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Penguins Vujtek signed with Penguins despite bad run of luck in NHL

Sunday, September 15, 2002

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Sure, Vladimir Vujtek and Martin Straka were born in the same year, 1972. And in the same country, Czechoslovakia. And, yes, they've shared locker rooms on various national squads and have firsthand knowledge of the misfortune that turns billionaires into beggars.

But for all they have in common, there is at least one significant difference: Straka's run of tough luck has, for the most part, been confined to the past 11 months, while something seems to go seriously wrong for Vujtek every time he ventures to this side of the Atlantic.

"He's had bad luck when he comes to the U.S.," Straka said.

Witness the 1997-98 season, when a mysterious ailment -- which sapped Vujtek's energy for months before being diagnosed as Epstein-Barr virus -- limited him to 30 games for Tampa Bay. And how, less than two years later, he returned from a productive season in the Czech Republic and joined Atlanta, only to be all but decapitated by an opponent's skate in an exhibition game.

It took more than 200 stitches to close the gash that a skate of New York Rangers winger Valeri Kamensky opened on Vujtek's right cheek -- the scar that resulted is one of his most striking features -- and, after recovering from that injury, he appeared in just three games with the Thrashers before joining Sparta Praha in the Czech Extraleague.

He thrived there, putting up 23 goals and 37 assists in 49 games over parts of two seasons, and was outstanding with HPK Hameenlinna in Finland last winter, accumulating 19 goals and 39 assists in 45 games.

Given his history, staying in Europe might have been a lot safer, to say nothing of more satisfying, than accepting the Penguins' $600,000 contract offer in July, but Vujtek (pronounced, VOY-tek) insists that he isn't ready to accept an NHL legacy of only seven goals and 29 assists in 105 games.

"The last couple of times I was here, I really didn't have a chance to show anything," he said.

His stints with Montreal and Edmonton, as well as the Lightning and Thrashers, bore scant resemblance to his work with Assat-Pori in the Finnish Elite League, where he scored 27 goals in 1996-97. Or Vitkovice of the Extraleague, where he had 55 points in 47 games in 1998-99.

Vujtek has spent parts of five seasons in the NHL but appeared in more than 30 games only once. It's impossible to project what he could produce over a full season, but Straka is certain that Vujtek's output will surpass the 5.46-goal pace that he has operated on to this point.

"He could get 20, 25 goals, easy," Straka said. "He's always had a scoring touch."

Mark Kelley, the Penguins' European scout, has watched Vujtek most of the past six or seven years and agreed with that assessment.

"He has more skill than he's shown in North America before," Kelley said. "He's always put up good numbers in the Czech League and also, last year, in Finland."

And, unlike some players who put up big numbers in Europe but couldn't find their way around the defensive zone without help from the auto club, Vujtek is not regarded as a liability inside his blue line.

"In his own end, he's conscientious," Kelley said. "He'll come back [defensively]. He'll work. He's not a one-dimensional player by any means."

Vujtek figures to compete for a spot on one of the Penguins' top two lines, which is where their skilled forwards will be concentrated. Working on one of those units, Kelley said, would bring out the Vujtek's best.

"He doesn't have to be, but I think that's where he fits in better," Kelley said. "I don't think he's ever had the chance, over here, to get those kinds of minutes and play with those kinds of players. ... He's going to get a chance, this time, to play with quality players."

Vujtek's first opportunity to prove that he can fill a prominent niche comes today, when his training camp team plays its first tournament game.

He shied away from identifying the type of linemates he'd prefer -- "I'll be happy to play with anybody on this team," he said -- but Penguins coach Rick Kehoe appears to recognize his offensive abilities and seems willing to find linemates to complement them.

"He handles the puck well, he's a good skater," Kehoe said. "He's going to get a shot here."

Vujtek signed with the Penguins because "Pittsburgh is a team I've always liked, [it] plays offensive-style hockey," but he would have had no trouble finding work in Europe.

Returning to Finland was an attractive option and going to Russia was a possibility, especially after Vujtek's father, also named Vladimir, coached Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to the championship of the Russian Hockey League last season.

"I got offers from Russia last year and I got some this year, too," he said. "My dad's team [pursued him] last year, but I really didn't want to go to play for my dad. It's not like I didn't want to play for him, but I don't think it would have been good ... sometimes there could be problems in the team, the guys and stuff like that, when the dad is coaching a son."

Passing up a chance to play for his dad couldn't have been easy. Neither was deciding to leave Hameenlinna.

"I had a great year last year, a great time," he said. "It's a small hockey town, only about 40,000 people, so it's great to play hockey there."

Vujtek has heard the same thing about North America, and he's not ready to abandon his dream of being an impact player in the NHL.

"It was tough for me to leave, but this is a new chance for me," he said. "And probably the last one, so I took it."

NOTES -- The Penguins' training camp tournament begins at 10:30 a.m. today with a scrimmage between Team B (Vujtek, Ville Nieminen, Jean-Sebastien Aubin) and Team C (Colby Armstrong, Konstantin Koltsov, Johan Hedberg). That will follow an 8 a.m. workout by Team A, whose practice roster includes Mario Lemieux. ... After each of the three practice groups finished their session yesterday, players watched a video about the league's planned crackdown on obstruction penalties. ... For the second day in a row, team officials reported no significant injuries.

Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.

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