Tuesday, September 16, 2008

 

Czeching Out - Who Is The Best Remaining Bohemian?

by Czechmate
The end of last season also spelled the end of an era. Maybe some would disagree, but those people would likely lack facts to back them up, or at least would be considered as being cut from the Don Cherry cloth (which would likely look like a couch from the 1970's if such a cloth actually existed in a physical manifestation) of anti-European tendencies.

What I'm talking about is the turning of the page on the Czech Republic's proudest era of NHL prominence; in other words, the retirement of Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek (again).

These two players embodied the best of the best from our little nation of 10 million people.

Sure, we outdrink the world in beer consumption, and not by a small margin, either! But our accomplishments don't end there. For such a small nation, who has been at the center of a constantly changing geo-political landscape that is Europe, we have done remarkably well in the world of professional hockey and soccer as well. Where hockey is concerned, Jagr and Hasek have been at the forefront of our success.
Jagr is a sure-fire first ballot hall of famer, as is Hasek. The stats, individual accomplishments, international medals and Stanley Cups make it impossible to believe otherwise. However, both also have struggled in media and hockey fan appreciability because of their manic dispositions and perceived reputations as prima donnas. In fact, I've read as many articles, blog posts and subsequent comments that praise and thank the two for their respective accomplishments as I have read that suggest the author believes it is a good thing for the NHL that these two are now departed. It's really an odd juxtaposition, but one that I believe I understand.
Anyway, with these two now in the history books, I wanted to take a look at who remains from my homeland, and of those, who is the best man standing. There is nothing really scientific about my analysis, but it does merit noting that of the list of players that follow, some are rated based on accomplishments in the past, while others are assessed on their potential for future accomplishments. The players are listed in no particular order. You decide which is our best player remaining...

FORWARDS:

1 - Milan Hejduk: Hejduk has been the trigger man for Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche for 701 games, tallying 285 goals, 313 assists for 598 points. He has a career rating of +156, and has been fairly durable throughout his career. Hejduk is not the best skater out there, but has profound scoring instincts and a wicked wrist shot that can catch goalies totally unaware. He has experienced a bit of an up-and-down career in terms of production, but it seems that goes hand-in-hand with how the Avs fare overall. Last season, he tallied 29 goals and 25 assists in 77 games. Surely, he is one of the elder statesmen of our NHL representation, and will likely continue to decline as the years roll by.

2 - Patrik Elias: Maybe it's because he plays in New Jersey's uber-tight defensive system and team concept, but Elias never seems to get any credit for his statistical accomplishments. In 745 career games, he has managed a very respectable 264 goals, 364 assists and 628 points. Combine that with his +162 rating over that time, and he looks like a pretty damn good two-way forward! Elias goes about his business quietly, and does his job very well. His stats would likely be even better if he played on an offensively-oriented team, but seldom does one hear him complain. He is a fixture on our international team, and was once even captain of the Devils until supplanted by coach Sutter, who seems like a less than ideal coach for European players. This guy is a winner. However, he isn't a showy winner, so he usually flies under the radar. I recall once drafting him in the 7th round of a pool with 12 people in it.

3 - Petr Sykora: He's 31 years old, and has played 845 NHL games. His stats totals are pretty decent, although not outstanding. Over his career, primarily spent with the Devils, he has managed to score 275 goals and 353 assists for a respectable total of 628 points. Expect that total to rise significantly as long as he's playing with Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. Sykora is a goal-scorer with a very strong shot and sound offensive positioning. He isn't a particularly strong skater, but he does know where he needs to be on the ice in order to maximize his scoring chances. He is also under-appreciated for his defensive knack and quiet leadership.

4 - Ales Hemsky: Hemsky is young, but has become known as one of the premier set-up men in the league. He is Edmonton's star forward right now, although with their strong core of youth up front, he'll surely fade into the background soon enough. Hemsky has amassed 70 goals and 195 assists for 265 points in his 349 game career, but is also a combined -23 in that time. I believe his defensive game isn't really up to par, but a lot of that is due to Edmonton's north-south style of play. Armed with better linemates for his early career, his totals could be much higher, although that is based more on speculation than any given facts. I believe Hemsky will continue to improve, and will eventually top 90 points in a season, especially now that Edmonton's youth is starting to get front-line billing.

5 - Martin Havlat: Yes, I know, his injury issues are a huge deterrent from any fantasy hockey selection, but realistically, Havlat is a superior talent. After a slow and steady development in the Ottawa Senators' system, Havlat has compiled an impressive stats sheet, which includes 140 goals and 179 assists for 319 points in 379 games. In recent years, he has been near a point-per-game, but again, his insistence on playing a reckless game (grit, as it is called in Canada) has seen him very limited in terms of games played, thus limiting his effectiveness and production. I expect a full season from Mach-9 this year, and I expect a very strong statistical showing, especially if he plays with Toews or Kane for any stretch of time.

