At mid-career, Ozolinsh overhauls style of play

Thursday, June 5th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -- There are two O's in Sandis Ozolinsh's last name and no D. For most of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks defenseman's career, that's been obvious.

Ozolinsh always has been a risk taker. If he saw a chance to score or set up a goal, he almost always jumped into a play, even if it resulted in an odd-man rush the opposite way.

Ozolinsh's full-throttle style frustrated more than one NHL coach, which might explain why a player with the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Ozolinsh's skills and size is with his fifth team since 1996.

But while few elite athletes successfully undergo mid-career overhauls, Ozolinsh is doing just that in Anaheim.

With coach Mike Babcock as the primary instigator of the change, Ozolinsh is transforming himself from a one-dimensional player into one of the NHL's best two-way defensemen. The makeover hasn't been entirely easy, but Ozolinsh has bought into it after seeing the rewards it brings.

When Ozolinsh was traded from the Florida Panthers to the Mighty Ducks a few days before the Panthers played host to the NHL All-Star game in February, no one in hockey was predicting the Ducks might emerge from the stacked Western Conference to play in the Stanley Cup finals.

But, helped by the additions of Ozolinsh, 39-year-old forward Steve Thomas and forward Rob Niedermayer, the Ducks began to develop into a defensively solid, tough-to-beat team that willingly adopted a system, even though it reined in some of its stars' offensive skills.

Ozolinsh has seen how hockey has changed since he led all defenseman with 19 points as the offense-minded Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 1996. Now, at 30, he realized he needed to change with it.

"The game is different now," Ozolinsh said. "Everybody plays more defense and everybody is adjusting to it. I like a more offensive style of hockey and everybody likes scoring goals, but the game has changed and you have to adjust."

Ozolinsh's conversion began in his very first game with the Mighty Ducks. He didn't get back on a play and was beaten by Niedermayer, then with the Calgary Flames, for a goal. But Ozolinsh came back to score the game-winning goal in the third period.

"I've been impressed with how proud and professional he is," Babcock said. "Anything I've asked him to do, he's done. He is an elite, elite player."

Ozolinsh hasn't totally abandoned offense, even as the Mighty Ducks have turned winning tightly played, one-goal games into an art form. He assisted on Thomas' game-winning goal in overtime of Game 4 and his dump-in turned into a goal when Devils goalie Martin Brodeur lost his stick in Game 3.

But one of the most intriguing statistics of the finals was Ozolinsh's plus-9 rating in the playoffs through the first four games against New Jersey. That's the kind of rating generally associated with skilled defenders such as the Devils defenseman Scott Stevens and forward John Madden, the only two players in the finals with plus-minuses higher than Ozolinsh's.

Babcock always heard Ozolinsh's downside -- his reluctance to commit himself to defense -- overshadowed his upside, his speed and ability to create on offense. After coaching him for four months, he doesn't believe it.

"You don't get anywhere in life if you've got one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake," he said, drawing an analogy he equates to Ozolinsh's game. "We want to keep our foot on the long skinny one."