The key to Harry Zolnierczyk’s game is control.
It might sound odd to use such a word for a player who thrives on an agitating, physical style of play, but the fourth-year pro knows that to play on the edge, there has to be an element of control.
It’s a balancing act that has made Zolnierczyk highly effective at what he does.
“It’s a bit of a learning curve,” he said. “You step over the line and you can hurt your team. You try to play on the edge and aggravate as much as you can, but at the same time you have to make sure if you go tot he box one of them better be going with you.”
Zolnierczyk’s penalty minute totals over the last two seasons in the AHL indicate that while he may play on the edge, he rarely teeters off it.
In 61 games last year between Adirondack and Norfolk, Zolnierczyk posted 68 penalty minutes. The year before he had 37 penalty minutes in 39 games with Adirondack. How does he maintain a balance between playing on the edge and being in control?
For starters, Zolnierczyk studies up on his opponents before the puck drops.
“That’s huge. That’s one thing I always do before a game - who’s easy to get under their skin, who will retaliate?” he said. “Who are the guys you want to aggravate during a game?”
Since Zolnierczyk turned pro in 2011, there has been one brief exception where control may have been lacking a bit in his game. During his seven NHL games with Philadelphia last season, Zolnierczyk totaled 36 penalty minutes, but 32 of those minutes came in back-to-back games, which included two game misconducts and a pair of majors.
Zolnierczyk quickly realized he had to play a more controlled game even at the NHL level.
“That was like 30 penalty minutes in five minutes of ice time. I try to play a smarter game than that,” he said. “If you want to be on the ice, you have to be able to contribute to your team.”
That’s why Zolnierczyk has worked hard to add an offensive upside to his physical game. It’s an attribute that first surfaced during his junior year at Brown University.
His first two years of college hockey produced just one goal and five points in 47 games. Zolnierczyk said it was a frustrating time as he was stuck on the fourth line with limited ice time.
But then a coaching change occurred before Zolnierczyk’s junior year and he was thrust into a bigger role. He played on the top two lines and logged time on the power play and penalty kill. As Zolnierczyk’s role increased, so did his numbers, jumping from five points in his first two years to 64 in his final two seasons at Brown.
“My confidence started to come around with those opportunities and I proved myself to be better than five points in two years,” he said.
Zolnierczyk has demonstrated his offensive upside at the AHL level as well. He posted 21 points in 39 games in 2011-2012, and he scored two goals in his first game with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last weekend.
So what part of his game does Zolnierczyk want to develop next?
“Everything. Becoming a better scorer, agitator, hitter and fighter. I want to improve on all aspects of the game,” he said. “I feel like I’ve gotten better as the years have gone on, and I want to put myself in a spot where I can be in the NHL full time. That’s the goal.”