Balej a Playmaker?

By Scott Petersen

Carrying the puck down the wing on a two-on-one, it wouldn’t be considered much of a guess to figure out what Jozef Balej is going to do.

While it’s true the Montreal Canadiens prospect can be a wizard with the puck, if you’re thinking playmaker, then you’re thinking wrong.

“Yeah, I guess you could say my first instinct is to shoot,” says Balej with a smile. “But if you don’t shoot, you don’t score.”

What he says is true and it’s something the 20-year-old is trying to make an NHL career out of. Balej will never be mistaken for a fourth-liner and he never intended to be one. He wants to score, often.

“My best things are skating and shooting the puck,” he says. “I’m pure offense.”

“He’s got a heck of a shot, so you want to get him the puck as much as you can,” agrees Josh Olson, a teammate of Balej’s with the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks.

“Sometimes I think he likes the sound of the puck hitting the plexiglass (over the net) a little too much,” says Olson. “But I’ve seen him score some amazing goals where the goalie doesn’t know what happened until he looks over his shoulder and sees the puck behind him.”

To make it to the next level, Balej knows he has to round out his game. His defensive, and physical play have improved over the years, but they’re aspects of the game that don’t come natural to him.

“Oh yeah, I have to work a lot on it,” he says of his defence. “When you come from Europe, the ice is so big and if you’re a forward, you pretty much just play offence.
“I’m trying to go back and help out the defence and take the body. I wasn’t taking the body much the last two years and I’m trying to play more physical now.”

Balej’sdevelopment may have hit a temporary bump in the road last year when he was sent back to junior for another year at Portland. His February birthday meant he couldn’t spend the year in the AHL, but it did allow him to finish among the WHL leaders in goals and points.

“I think it would’ve helped me a little more to play minor pro last year than to go back to junior,” says Balej. “I was able to score 50 goals and some of the games it was too easy. So I don’t think I improved a lot, but I did improve some of my game.”

This year, Balej is eligible to start the season in the AHL and he’s looking forward to taking the next step in his game and seeing how it translates to the pros. He doesn’t want to speculate about whether he’ll end up in the AHL or NHL this season, but either place could give him a chance to play with long-time linemate Marcel Hossa.

The two forwards have played together for five years, dating back to their time with Trencin in Slovakia. Both were then drafted to Portland and eventually by Montreal in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. Their time together has Balej looking forward to the possibility of playing with someone familiar at the next level.

“Our relationship is very good,” he says. “We’re used to each other. He’s a good playmaker and I’m considered a goal scorer.”

The glut of veteran forwards currently in the Montreal lineup means there’s a good possibility Balej and Hossa will end up together again in the AHL. But the new three-year contract Balej signed in April means he has plenty of time to work on his game and put all his tools together.

Of course, he does have one fan who wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen sooner, rather than later.

“I think he’s definitely a very good player,” says Olson. “He’s fast, he’s got a heck of a shot and . . . I think he’s got an excellent shot at making the team this year.”

After taking part in a rookie tournament with other top Habs prospects in Hull, Quebec and starring on Montreal’s most effective line with Tomas Plekanec and Johan Eneqvist, Balej is now set to participate in the NHL club’s main camp.

He says he’s trying not to focus too much on the future, but for the swift-skating winger that future could be much closer than even he expects.