July 25, 2017

Hockey Heroes: Valeri Zelepukin

Valeri Zelepukin was a classic Soviet winger. While he was not the fastest skater on the ice, he had tremendous acceleration to get a quick start on anybody. He also had great balance and agility, allowing him to over come any physical disadvantage. Yet he was a surprisingly gritty player, making him a nice two-way fit in New Jersey.

The left winger had a hard and accurate shot which he was never shy to unleash. His most famous goal had to have been in the 1994 playoffs when he scored with just 7.7 seconds remaining in game 7 against the New York Rangers. The goal forced overtime, but ultimately the Devils would lose that spring. Zelepukin and his teammates managed to overcome heartbreak and celebrate their own Stanley Cup championship in 1995.

Zelepukin actually missed most of that season with a scary eye injury after being hit with a puck in practice. He was never the same player after that. While he remained a solid two way player, his offense dried up. Only now and again would we see glimpses of the dynamic offensive player he promised to be.

Prior to the eye injury some even compared him to the great Peter Stastny. Here's what Stastny, who centered Zelepukin early in his career with New Jersey, had to say about Valeri:

"He creates intricate little plays with the puck, and he creates extra time for people," Stastny said. "You can see he does things that most players have difficulty doing."

Interestingly, Claude Lemieux also played on that line. It made for an interesting mix, according to Stastny. 

"I guarantee you that you will see no more full blasts when more and more Europeans like Valery come into the league," Stastny said. "I think that we have some elements on the Devils now to finally make the most of our talent by moving the puck into the offensive zone rather than blasting it around the boards and taking the chance of giving it away."

Before coming to the NHL Zelepukin played in Russia for seven seasons, first with Khimik Voskresensk from 1984-1987, with CSKA Moscow in 1987-1989, and then again with Khimik Voskresensk from 1989-1991. Zelepukin tallied 36 goals in his seven seasons in Russia.

Zelepukin's first games in North America was as part of the Central Army team that played various NHL Teams in 1989. This lead the Devils to select Zelepukin in the 13th round (221st overall) at the 1990 entry draft. Zelepukin made his NHL debut on December 19, 1991.

Zelepukin played seven seasons with the Devils, winning a Stanley Cup in 1995.

Zelepukin was traded to the Edmonton Oilers along with Bill Guerin for Jason Arnott and former Blackhawk Bryan Muir on January 4, 1998. Zelepukin finished the season in Edmonton before being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for Daniel Leroux on October 5, 1998. Zelepukin played the next two seasons in Philadelphia before signing with the Blackhawks.

Soon enough Zelepukin was demoted to Chicago's farm team, never to be heard from again in NHL circles. He did return to Russia to play in the KHL for four seasons. He retired from hockey in 2006.

In 595 regular season games Valeri Zelepukin scored 117 goals and 177 assists for 294 points. He added 13 goals and 13 assists in 85 playoff games, winning the Stanley Cup in 1995. He was also a part of the Russian Olympic team that won silver in 1998.

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