Unable to create many opportunities for young players, Czech youth hockey is slowly losing influence. The system has been collapsing, with the main problems being economics and training methods. It's no wonder that talented Czech players try their luck abroad, not just in Canada or the United States, but also in Sweden, a country that has recently produced loads of big-time NHL prospects.
All three Czech players chosen at the 2013 NHL Draft are based in the CHL and, regarding the first round, the upcoming draft in 2014 won't be much different. The two front-runners for the top of the 2014 Czech draft class are based in Sweden, playing among the very best a junior player can – one in the Elitserien, the other having spent some time playing with a top-three prospect in William Nylander and now is a leader of an Allsvenskan team.
While Jakub Vrána entered the season as the higher-ranked of the two, the other, David Pastrňák, had more modest expectations to live up to. Ranked around number thirty or even lower in rankings this past summer, Pastrňák had a terrific start to the 2013-14 season. Unexpectedly, he's been a lethal force in one of the top European professional leagues, the Swedish Allsvenskan.
Born in Havířov, a part of the second-largest agglomeration of the Czech Republic, Pastrňák comes from a hockey family as his father was a hockey player and spent two seasons playing in Germany's Schwenningen. By the age of thirteen, Pastrňák was a mainstay in the Under-16 team of HC Havířov, scoring 52 points in 30 games.
A year later, the flashy forward repeated that performance and added an even more stunning 19 points in 16 games in the Under-18 Extraliga. That's much more than Tomáš Hertl's 13 points in 22 games of the same league at the exact same age. The following season, Pastrňák fought a battle in four categories while playing for five different teams.
First, staying in Havířov, he dominated both the Under-16 and the Under-18 Extraligas with roughly two points per game in each one. The organization also gave him a chance at the Under-20 level and among professionals. However, the then 15-year-old forward was unable to score any points in his first six professional games.
Just like Radek Faksa, the current Dallas Stars prospect who plays for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, Pastrňák transferred (or, to be exact, was sent on loan) to nearby Třinec where he played at the Under-18 level. Joining a quality program in an organization that has a Czech Extraliga team (Havířov does not) helped him mature and get more attention from scouts.
His total of points in the Under-18 Extraliga regular season that year was 68. He scored that many in just 40 games, becoming the league's top point-scorer even in front of players like Luboš Rob or Miroslav Indrák who now have Extraliga experience. Also, appearing at various national team events with the Under-16 and Under-17 categories must have helped Pastrňák find a place in Sweden.
Czechs are not the first foreign players to look to Sweden for help in hockey development. Slovenian forward and current Los Angeles Kings star Anže Kopitar stands out among those who took this route and, at the moment, he is the only NHL player born and raised in Slovenia. But Pastrňák, unlike Kopitar when he played in Sweden, wasn't supposed to lead his Swedish team.
Selecting Södertälje as his destination in the North, the 6-foot, 168-pound winger played in the shadow of aforementioned top-three 2014 prospect Nylander all of last season, yet he still managed to attract the attention of scouts. After scoring 29 points in 36 SuperElit games, Pastrňák had an opportunity to come back to professional hockey at a very different level.
It wasn't the third-highest Czech league this time, though, but the second-highest Swedish league, called Hockey Allsvenskan. And it wasn't just the legend's son on the ice, but the legend himself – Michael Nylander – being one of his teammates, as well. That must have helped, too, and Pastrňák collected three points in his 16 Allsvenskan games. He also appeared at the Under-18 WJC, scoring a goal and an assist in five games.
This season started in the Czech Republic for the Havířov native, at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in Břeclav. After his father passed away in May, David Pastrňák stepped up his game and if he ever was overshadowed by Jakub Vrána, it was not in August.
Pastrňák led the team towards the bronze and had four points in four games en route to that achievement. That is as many points as Vrána had, but on the ice, Pastrňák was definitely more of a threat. Their friendly competition resembled that of Faksa and Hertl at the 2013 U-20 WJC with the difference being that Vrána and Pastrňák, unlike the other two Czechs, play a similar style of hockey.
The real surprise, however, came later. Pastrňák has become a full-time member of Södertälje's top team, in the Allsvenskan. After 24 games, he is tied for the team lead in points with 15 (6 goals and 9 assists), while Nylander has 8 points in 18 games playing with his dad in Rögle.
In the past, players were drafted into the NHL from Allsvenskan. Patrik Berglund was drafted in the first round of the 2006 NHL Draft by the St. Louis Blues after just 4 points in 21 Allsvenskan games with Västerås. Filip Forsberg had just 17 points in 43 games with Leksand before the Washington Capitals drafted him 11th overall in 2012.
Points are not everything, though. A lot about Pastrňák's future will depend on his play at the Under-20 WJC in Malmö, Sweden, later this month. Until then, he remains a potential selection in the top rounds of the NHL Draft.
Hockey's Future recently interviewed Pastrňák for this Q&A.
Hockey's Future: David, you play in Sweden, why did you decide to go there?
David Pastrňák: As I was developing I felt like the practice methods in Sweden could give me more. I felt like I could improve my game much more over there.
HF: And are you satisfied?
DP: For sure, I guess I would do the same thing right now.
HF: How about the language? Do you speak any Swedish?
DP: I mostly speak English over there, but I'm trying to teach Swedish, although just slowly.
HF: You played with William Nylander for Sodertalje.
DP: Yes, we were linemates in the last season in the junior league and then in two Allsvenskan games as well. However, he left for a different team with his dad. He's as good as advertised.
HF: What was the experience of playing in the Allsvenskan like for you?
DP: It was awesome to see all the older players out there because some of them used to play at the World Championships and they've been through a lot. Being able to see how they do things means a lot to me.
HF: And how about the Under-18 World Junior Championship that you played at?
DP: That was amazing, too. It was my first World Championships and we played quite well. However, we expected more out of it. We had good games against the Americans and the Finns, but we always fell just short of beating them. Then we were up against Canada in the quarterfinals and that was something else.
HF: How would you describe your playing style?
DP: I'm a forward who is rather offensive, but I think I can pass and score. My biggest weakness is the defensive play, but I'm giving it my best and doing all I can to improve it.
HF: Besides defense, what do you think you need to work on the most before your draft day?
DP: Every player has something to improve. I guess I need to get stronger and I think that I will do that in Sweden.
HF: Many rank you as a first-round prospect for the 2014 draft. What does that mean to you?
DP: That's a surprise for me. It's going to be a big experience. The upcoming season is what matters the most though. I need to work hard and get stronger.
Follow Radoslav Vavrina on Twitter via @Pacific4_Rado_V