Despite a year that didn’t see the Czech Republic get much done internationally at the junior level, the 2015 NHL Draft saw a total of 11 Czech players taken by NHL teams, albeit the top three of Pavel Zacha (6th overall), Jakub Zboril (13th), and Filip Chlapik (48th) having spent this past season strutting their stuff in North America.
Zacha in particular is a highly-touted young player who combines size and skill like few players can, and will now be seen by the New Jersey Devils as the next go-to guy offensively in a considerable line of Czech impact players to have suited up for the Devils.
At the same time, several other North American Czechs were not drafted, and they were coming from opposite ends of the eligibility spectrum. One was 6’2” forward Jiri Fronk, who spent the season chipping in 29 goals for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the USHL. It was the last crack at the draft for the once highly-rated Fronk, who’ll now become a free agent. For 6’3”, 185-pound defensive defenseman Daniel Krenzelok, who spent the season playing for the Val-d’Or Foreurs of the QMJHL, he will first turn 18 on July 29th and was one of the youngest players available in this draft. Not taken, he will look to turn next season into his coming out party on the prospect front.
Those that were selected included four prospects coming out of the Czech Republic that Hockey’s Future ranked amongst the nation’s top five overall, as well as an honorable mention and three more unexpected picks.
First in line was the nation’s top goaltending prospect, Daniel Vladar, who Central Scouting Services (CSS) had ranked second overall among European goalies and who Hockey’s Future saw as the second-best Czech prospect heading into the draft. At a towering 6’5”, Vladar possesses just about all the traits you want in a goalie, being not only large, but also mobile, nimble on his feet, mentally strong, and technically well-schooled. Having also spent time this season with Kladno’s pro team, it’s felt he’ll get even more time in the pros next season. Having gone 75th overall to the Boston Bruins, Vladar is now part of a franchise that in Tuukka Rask and former first rounder Malcolm Subban has several goalies that the team should be planning with over the long-term. A strong asset for the franchise, it is felt that Vladar should be a starter in the NHL at some juncture. He’s scheduled to play for the Chicago Steel of the USHL next fall.
Heading into the draft, Hockey’s Future had predicted that Vladar would be taken between spots 120-211, primarily due to not only the competition among available goaltenders, but also a lack of having been much of a factor at the U18 World Championship in Switzerland, where he put up a pedestrian 3.38 goals-against average and .903 save percentage in four games. It was felt this would be a tournament where he’d be a difference-maker.
Taken 108th by the Winnipeg Jets was right-shooting Michael Spacek, an all-around forward who can excel thanks to his on-ice acumen and intelligence. Seen as a very nice complementary player, he spent almost the entire 2014-15 season playing for Pardubice in the Czech Extraliga, for which he collected 12 points. After a top-flight showing at the 2014 U18 World Championship, where he was instrumental in a top-six role in helping the Czechs win silver, he wasn’t able to accumulate the same type of success at this year’s tournament. Of average height and weight measuring in at 5’11” and 187 pounds, CSS had Spacek ranked fifth among European skaters while Hockey’s Future ranked Spacek first among Czech prospects.
A complete player for this stage in his development, Winnipeg’s suddenly extremely deep forward prospect bin can afford to allow Spacek to work out his problems with consistency and continue learning how to make an impact at the pro level. At this point, his stick skills, vision, and strong use of his edges, especially in 1-on-1 battles, makes him look like a player who will do just fine in North American rinks. Heading into the draft, Hockey’s Future predicted he’d be taken between spots 45-80. Also drafted by the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL, it will be interesting to see if he goes that route, a place where Winnipeg could keep a close watch on him.
Just three picks later, the Minnesota Wild selected the next Czech goaltender, Ales Stezka, at 111th overall. Like Vladar, he’s a tall goaltender (6’3”) who has already tasted play at the pro level. Stezka also put in some nice efforts at the U18 World Championship and shows strong poise and focus for the full sixty minutes. He was lights-out good for Liberec’s U18 club before putting up decent numbers at the U20 level, where he saw 46 games of action and was outstanding in six playoff games with a 1.98 goals-against and .929 save percentage. Already very good with his glove and in controlling rebounds, Stezka needs to simply keep logging minutes and gaining experience. He might just do that at the pro level next season with Liberec. Eventually, he could be a good depth goaltender who surprises at the NHL level.
Things became a bit more wide open after that. Up next was winger David Kase, Central Scouting’s 11th-ranked European player who went 128th overall to the Philadelphia Flyers. Only 5’11” and 170 pounds, many involved in the Czech ice hockey scene feel he might be the best Czech coming out of the country for this draft, and better overall than his brother Ondrej Kase, who was grabbed late in the seventh round last summer by the Anaheim Ducks. A smallish player who has good hustle in his game and doesn’t refrain from going where it hurts to dig out pucks, Kase is best when creating situations and space for his teammates. A strong character player, he also takes pride in providing solid, dependable play without the puck.