Honourable mentions: Martin Erat (NAS), Robert Lang (MTL), Vaclav Prospal (TB) EDIT - TOMAS PLEKANEC (MTL) *** HEHEHE*** EDIT 2 - MILAN MICHALEK (SJ)

DEFENCE:

1 - Tomas Kaberle: Kaberle may have refused to waive his no-trade clause last season at the deadline, and he'll likely be remembered as the guy who cost the Leafs Jeff Carter plus a first rounder, but his career has been very solid to this point. As a defenceman, he has been the bright-spot on the Leafs' roster for a few seasons now, with all due respect to Bryan McCabe. His playmaking ability is superb, as is shown by his 402 points in 681 games (333 of them assists). He has also managed to chisel out a +51 career rating on a Leafs' team that doesn't really understand the concept of defensive hockey. Kaberle might be traded this season, as he seems less reluctant to waive his NTC now that the Leafs are in rebuild mode, and if he moves to a contender, his totals could be in the range of 70 points in a season.

2 - Roman Hamrlik: Some first overall picks end up being a bust (see Alexandre Daigle), but while some would question Hamrlik's selection at that ranking, it bears noting that the second pick overall that season was Alexei Yashin. At this stage, clearly Hamrlik was the better choice, even if he isn't considered a top-pairing defenceman in many circles. "Hammer" has put up a very respectable 531 points, including 136 goals, in his 1,076 games, which is largely due to his durability and great hockey instincts. His best season saw him score 65 points, with 16 goals, back in 1995-96, but that year he had a -24 rating. This is telling, because his last minus season was in 2000-01 with the Isles, where he posted a -20. Why is it telling? Well, because since then, he's been a plus player, including a career-best +22 with the Flames in 2006-07, meaning he has worked on improving his overall game. He used to be a powerplay quarterback type of defenceman, but now he's capable of lining up against the league's best.

3 - Marek Zidlicky: Okay, so this guy doesn't make many lists... However, in his relatively short career (307 games), the powerplay specialist has racked up an impressive 175 points. It's better than a point every second game, which is fairly good for a defenceman. Some will point to his career -5 rating, but considering Nashville didn't really gain respectability until a couple of seasons ago, that really isn't bad for an offensive defenceman. His move to Minnesota this past offseason should see his rating improve, as Nashville isn't quite the defensively stifling team that the Wild are.

4 - Michal Rozsival: I'm always baffled when people say he's over-paid and over-rated. In today's market, $5M for a guy who will score 10+ goals and 25+ points from the blueline while not being a defensive liability is pretty much fair market value (see Jeff Finger for definition of "overpaid"). Rosie has become a very reliable player for the Rangers, and has become an all-purpose defenceman in the NHL. He isn't overly physical, but no Czech players really are. I look to his career +48 rating and his steady production, and find that he's a capable first-pairing defender that any team could use, aside from the Wings and Ducks...

Honourable mentions: Ladislav Smid (EDM), Jaroslav Modry (PHI), Pavel Kubina (TOR), Jaroslav Spacek (BUF), Filip Kuba (OTT), Rostislav Klesla (CMB) EDIT - ZBYNEK MICHALEK

Goalies:

1 - Tomas Vokoun: Maybe the best kept secret in the NHL, Tomas Vokoun first earned respectability in Nashville, where he honed his skills and developed into an elite level goalie. Vokoun is a no-nonsense player who doesn't really have bad games. Like any goalie, he lets in bad goals here and there, but he very seldom stinks up the house on any given night. His career GAA of 2.54 and Save Percentage of .914 are extremely solid numbers, and one can only imagine how good those stats could be if he hadn't played his early career on a fairly weak Nashville team. Sadly, as far as top-flight goalies go, Vokoun is the only one from the Czech Republic in the NHL right now.

Honourable mention: nobody!

What/Who's coming up:

1 - Martin Hanzal: The Phoenix Coyotes have a keeper here. Hanzal scored 35 points in 71 games last season, his first in the NHL, but the speedy winger was used more in a supporting role than a fore-front one. Hanzal projects to be a 25 goal scorer, and could hit as high as 75 points in the next few seasons.

2 - David Krejci: Boston saw what this guy can do last season, where he notched 6 goals and 21 assists for 27 points in 56 games last year. However, he'll be in a more prominent position this season, and will likely come close to doubling that output. He has good wheels, a nose for the net, and soft hands. Potential could be as high as 70 points.

3 - Rostislav Olesz: His slow production is largely attributable to playing in Florida. However, Olesz's strength is as an offensive contributor, despite what the stats sheet reads at the moment. With Olli Jokinen gone, the door is wide open for Rusty to step up and show what he is capable of. I see him at around 55 points this season, which would be a massive upgrade on the 30 points that currently stand as his career best.

