Recycling Slovaks: Slovak Pack Sent Packing

By Larry Deutsch
Join me, if you will, for a trip back to March of the year 2000. The Blues were comfortably cruising along to their first President’s Trophy. The goaltending duo of Roman Turek and Jamie McLennan manned the nets, allowing fewer than two goals per game. Marc Bergevin, Rico Persson and Dave Ellett patrolled the blueline while Craig Conroy and Scott Pellerin handled the penalty killing duties.

Seems like decades ago, doesn’t it? It’s only been eighteen months. If the St. Louis Blues team of a year and a half ago were to take one look at today’s offering, they probably wouldn’t be able to recognize half of them. In fact, over that short period, the Blues have for one reason or another, parted ways with a group of players large enough to start their own franchise; complete with 3 goaltenders, 18 forwards, and 12 defensemen.

For the duration of that record-breaking season, the talk of the town was the Cycling Slovak line, consisting of Pavol Demitra, Michal Handzus, and Lubos Bartecko. Best known for their puck-moving style, the Slovak Pack, as they were also known, would buzz around the opposing faceoff circle and with a series of short drop passes, making defenders utterly dizzy. Their circus-like moniker, highlight-reel goals, and undeniable chemistry made the entertaining Slovaks the most recognizable symbol of Blues’ hockey in ’99-’00.

A singular moment in March of 2000 would forever change the face of the organization, not to mention that of winger Pavol Demitra. The
scintillating success of the Cycling Slovaks came to a screeching
halt as Pavol Demitra crashed face first into the boards. In an extremely dirty play, Lightning forward Brian Holzinger egregiously plowed the league’s most gentlemanly player from behind. St. Louis’ top scorer came up bloody and seriously concussed. He would miss the remainder of the season, including the playoffs. In the first round of their promising quest for the Cup, it became abundantly apparent how greatly the Slovak Pack relied on Demitra’s creativity and finishing ability.

And so, the Blues were dispatched by the underdog San Jose Sharks just seven games in to what was supposed to be their greatest ever playoff run. In a series characterized by fluke goals and strange deflections, the Sharks mucked and grinded their way past a far more finesse-oriented St. Louis team. Character guys like Mike Ricci frustrated the key players into taking bad penalties while Steve Shields outplayed a shaky Roman Turek in the nets. San Jose also exposed the unwillingness of the Blues’ forwards to get near the crease and score short-range “playoff-style” goals. The remaining Slovaks, as a line and separately, were easily neutralized from the perimeter by the Sharks’ intimidating defensive corps.

So how did the Blues become so obsessed with a nation in Eastern Europe about the twice the size of New Hampshire? The answer can be summed up in two words: Peter Stastny. Working as a Special Assignment Scout, the native of Bratislava, Slovakia began uncovering NHL talent out of his homeland on a regular basis. More importantly, he was successful in bringing elite players across the Atlantic and getting them acclimated to the North American style of hockey.

The Slovak movement began late in 1996 when the Blues fleeced Ottawa in a straight up swap of Pavol Demitra for Christer Olsson. At the time, the trade slipped under the radar as a swap of career minor leaguers, but Stastny unearthed a gem in Demitra. Strangely enough, not a single one of the St. Louis Slovaks were selected any higher than the 3rd round in their respective draft years. And in a matter of only eighteen months, Demitra is the only one of the seven Slovaks remaining in the system.

So where are they all now?

JAROSLAV OBSUT

Blueline prospect Jaroslav Obsut was not drafted by St. Louis, but by
the Winnipeg Jets, very late in the 1995 entry draft. Since turning pro, Obsut has spent time in three different minor leagues, the ECHL, AHL, and the now-defunct IHL. Clearly a late-bloomer as prospects go, the journeyman has already skated with teams in six different U.S. states and three Canadian provinces and he’s only 25 years of age. At the height of the Slovak craze, the Blues signed Obsut as a free agent and assigned him to Worcester. A reliable, if unspectacular, defenseman at the minor league level, Obsut’s progress has been hampered by a nagging knee injury. The Slovak rearguard saw action with the Blues for just four games this past season and only during times when the defensive corps was decimated by injuries.

Even after a solid year with the Worcester, Obsut was not retained by the organization. However, Blues owner Bill Laurie no doubt cringed when he heard Obsut had been picked up by his brother-in-law Stan Kroenke of the rival Colorado Avalanche. With the retirement of Ray Bourque and departure of Jon Klemm from the Avs blue line, it is not impossible that Obsut might fill in at some point this season as a seventh defenseman in Denver.

ANDREJ PODKONICKY

Departed from the Blues in a mid-season trade last year, St. Louis used this Slovak center to re-acquire pepper pot Eric Boguniecki from the Florida Panthers. This swap of minor leaguers could possibly go down as the most unpronounceable in hockey history. A scoring sensation in junior hockey, “Pods” starred for the Portland Winter Hawks of the WHL. The lanky pivot used his skill on draws to hang around to the later rounds of cuts at Blues camp in 1997, but would spend the next few years in Worcester.

