishnevskiy had only six goals and 13 assists in 67 games for Peoria of the American Hockey League and got a look at the NHL first-hand in a three-game trial with the Stars. The numbers in Peoria weren’t indicative of his skills, because he was one of only a couple of Dallas farmhands playing at the St. Louis Blues’ No. 1 minor-league club.
New Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk mentions Vishnevskiy prominently as someone he is counting on among Dallas’ prospects here in Traverse City.
"He’s got great skill. He’s a great skater. Great passer," Nieuwendyk said Monday night. "With the loss of Zubov, Ivan has a great opportunity ahead of him."
The Barnaul, Russia, native is no giant on defense — 5-11, 176 pounds. But with new coach Marc Crawford coming in to Dallas to replace Dave Tippett, Nieuwendyk wants the Stars to play a more up-tempo offensive game. And that suits the skills Vishnevskiy provides.
"He’s a new NHL type of player — small, quick and skilled," said Les Jackson, Stars director of scouting and player development. "When we picked him in the first round his instincts with the puck were beyond lots of players. We particularly liked the fact he could skate and create opportunities for others."
No one on Dallas’ prospects team could be considered good defensively in their first game here Sunday, a 9-6 loss to St. Louis. But Vishnevskiy wound up with one assist and was only a minus-1 in the game. And there was one particular play that had scouts nodding in amazement at his defense.
It happened when Aaron Palushaj, a solid-skating forward from the University of Michigan who already had two goals for the Blues in the game, had two steps on Vishnevskiy — and Ivan played the angle perfectly and totally neutralized what looked like a great scoring opportunity.
Everything for Vishnevskiy comes back to that trip to the NHL in April in which he had an assist in each of the last two games and played in more than 20 minutes each night in Colorado and Anaheim.
"I’ve never been so nervous than I was in my first NHL game," Ivan said. "But when you have guys like Sergei Zubov and Daryl Sydor, who’ve won Stanley Cups in the NHL, tell you, ‘You’ll do better on your next shift,’ that really helped."
Vishnevskiy is like a sponge, looking to drink up advice that might help him be successful in the NHL. He said he’ll never forget Zubov giving him one very important tip for an offensive defenseman.
"He told me, ‘Try to think a play ahead. Know what you’re going to do before you make a play. You’ll catch a lot of opponents flat-footed that way,’" Vishnevskiy said with a confident laugh.
Sydor would stress to his young partner that it was important to make the simple play and then get creative when you have more time and space.
"Syds was always saying, ‘Come on, kid. Keep it positive,’" Vishnevskiy added.
"What I learned quickly is that NHL players are all so smart, not like in juniors and in the AHL, where you can gamble and be successful. You can’t gamble here as a young player without looking silly," he explained. "After being so nervous in my first game, I kind of looked at the NHL as being almost easier than the AHL … if you’re where you’re supposed to be.
"I don’t want to sound overconfident or anything like that, but after seeing the NHL up close, I kind of looked in the mirror and told myself, ‘I can play at that level. Go for it.’"
After the forgettable loss to St. Louis at the opening of the prospects tournament, Vishnevskiy had an assist on Dallas’ lone goal in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, as well as a plus-1 rating.
"I’m feeling more ready and more comfortable to go to the Dallas Stars’ big camp every day," a confident Vishnevskiy said.
And now, with neither Zubov or Sydor coming back and a new GM and new coach looking to run a more up-tempo offense in Dallas, Ivan Vishnevskiy is looking more and more like a perfect fit on defense for the Stars.