Junior hockey is frequently thought to be cyclic in nature. With a limited window of only three or four years with any single age group, teams often find themselves focusing on developing a core group of players around the same age with the intention of becoming competitive in their 18 or 19-year-old season. Then once those players move on, the cycle begins anew.
For the Rimouski Oceanic, the peak of their cycle was in 2008-09 when the club hosted the 2009 Memorial Cup. Now, a year later, they are starting to build up again, finishing the year with 10 fewer wins and 14 fewer points as they switch their focus back to developing a new core of players.
Some shrewd wheeling and dealing by the Oceanic has ensured that their rebound will happen quickly. Over the course of the 2008-09 season, Rimouski dealt away many of the left over players from their Memorial Cup appearance in an effort to get younger and kick start the rebuild.
At the center of this new developing core are forwards Jakub Culek and Petr Straka, a pair of Czech import players who are both eligible for the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. With Straka being selected 22nd overall in the 2009 CHL Import Draft and Culek being selected 15 spots later at 37th overall, the pair have a long history together. They both hail from the same city of Plzen in the Czech Republic and played on many teams alongside one another growing up, most notably HC Plzen in the Czech U18 Extraliga, prior to coming to North America. With such a history behind them, it was only fitting that they were both reunited as linemates in Rimouski.
Straka, now 18, is generally thought to be the more dynamic of the two. Listed at 6’1 and 186 lbs, the swift right winger has the ability to make plays at high speed and showcased a nose for the net. In 62 games for Rimouski, Straka led all QMJHL rookies with 28 goals (13 coming on the power play) and 64 points. His totals were so impressive that he won both the Michel Bergeron Trophy as the league’s top offensive rookie as well as the RDS Trophy as the league’s top overall rookie.
That’s not to say his first year in the North America was not without its bumps. Straka struggled through some inconsistency in his rookie season and had to learn on the fly how to adapt his game to be as responsible in his own zone as he was dangerous in the offensive zone. Willing to engage the opposition physically, Straka will only get better as he gets stronger and more comfortable on the ice.
Attracting the attention of scouts with his speed and his scoring, Kim Houston of the NHL’s Central Scouting said of the sniper, "I like Straka a lot, I think he’s a smart, heady player, good solid skills, sees the ice well."
Meanwhile, Rimouski’s coach, Clem Jodoin described the young European as one of the top skaters on his team.
"He’s got speed, good shot, strong on the puck and very creative."
The younger Culek is still just 17 and with his early September birthday, he’s one of the youngest players eligible for the 2010 draft. But to look at him, one might be forgiven from assuming that he’s much more mature. At 6’4 and 195 lbs, Culek is an imposing figure on the ice, although he’s still learning how to effectively use his frame to his advantage. The left winger has already proven to be dependable at both ends of the ice although skating is his biggest weakness, as with such a big body at a young age comes some awkwardness.
Despite posting just modest totals in his rookie year with 13 goals and 47 points in 63 games, Culek might soon prove to be a more an intriguing prospect compared to Straka. If he can harness his physical tools and continue to get stronger and faster, he has all the makings of a player who could dominate on the ice. A playmaker, it was Culek who was often sending the puck to Straka to set him up for his numerous goals.
The concerns about Culek’s skating were mirrored by Houston.
"I questioned his skating early on, but I’ve been told it improved over the season," who went on to note, "Obviously he can score."
Jodoin echoes Houston’s concerns about the big Czech’s mobility, admitting that, "his skating is probably not his greatest asset," but also is quick to point out that "he works hard to make plays."
Overall, Jodoin was most impressed by how open the pair was to coaching.
"I was surprised, they know the game, they know how to play the game. They have good instincts on what to do with and without the puck and during practices, they aren’t afraid to ask questions if they don’t understand the drills, because they want to be sure that they do it right. So they’re two good young kids and they have a good future, there’s no question."
As a coach who is known for preaching the game, Jodoin was also proud to point out their growth in their own end.
"They start to understand for sure. Looking at the organization, with the scoring chances for and against, I’m surprised defensively, they’re not that bad. They’re not the worst on my team. They’re starting to understand."
Jodoin was equally impressed by their dedication to improving themselves.
"They work hard off ice. Very very hard," he said. "They know that if they want to make it to the next level, they have to spend the time in the gym and with the program we have them on, they do spend a lot of time in the gym and they’re strong and they’re just going to get stronger still, I can tell."
Buoyed by the play of Straka and Culek, Rimouski finished the season ninth in the league with a record of 34-27-5-2. Although maybe not as strong as the previous year’s efforts, Coach Jodoin was happy with the result.
"With 15 new players in the line-up, there’s a big difference," he said. "We’re pleased. Being the youngest team in the league, where we are right now, I think it’s a great step."
Entering into the playoffs, Rimouski dispatched divisional rivals Chicoutimi in a hard-fought seven-game series in the first round, before falling to Drummondville in five games in the second round. In those 12 postseason matches, both players took their games to new levels. Straka tied for the lead among all Rimouski players with 14 points (five of them goals) in 12 games, while Culek scored six goals and had nine points in the 12 games.
For two players coming to North America for the first time, their rookie season had to be slightly intimidating, but Jodoin explained that the pair meshed well with the young roster and are quickly picking up the language.
"Petr Straka is slightly bilingual and that’s really helped. Jakub is taking his courses right now and his English is getting much better. The transition is going well, I think. They were scared at the beginning for the first two or three days, but I told them that the boys would accept them and they really did, they were accepted in the group. They talk, they try, they’re involved, they’re having fun, they smiling and laughing. They’re part of the group. I’m amazed with the transition that’s been done. They’re good kids."
With the NHL Draft is the next challenge on the schedule for the duo, Jodoin did everything in his power to prepare them while making sure their dreams were not a distraction.
"If you’re living in the future, you’re going to miss everything. I’m always reminding them, one day at the time, today! Today, let’s do what we have to do. Living in the future, you won’t be playing, you won’t be competing, you won’t be working off ice, so I think you have to go one step at a time, but they want to learn too."
With much of Rimouski’s young roster expected to return, the Oceanic are expected to take the next step toward competing once again for the league’s championship and both Petr Straka and Jakub Culek will be counted on to lead the charge.