Photo courtesy Chris Rutsch/Hartford Wolf Pack
Ivan Baranka was a second-round draft pick by the parent New York Rangers in 2003, and every time he steps on to the ice, the array of attributes that enticed the Rangers to pick him that high are clearly evident.
At 6-3 and 205 pounds, Ivan Baranka has shown dexterity not often seen from defensemen, making him an offensive force on the ice. Still, he does not see himself as an offensive defenseman.
The 22-year-old Slovak is a fluid skater with excellent acceleration, possesses a dangerous shot and, at 6-3 and 205 pounds, has plenty of size to handle the rigors of playing defense at the pro level.
Like so many other young players in the AHL, though, Baranka has experienced some setbacks as he strives to develop into an NHL player. The most notable bumps in the road have been related to injuries, with both of his first two pro seasons having ended prematurely due to thumb maladies, a fracture his rookie year and ligament damage last season.
“It was pretty frustrating,” Baranka says of having to sit out the ends of back-to-back seasons, “but there is nothing you can do about injury. Obviously I’m not trying to get hurt on the ice, I’m trying to stay healthy, but if things happen you just have to deal with it and make sure you come out stronger and healthier the next year.
“Obviously it was frustrating not to play the game and be with the guys, but I’m pretty excited to be here this year. I feel healthy, I feel fine, and I’m ready to play good hockey for Hartford.”
For the most part Baranka has played a very solid blue-line game for the Pack in 2007-08. Playing a regular shift plus plenty of power-play time, he was the top point-getter on among Wolf Pack D-men for the first month of the season. Most important, he has remained relatively healthy this season, missing just six games in January with s shoulder injury.
“The start has been good as far as the stats,” Baranka says, “but we have to make sure we win games. Personally, I don’t really look at the stats. It just comes. If you play well on the ice, you might get the points, you might not get the points. As a defenseman, I’m trying to make sure I play good defense and try to help the forwards as well.”
Helping the forwards by skating and moving the puck has translated into some good early numbers for Baranka, and he posted very respectable point totals of 21 and 23 points in his first two seasons of pro play. He does not consider offense a focus of his game, though.
“I don’t think of myself as an offensive defenseman,” he says. “My first job is to play good defense, and if I see a chance to help the forwards, to move the puck to them or join the rush, I’ll do that.
“I want to have the puck on my stick and try to skate with it, help the forwards,” Baranka continues. “We haven’t been a team that’s scored a lot of goals early in the season, so I’m trying to help enhance the offense for the team.
“You can’t force it. I’m a defenseman, so my first job is to make sure I play good defense. And when I see a good chance to make it three-on-two or two-on-one, join the rush, then I’m going to do that.”
Getting the power play going would certainly go a long way towards making the Pack offense more potent. That power play unit showed signs of becoming a force in mid-November, and players like Baranka will be counted on throughout the season to make the Wolf Pack dangerous on the man advantage.
“Obviously, we have to score goals,” says Baranka of the Pack power play. “We have good [offensive] zone entry, we have a good breakout, we have good puck movement, but those five guys who go out there, we have to find a way to make sure that the puck gets into the net. We have to shoot the puck, crash the net, get tip-ins, goal screens, we just have to do something to make sure that the puck gets into the net.”
Baranka makes it clear that the best part of his game is taking care of his own zone and getting the puck to the forwards. He does not hesitate either, though, when asked what he is looking to improve in his play to get to the next level.
“I think I have to improve every aspect of my game, just to be a better player,” he comments. “Maybe add more of a physical part to my game, and maybe be more picky about when I should join the rush, because I don’t want to go out and just run around. I have to play smart hockey, defense first and then offense.”
While he dreams of playing time with the Broadway Blueshirts, he is enjoying every minute of his time in Hartford. He particularly enjoyed meeting and greeting his many fans at the recent “Tip-a-Player” Dinner and Sports Carnival held at the XL Center, in which players waited tables as their fans dined on cuisine supplied by many of the Hartford area’s top restaurants and bistros. This year’s event netted $62,000 which benefited Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, a long-term acute care hospital specializing in rehabilitation and medically complex patient care.
In February, Baranka participated in the annual ďTip-a-PlayerĒ charity dinner at the XL Center. Baranka got to meet his fans one-on-one, and the event raised $62,000 for the Gaylord Rehabilitation Center in Wallingford. (Photo courtesy of Rich Zacher)
Being now in his third year of pro hockey and having played two prior seasons in the Western Hockey League with the Everett (Wash.) Silvertips, it has been quite a while since Baranka has lived full-time in his native Slovakia. That is not to say, however, that he does not relish the opportunity to get back to the familiar surroundings of his younger years.
“I go home in the summers,” he says. “It’s nice, and it’s real short.
“I get home, I’ll take the first month off, then just spend time working out and hanging out with my friends, see the family. That is always real nice.”
What would be even nicer than a relaxing summer in Slovakia is a healthy full season for Baranka, a run deep in the playoffs and a chance to get a sniff of NHL action. Given his package of skills, if he can leave the injury woes behind, that chance to take his speed, size and puck-moving ability to the Big Show could soon be well within his grasp.