Vladimir Mihalik did not have an interest to play hockey growing up.
"It was not a big sport in Slovakia. I really did not have an interest in it until coaches encouraged me that I could do well," said Mihalik with a grin.
Five years later, the NHL is coming into view for him. The Tampa Bay Lightning is hoping the towering defenseman at 6’8, 222 lbs can make the jump sooner rather than later.
The native of Presov is in the midst of discovering what it takes to make himself a formidable enforcer, an attentive pupil at the age of 21. After two years in the WHL first with Red Deer and then with Prince George, he’s now a rookie in the AHL. He has 13 points in 50 games and is +5. with just 54 penalty minutes. The good news is that he making the transition — making better decisions with the puck and jumping in on the rush without getting overwhelmed during play.
"Vladi has progressed very well," Norfolk Admirals coach Steve Stirling said. "He is playing close to 20 minutes a game and is killing penalties for us. He will block shots, which is a blessing because not everyone will or wants to do that. He’ll play a little on the power play, but it’s in his best interest to play five on five and learn the defensive zone."
Many have feared his size would hinder mobility and thus his career. But Norfolk does not concur with that notion. He has made enough progress to remain a critical player despite his shortcomings. Stirling believes things will only get better for the prospect, who has held a regular shift since joining the squad. Stirling stated that there has been a vast improvement this season where his mental game is starting to go along with his enormous size. He is making better decisions with puck and improving on reading the speed of the game.
Drafted 30th overall in 2005 by Tampa, the narrower North American rinks have become more like home to him. He feels more confident in the new culture and his game.
"I’m in my third year here [North America]. I thought it would be easy, I found out the hard way that it takes a lot of hard work," said Mihalik. "I had good coaches in my first year with Red Deer with Brent Sutter. He was tough on me, but it helped me. But after I was traded to Prince George, I knew how to speak English better and I was more comfortable with adjusting to North American hockey."
Mihalik has specific areas he needs to work on, but they are fixable.
"Vladi will rarely get beat wide. I can count on one hand when he has gotten beat wide," said Stirling. "Vladi gets beat because of his gaps between him and his partner, knowing when his partner slides down in the offensive zone like David Schneider does. He’s doing pretty well reading the speed of the game."
The challenge for Mihalik has been his lack of physical maturity. Stirling’s views these as common challenges with players who are so young and have bigger frames. They may have matured mentally, but their body is still has not fully developed. The result is underdeveloped stick and puckhandling. Other players have gone through similar stages. Defenseman Zdeno Chara played under Sterling in 1998 with the Lowell Lock Monsters. Chara, the tallest player in NHL history at 6’9, is an inch taller than countryman Mihalik. The Boston Bruin played just one year in the AHL. Like Chara, Stirling speculates that Mihalik could be ready to leave the nest after a year under his belt.
"I don’t want judge or compare, I’ll know more this time next year and I’ll be in a better position to judge if it will be one year or more," Stirling said. "Like most young kids, consistency is always an issue. When it is all done, Vladi is going to be a good defender. He’s playing now against the top two lines."
Consistency, consistency and you guessed it — consistency, will be a measuring tool for the 21-year-old. The coach want good habits instilled now.
"It’s all about consistency even at practice. Sometimes I need to tell him ‘Vlad, Vlad, we are only 20 minutes into practice!’ So there are days where he’s a little sleepy or sloppy at practice, and he’s going to have to tidy that up a bit. Then he’ll start to get good habits and simple plays will be automatic at practice. It should be automatic in the game."
For the moment, his short tenure in the AHL has been rewarded. He is among the top 50 rising stars in the league, which will feature him on 2007-08 Top Prospects trading card set. When it comes to talking about stardom, Mihalik is a little reluctant to talk about the future and his place in the big show.
"As far as the NHL, I might play on the second line, we’ll see. I have a couple of years still and I have lot to learn."
Stirling’s prediction on Mihalik’s landing spot and timing was optimistic.
"He’s ready now at the rate he’s progressing," he said. "Matt Smaby was not here too long before he was called up. If not this season, he might be called up in the fall. I think he has a chance to be a top four defenseman in the NHL."