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Islanders sign Zhitnik to four-year deal after losing Aucoin


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NEW YORK (AP) - The Islanders signed defenseman Alexei Zhitnik on Tuesday to a four-year deal just hours after losing Adrian Aucoin to the Chicago Blackhawks.

During the 2003-04 season, the last before the NHL lockout, the 32-year-old Zhitnik had four goals and 24 assists in 64 games. He played last season with Kazan Ak-Bars of the Russian Hockey League, with a goal and eight assists in 23 games.

Zhitnik was named to two All-Star teams during his nine-plus seasons with the Buffalo Sabres.

"The Islanders were at the top of my list of teams I wanted to play for," Zhitnik said. "I spoke with (general manager) Mike Milbury and Coach (Steve) Stirling and they told me what's expected of me. I'm very happy to be an Islander."

One of Milbury's biggest concerns going into the shopping season that started Monday was the status of his defense corps. Only Janne Niinimaa had a contract going into next season, leaving Aucoin, Roman Hamrlik and Kenny Jonsson as free agents.

"Alexei is a perfect fit for us," Milbury said. "He's one of the best two-way defensemen in the game and he's a highly respected player. He's going to play big minutes for us in all situations."

Aucoin, who averaged more than 26 minutes of ice time per game during the 2003-04 season, signed a $16 million, four-year contract with Chicago earlier Tuesday. Jonsson is not expected to play in the NHL this season and Hamrlik is an unrestricted free agent.

The 5-foot-11, 210-pound Zhitnik was selected by Los Angeles in the fourth round of the 1991 draft. He has 81 goals and 315 assists in 882 NHL games with the Kings and Sabres.

Zhitnik was a member of the gold medal-winning Unified Team at the 1992 Albertville Olympics. He also won silver medals at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and at the 2004 World Cup.

Now he'll try to help the Islanders reach the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

"I've played in the Eastern Conference for a decade and know what it takes to win," Zhitnik said. "The Islanders have been a playoff team the last few years and now I'm hopeful I can take us to the next level. The playoffs have always been when I have played my best hockey."

I'm taking a mulligan on my previous Mad Mike rant. Losing Aucoin sucks, but Zhitnik is a solid 2-way defenseman.

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