Slovak Zaborsky is Finland's top scoring 'Ace'
Wednesday, 01.25.2012 / 10:55 AM / Across the Pond
By Bill Meltzer - NHL.com Correspondent
Things may not have worked out for him in North America, but Assat Pori (Pori Aces) left wing Tomas Zaborsky has become a hot commodity in European hockey. The 24-year-old Slovak entered the season as one of the better young goal-scorers in Finland's SM-liiga, and has taken his game to the next level this season.
Zaborsky had 23 goals and 33 points last season, but he's already surpassed those totals with 18 games still remaining in the 2011-12 regular season. This season, he has 30 goals and 49 points to lead the league in both categories. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound forward has registered points in seven of his last nine games, and produced multi-point games in three of Assat's last four games.
"It's all about good teamwork, and a good line. Me and Savi (Veli-Matti Savinainen) and Dixie (Stephen Dixon) seem to play well together," he told Assa TV.
Tomas Zaborsky has 30 goals and 49 points to lead Finland's SM-liiga in both categories. (Photo: Dave Reginek/NHLI)
Top-line center Dixon and left wing Zaborsky have been the offensive backbone of the team all season. A 26-year-old former Pittsburgh Penguins prospect playing his first season with the Aces after two productive seasons in Sweden for Brynas and a disappointing KHL season with Amur Khabarovsk in 2010-11, Dixon has set up many of Zaborsky's goals. The Halifax native leads SM-liiga with 30 assists, while ranking second to Zaborsky in scoring with 44 points.
"Dixon is a really clever playmaker and he knows how to put the puck in hard-to-reach places," Savinainen told Finland's MTV3. "And Zaborsky is looking so hot that it's almost beyond belief. Whenever he gets the puck from the red line in, he's got a chance to score."
Zaborsky's hottest stretch this season came in early to mid-November. Over a four-game stretch from Nov. 1-18, he scored seven goals and added an assist. That white-hot streak enabled him to win SM-liiga Player of the Month honors. Remarkably, he duplicated the feat with a second consecutive Player of the Month selection in December.
Zaborsky also has battled hard to shed the label of being a soft player who is unreliable in the defensive zone and along the boards. Although he's unlikely to win any awards as a top defensive forward, Zaborsky has improved considerably in this area. He's taken on a larger role on the penalty kill this season, and has scored three shorthanded goals. At even strength, he boasts a league-best plus-22 rating, averaged 20:01 of ice time per game and has logged over 20 minutes (including a season-high 26:21 in his team's 5-3 win against HIFK on Jan. 5) in eight of the club's last 10 games.
A second-place team last season, Assat crumbled in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. The team bowed out in six games, while Zaborsky was held scoreless. This season, the team from Pori is in third place with 77 points, two behind the surprising Lahti Pelicans. While Zaborsky does not want to look too far ahead, he concedes that he is eager to erase the memories of last season's playoff disappointment.
"I didn't feel good about that," he said. "But the team made progress. We did not make the playoffs the year before, and we did last season. Hopefully we take the next step."
Zaborsky has emerged as a virtual shoo-in for Team Slovakia for the 2012 World Championship. That would mean a lot to a player who has yet to play in major tournament action for the senior national team. As often is the case with promising young Slovakian players, Zaborsky left his homeland as a teenager to seek wider exposure and tougher competition. However, he was a member of the Under-20 team at the 2007 World Junior Championship in Sweden.
While playing for the famous Dukla Trencin junior team, Zaborsky was a scoring machine at the Slovak Under-20 level. As an 18-year-old, he compiled 39 goals and 61 points in just 42 regular-season games and then added 10 goals and 15 points in seven playoff games in 2005-06. That season, he also appeared in four Extraliga games for Dukla's senior team. The New York Rangers selected Zaborsky in the fifth round (No. 137) of the 2006 Entry Draft.
In an attempt to accelerate his path to the NHL, Zaborsky joined the Ontario Hockey League's Saginaw Spirit for the 2006-07 season. He spent two seasons with the club, blossoming as an over-ager in his second season (31 goals, 70 points) and being rewarded after the season with an entry-level NHL contract from the Rangers.
Unfortunately, Zaborsky had trouble advancing his North American career once he turned pro. He spent more time in the ECHL than with the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack and found himself no closer to realizing his NHL dreams at the conclusion of the 2008-09 season. As a result, he signed with Assat on loan from the Rangers. New York traded Zaborsky's NHL rights to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for defenseman Matt McCue on July 19, 2010.
Zaborsky's first SM-liiga season was nothing special -- 9 goals and 17 assists for an Assat club that finished 13th in the 14-team league. Last season was the first where he started to come into his own at the professional level. He received a one-year contract extension last February, which will expire at the end of the current season.
The monster 2011-12 season that Zaborsky has posted already has made him the subject of speculation about his destination for the future. While Assat hopes to re-sign him, the Slovak will be in high demand among bigger-budget teams from around Europe, especially if he closes the current season with a flourish and goes on to perform well at the World Championship. It also isn't out of the question for the offensively gifted player to get a second shot at competing in North American pro hockey.