Someday, when Radek Faksa looks back at his career, 2015 is going to be well ingrained in his memory.
It started with a left shoulder injury suffered Jan. 4th against the Charlotte Checkers, which required surgery on Jan. 9th, his 21st birthday, and cost him the rest of the 2014-15 AHL season with the Texas Stars.
“It was probably the worst birthday of my life,” Faksa said.
Nine months and a difficult shoulder rehab later, Faksa made his NHL debut on Oct. 17th in the Dallas Stars’ 4-2 win against the Florida Panthers, where he played against childhood hero Jaromir Jagr — whose career started four years before Faksa was born in Opava, Czech Republic.
“He’s a legend,” Faksa said. “He’s like a god in Czech.”
While Faksa said “every kid in the Czech Republic wants to be Jagr,” the 21-year-old’s game better translates in the defensive zone, where he is developing as a shutdown center.
He has good size at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds and is positionally sound. In his brief AHL career, Faksa has been a top penalty killer, been trusted on defensive zone face-offs in crucial situations, and won a Calder Cup after completing his Ontario Hockey League career in 2014.
Yet, before this season, Faksa was being labeled as a potential draft bust after going 13th overall in 2012.
His statistics in the AHL — a league that has not publicly embraced advanced statistics — didn’t do him any favors, and he was the last top-20 pick from his draft class to make his NHL debut.
But, if possession numbers and face-off percentage were official statistics in the AHL, and outsiders could hear scouts impressions of Faksa, the word “bust” wouldn’t be in the vocablulary.
“For sure, normal fans they don’t really see that,” Faksa said. “Some people from Dallas will come see the game, they know that. They’ll see that and I just try to focus on my game.”
And shoulder surgery tested Faksa’s focus, but he said it helped him mentally improve as a player.
When he first hurt his shoulder he could tell it wasn’t in the right place, but he felt it would cost him “three to four weeks at most.”
But the doctor in Charlotte, who saw Faksa immediately after the injury, needed a couple tries to even get the shoulder back in place. Then he flew back to Dallas, where he had an MRI and it became clear he needed to have it surgically fixed.
“I remember when (Dallas Stars GM) Jim Nill and the doctor came in, we had a meeting and said something was wrong, I have to go for surgery,” Faksa said. “That the best thing will be to get it fixed, this way for my career.”
And then the waiting began, and for the first time in his life, Faksa had to go months without playing hockey.
“The waiting was the biggest thing,” Faksa said. “I had the anchor there and I had to heal up. Then the rehab went very long. It was kind of stressful every day doing the same thing.”
While his body physically rehabbed, Faksa became a student of the game.
He watched Dallas and Texas Stars games closely, splitting his time between Cedar Park and Austin, and he watched other NHL games on television with more attention to detail.
“I tried to take advantage of it,” Faksa said. “It’s great to be able to watch the best players in the world and what they do every night.”
Faksa said his film analysis revealed how positionally sound all NHL players are and he closely studied players he wants to emulate.
“I want to be someone like Eric Staal, Rick Nash,” Faksa said. “Big body presence, strong on the face-off. Lots of PK, be the best PK guy on the ice. That’s my job now, my ice time can get bigger with PK and defensive face-offs. So that’s what I’m focusing on now.”
After two games between the NHL and AHL, it’s apparent Faksa has taken those lessons to heart.
In the Texas Stars’ season opener, he scored a pair of goals and was the top penalty killer. After getting called up, necessitated by an injury to Curtis McKenzie, he centered the Dallas Stars’ fourth line and won all three of his face-offs in the defensive zone.
And what about the shoulder? How has it felt 10 months after the worst birthday of his life?
“It feels good,” Faksa said. “It’s still getting stronger every day. But, I feel like I’m ready for anything.”
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