4 - Michael Frolik: Another Panther, but this time a prospect. Frolik was once considered the Czech Republic's answer to Sidney Crosby. I think that was a stretch, but this kid has superlative talent. Frolik is projected to become a first line forward with exceptional playmaking skills and a strong shot by Hockeysfuture.com, which I don't believe is a stretch by any means. I expect him to make a strong case for himself at camp this month, and likely find himself in Panthers' colours at the start of the season.

5 - Jakub Kindl: The Wings know how to draft and develop players, and I think they found themselves a real gem in Kindl, who they drafted at 19th overall in 2005. Kindl's combination of size (although at 6'3" he needs to fill out his 183lb frame), skating ability and vision will make him a strong top-pairing defenceman down the road. His adjustment to minor-pro (AHL) last season was smooth, and all he needs is a vacancy in the Wings' lineup to make a strong push for a roster spot. Watch for him to knock on the NHL door in case of injury this season to any Wings' regular.

6 - Ondrej Pavelec: Have to include a goaltender on the list of up-and-comers, and it looks like Pavelec is the guy (Marek Schwarz was considered our top goaltending prospect, but he has been very slow in developing and could prove to be a bust). Pavelec came in to the NHL last year in relief of Atlanta's annual injury issue - Kari Lehtonen. "Pav" only played in 7 games for the Thrashers, and considering the team's complete lack of defensive acumen, posted a respectable 3-3 record. There was talk earlier in the offseason that Atlanta might consider moving Lehtonen to get a defenceman, leaving Pav to be the team's starter, just to give you an idea of the potential this young goalie has (he's 21). I am not sure if he'll ever live up to that kind of expectation, but suffice it to say, he's a blue-chip prospect to at least be a regular backup, if not starter in the NHL.

Anyway, I'm sure I missed a few players, like Jakub Voracek, Jiri Tlusty (for you Leafers out there) and many others, but there's only so many hours in a day. Feel free to post your opinions, or point out any other players deserving to be on this list.

Until next time,

Na Zdravi!

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Comments:
1. You were ripping me to shreds over Kuba, yet he's only an honourable mention? I thought he wuz gonna win the Norris :)

2. Czech goalies - Tomáš Pöpperle has some serious talent, but he's stuck behind Leclaire in CBJ and keeps going back and forth between NA and Czechia. Schwarz could see a bit more time, especially if he ever learns to play the angles in NA rinks (boy, is it taking him a long time to do so). Ondrej Pavelec is also a kick-ass prospect. If Kari Lehtonen keeps ripping his groin apart, Pavelec will take over soon enough.

3. Out of the non-goalie prospects, Frolik has the most upside, but I'd put $ on Olesz to be the best out of the lot. He's lanky, thus his development has been a bit slow, but anyone who has seen what he can do knows this kid is the bomb. He's got the physical tools to be a monster, and just needs to keep learning to be more assertive in the offensive zone.

Kindl is a pothead and was way over his head last season. I wonder if the Wings can turn this kid into around ... never bet against those evil bastards.

PS: Some of those guys are probably Moravian (yay!), and not Bohemian (boo!) ;)
 
1) Yes, it looks like we have entered either a 'dark age' or a changing of the guard with regard to talent from that part of the world.
2) It appears the zenith of the domination was the 1998 gold medal win, followed by three straight gold medals at the world championships from 1999 to 2001.
3) It has amazed us how many top quality players have come from that small country and also from its former partner/neighbor, Slovakia, which is even smaller still
 
....tomas plekanec?
 
Plekanec is kind of caught in the middle right now. He's neither been around long enough to be considered one of our best exports, nor is he really an "up-and-comer". That said, I think he's an excellent player who can still get even better!
 
Czechmate,

I can't believe I missed Pleky. That said, he is one of the best Czechs in the game right now. Check out his production, and then add the fact he's also very good defensively, and you get someone who is more valuable to his team than Milan Hejduk.
 
hey, David Vyborny is no more in NHL, he returned to Sparta

And my vote to Pleky, he is going to be best Czech in the league this season, bet on it!
 
You left Milan Michalek and his brother Zybnek Michalek off your list. Both are young and just starting to show what they can do in this league. They should at least be in the bottom section there. (Especially Milan, I mean he is a 1st line player most of the time for the Sharks, so he can't be that bad.)
 
I agree, the Michaleks are very good... Like I said above, I definitely missed some. Good work on you, the readers, for pointing out some good ones! Pleky and the Michaleks should definitely be considered among the best.

Misha - I will remove Vyborny from the list... :)
 
Elias is now the Devils leader in points breaking the record on the same day Brodeur broke the NHL wins record.
 
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