At the end of the 1997-98 season, Alexei Zhitnik of the Buffalo Sabres won the team's Tim Horton Memorial Award for the "player whose performance is far superior to public recognition." It was a fitting tribute to a player who has developed a reputation as an anchor on the Sabres squad for solid, hardworking defense, a man who has matured quickly during his years in the NHL.
The Ukrainian-born Zhitnik played for the Sokol club in his hometown of Kiev in the Soviet league before joining the CSKA Moscow team in 1991-92. That season, he was a fourth-round pick, 81st overall of the Los Angeles Kings in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft, and he played for the gold medal winning Unified Team at the Olympics in Albertville, France, in 1992.
Zhitnik played for Los Angeles for two full seasons reaching the Stanley Cup final in 1993 only to come up short against the Montreal Canadiens. The Kiev, Ukraine native was traded partway through 1994-95 to Buffalo in a multi-player deal that saw him, Robb Stauber, Charlie Huddy and a fifth-round pick go to the Kings for Grant Fuhr, Philippe Boucher and Denis Tsygurov. Once in Buffalo, Zhitnik established himself as a defensive stalwart. But after playing there for two seasons, he started to pick up the pace on the offensive side of the ice as well. Overall, he developed into the kind of player the Sabres could count on to contribute wherever he was needed.
At the time Buffalo has developed into a playoff contender, making it all the way to the Cup finals against Dallas in 1998-99, yet this hasn't been a club that overpowered opponents with offense, relying instead on heroics between the pipes by all-World goalie Dominik Hasek. And that's why coach Ruff has come increasingly to value the offensive contributions of players like Zhitnik.
In 2003-04 Zhitnik entered his 12th NHL season and his ninth full season with the Sabres before being acquired by the New York Islanders in the summer of 2005.
In his first season with the Islanders Zhitnik would lead his team in ice time before suffering a season ending injury in March. The following season Zhitnik appeared in 30 games with the Islanders before being dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers for Freddy Meyer and a conditional 3rd round draft pick.
After 31 games with Flyers, Zhitnik would be on the move once again as the club opted to send the defenceman to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for Braydon Coburn.
On the international stage Zhitnik has played in three Olympic Games (1992, 1998, 2002), two World Championships (1994, 1996), one Canada Cup (1991) and one World Cup (1996).