Already a veteran of the U20 World Junior Championship and two straight U18 tournaments in which he chipped in five points on both occasions, Kase captained this year’s U18 squad and collected those five points and a +3 rating in just four games. Heading into the draft, Hockey’s Future felt he would be an excellent mid-round pick between spots 91-190 for a team not too worried about his average size and lack of true consistency to date, denoting that he has been nothing short of noticeable when he’s worn his nation’s jersey.
Taken 137th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had all of four picks on the day, was overager Dominik Simon. A very savvy pick for a team that has had a lot of success over the years with Czech players, the Penguins selected a 5’11”, 176-pound player who is coming off 19 goals and 34 points in 56 Extraliga games with HC Plzen. He capped off his season by representing his nation at the World Championship in Prague, where he had an excellent outing, contributing a goal and six points along with a +5 in 10 games. Interestingly, he was dressed several times over the older NHL-proven Tomas Hertl, who was left out of the lineup once playoff time swung around. A solid part of the Czech program since his U17 days, it’s very possible that the Penguins may bring him over to their AHL program as soon as this season. Interestingly, he already speaks excellent English and has made no qualms at any juncture about having the NHL in his sights.
At pick 145, the Nashville Predators went a little outside the box in taking Karel Vejmelka, a 6’3”, 203-pound overage goaltender who spent the bulk of this last season with Pardubice’s U20 squad, putting up a 2.54 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in 37 games. He also played 13 games for the men’s team, including six playoff contests, putting up a combined 2.94 goals-against and .919 save percentage, quite an impressive pro debut. On loan to second league Slavia Trebic, he was unbeatable in sporting a 1.36 goals-against and .952 save percentage. Although unranked, he clearly caught Nashville’s eye and is a player they feel could have a very bright future.
With the sixth round well underway, the Vancouver Canucks grabbed Lukas Jasek 174th overall, a player ranked 23rd in Europe by CSS and 5th amongst Czechs by Hockey’s Future. One of the youngest players in this draft, Jasek is a hard working, mid-sized winger who is very agile and adept on his skates. He tends to stick out to viewers due to his hustle and jumpy play and can even generate a number of passing and shooting options through his skating that many other players may not even think of. Very enthusiastic everywhere from the locker room to the ice, he plays a smart, team-first game.
After a season abroad for Sodertalje in Sweden during the 2013-14 season, Jasek spent this year being an above-average scorer for Trinec’s U20 squad while learning the ropes in 28 Extraliga games, in which he collected two assists. Hockey’s Future predicted Jasek would be selected between spots 170-211, seeing him as a very long-term project who’s skating and enthusiasm may have him being quite the prospect within two year’s time.
Going last among Czech prospects was the next goaltender, Miroslav Svoboda, who was selected 208th overall by the Edmonton Oilers. Already 20 years of age, Svoboda spent most of the season putting up a 2.72 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 33 U20 league games before playing one Extraliga game and 18 second league games split between Havirov and Sumperk. His numbers in the pro ranks were nothing to write home about, but this 6’3”, 176-pound goaltender seems to have done something to impress Edmonton’s brass, and it might have been his 1.51 goals-against and .942 save percentage in his two WJC outings. Interesting, however, that Svoboda, as an overager, would have been taken but Slovakian bronze medalist and WJC celebrity Denis Godla was not.
Ranked fifth by Hockey’s Future among draft-eligible prospects, Jan Dufek didn’t hear his name called. Built much like Lukas Jasek and having a game that is not all that different, Dufek was drafted by the Sherbrooke Phoenix of the QMJHL and may spend next season in North America where scouts will get a much better read on him.
Forwards Filip Dvorak, Jan Ordos, and Frantisek Wagner all missed out on being drafted, and defenseman Rostislav Snajnar will have to see if he can’t turn some heads next season. Each could be playing for a pro team in the Czech Republic next fall and may be a WJC option.
Several overagers were left untaken, most notably David Kampf. A veteran of one U18 WC and the last two consecutive World Junior Championships, having been the team’s assistant captain this past winter, Kampf has been representing the Czech Republic since he was 15. He’ll now have to be signed as a UFA, if at all. Defenseman Jan Scotka, who stands 6’2” and 200 pounds, and Lukas Klok, measuring in at 6’1” and 187 pounds, were both part of the country’s WJC squad and spent this past season taking a regular shift for their Extraliga teams.
Upon conclusion of the draft, four Czech goalies were property of NHL franchises. A very high number on its own, it becomes even more interesting when one considers that Slovakia, which of course long formed a country together with the Czech Republic, also had two goaltenders drafted. In many ways sharing the same schools and hockey philosophies, the two nations seem to be contributing more than their fair share of NHL prospects to the goaltending position.
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