This past year Podkonicky got called up for the proverbial “cup of coffee” with Florida, but was entirely cold, managing just one point in six games. He spent the majority of the 2000-2001 season back in the AHL, between the Worcester Ice Cats and Louisville Panthers. Sensing that his NHL career wasn’t going to add up to a hill of beans, the recently-released 23-year-old decided to sign to return to Europe where he will play next season in the Finnish league.

LADISLAV NAGY

The departure of versatile forward Ladislav Nagy is exemplary of the depth which the Blues had to sacrifice in their quest to make the team a playoff contender. Nagy’s potential upside was key to the successful execution of the four for one Keith Tkachuk trade with rebuilding Coyotes organization. The 22-year-old Slovak with a nose for the net is still considered a highly-touted prospect in spite of his failure to stick on an NHL roster.

Nagy possesses a robust frame, a low center of gravity, and is quite solid on his skates. As a chipmunk-cheeked youngster, Ladislav put up good numbers during his only year of junior hockey in North America. He scored 71 goals and 126 points as an overage rookie for Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey league. Although his point totals were impressive and earned him a fifth overall ranking in QMJHL scoring, they were by no means an anomaly in a league defined by its high-scoring games.

The 2000-2001 season was certainly one of transition for Ladislav Nagy. His point-per-game performance down on the farm begged a call-up from the Blues which lasted half the season. Nagy saw enjoyed extensive ice time in various situations and even filled in as a cog in the Cycling Slovak machine. During that 40 game stretch, Nagy put up 8 goals and 8 assists, most importantly demonstrating that he wouldn’t be denied access to the crease by NHL-caliber defenseman. The skilled Slovak’s production dropped considerably after the trade, and he recorded just one point as a Coyote.

PETER SMREK

In an roster maneuver atypical of the Rangers, New York sent away an aging veteran in exchange for a promising prospect and not vice versa. The Blues and Rangers swapped defensemen, sending Peter Smrek to the Big Apple for a player who has earned the title “the unfortunate” Alexei Gusarov. Smrek played for Peter Stastny’s brother Anton back in Slovakia, which helped the Hall of Famer influence him to make the jump across the Atlantic early on.

Smrek, a one-syllable name that tempts the tongue to use two, has
already stumped announcers in the USHL, ECHL, AHL, and NHL. During a 6-game call up with the Blues, Peter played a steady puck-moving game from the blueline before being unceremoniously shipped from a playoff contender to a playoff pretender. As a young defensive prospect, Smrek probably will see a couple of more years in the minors before etching himself a permanent spot on the Blueshirts’ blueline. However, knowing the Rangers’ predilection toward trading away their depth, at 22, Smrek could also find himself on the road again sometime soon.

LUBOS BARTECKO

After nearing 40 points with the Slovak Pack one year before, winger Lubos Bartecko struggled with chronic ankle sprains that limited both his effectiveness and playing time in 2000-2001. A cycle of injuries to all three line mates prevented the on-ice reunion of the Slovak line that season. By playoff time, the 2-way winger was an afterthought. Bartecko was traded at the draft table to Atlanta for a 4th round pick which the Blues used to select stocky Russian prospect Igor Valeev. The 25-year-old will join former teammate and skating scarecrow Todd Reirden for some increased playing time with the upstart expansion club.

MICHAL HANDZUS

In as much as Bartecko’s production could be linked directly to his buddy Pavol Demitra, center Michal Handzus proved that he could produce points in the NHL when separated from his fellow Slovaks. “Zeus” was well on his way to improving upon his impressive ’99-’00 performance that earned him a nomination for the Selke trophy. The following year, Michal gathered 24 points in 36 games before an abdominal strain squeezed him out of the lineup. Handzus required several surgeries on his abdomen both before and after his trade to Phoenix, but his potential as an elite defensive center is without question. At 24 years of age, Handzus will be relied upon heavily to lead an inexperienced Coyotes team through some lean years ahead of them.

PAVOL DEMITRA

Nearing the age of 27, the first Slovak brought in is also the last man standing among his countrymen. Pavol Demitra has seen six Slovaks come and go in his time as a Blue, but by the most recent indications, he may be here to stay. Arbitration was kind to Demitra this past summer, doubling not only his salary but also his expectations with the club. Virtually a non-factor in the 00-01 playoff run, Demitra will be counted upon for offense at key times this season and for an even greater level of inspiration come playoff time.


So, if Slovaks are no longer the rage, what is?

Ever since they tanked against the Sharks, the Blues have sought to make their team more playoff-ready. GM Larry Pleau was not hesitant to make changes, and scoured the league looking for players with an elusive quality he refers to as “grit.” This type of grit has nothing to do with cold cereal or one’s tendency to grind their teeth. In fact, as evidenced by the addition of Dallas Drake, teeth are clearly optional.

Experience is essential to playoff success, and the Blues have been collecting captains to provide it. Current captain Chris Pronger
notwithstanding, Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Mike Keane, Scott Mellanby, and Al MacInnis have all worn the “C” previously in their NHL careers. In respect to nationalities, it appears that the Blues have traded in the red, white, and blue of the Slovakian flag for the red, white, and blue of Old Glory. The Blues now boast four potential U.S. Olympians on their roster plus Minnesota native Sean Hill.

Keep an eye out for part two of my Blues Progression series, in which I will address the new regime in St. Louis.


For Hockey’s Future,
Larry Deutsch