Czech 2004 prospects: Jan Zapletal

By Robert Neuhauser

Despite being the second largest Czech city after the capital
Praha, hockey in the city of Brno is coming through tough times. After days
of championship glory in the 50’s and 60’s, the
quality of Brno hockey took a significant dive to the level where it is
now, with the senior team sitting at the dead last place of the Division I
senior league. But still there are solid NHL prospects, who leave
for Extraleague franchises at about the midget age. NHL fans may
remember the name of Robert Kron, who concluded his NHL career with the
Colmbus Blue Jackets, but the biggest name is definitely upcoming NHL star
Martin Havlat from the Ottawa Senators. Eager to join this Brno native
in the NHL is another Brno product, Jan Zapletal, a defenseman with the
HC Vsetin junior team.

Jan Zapletal had one of the latest beginnings of his hockey career from
all his 2004 eligible peers. Even though his father played organised hockey
till the junior level, he didn’t make any push on his son to begin a
career of his own. He wanted him to give some sports a try and then
decide, what is the best for him. So it came that Zapletal was enlisted in
the skiing club and was racing downhill on the snow before he was even
thinking about performing on the other winter element, ice. When he was
about to start attending elementary school, Zapletal was eager to start
playing soccer, which is one of the most popular Czech sports. He
performed for the Moravska Slavia Brno team, but after some time he saw that
soccer still isn’t the right decision. It wasn’t until the 3rd grade
when the play with stick and puck finally won and Zapletal’s steps took
the direction Rondo Arena in his native Brno for the first time.

“When
I told my father that I finally decided to play hockey, he was happy
about it and supported me a lot in the beginning. And I was also eager
to start playing this game, which attracted me a lot.”

At that time he was eight years old and most of his future teammates on
the HC Ytong Brno team had about two or three years of hockey
experience under their belt. Now it was up to Zapletal to cut the margin. He
was attending an elementary school which was affiliated with the
well-known Brno hockey elementary school in the Labska Street in the Stary
Liskovec district, but still was a huge task awaiting him. Ytong Brno 3rd
grade team head coach Petr Novacek has taught him all the basics of hockey and because Zapletal was a kid gifted for sports, it
didn’t take him a long time to learn how to skate and handle the puck. He
displayed some nifty moves so that coach Novacek has put Zapletal in
the front lines to perform at offense. His improvement took a rapid
upward path, so at the end of his first season Zapletal grabbed the Ytong
Brno 3rd grade ‘Top Rookie’ award.

“This was the first trophy I ever won
in my career, it supported my confidence that I’m capable of playing
this sport and hopefully succeed.”

The next season, 1995-1996, was a major change for Zapletal.
Even though he felt comfortable at forward and chipped in offensively, he
spent the complete season in the back rows. Ytong Brno 4th grade head
coach Zdenek Stepanik needed to boost the defense and because Zapletal
showed a decent defensive commitment, he was the likely candidate to fill
the void. But he still had a lot to learn, opponents with more
prowess gave him lessons and he wasn’t considered even a solid prospect
at this stage of development.

Jan Zapletal’s time on defense wasn’t long. In
1996-1997, when he was performing for the 5th grade team of Brno, he was
playing forward again. He wasn’t hindered a lot by all these transitions
and his swift skating skills and adequate smarts enabled him to emerge
as one of the offensive leaders of his team.

This fact was supported in the year when Zapletal hit the ice with the
6th grade team of Ytong Brno. At a 6th graders’ tournament, played in
Frydek-Mistek, Czech Republic, he left a very good impression and was
even voted the ‘Top forward’ of the tournament. This was Zapletal’s first
individual achievment.

After enjoying a solid campaign for the 7th grade team in 1998-1999,
Jan Zapletal’s 1999-2000 season was hampered by injuries as he had to
battle trouble with his collarbone when he was hit in a road game at
Uherske Hradiste. He also felt pain in his knee because of ACL problems, but
didn’t miss a big portion of the 8th grade team’s schedule.

He bounced back with a strong showing for the HC Ytong Brno 9th grade
team, his last season before moving up to the midget category. Zapletal, an alternate captain of the team, formed a strong line with Michal
Stepanik and Jan Hruska. This line provided lots of offensive output of
the team, coached by Rudolf Krupicka and Milan Florian. Zapletal
avoided any significant slumps and scored regularly, which proved that he is
ready for the midget competition.

“My season for the 9th grade team
was my best before moving up to the midget level. We showed some good
chemistry with my linemates and I enjoyed playing with the guys and
scoring goals.”

Changes in the structure of hockey in Brno caused that the players from
the two midget teams in Brno formed one squad, which competed at the
highest level in the midget Extraleague. This team was called Krokodyli
HC Brno and Zapletal made the team out of the summer camp.

But he recorded a poor season for the Krokodyli HC Brno midgets in
2001-2002, his inaugural season in the midget Extraleague. He couldn’t get
along well with head coach Martin Stloukal and didn’t see a lot of playing time. Thus he couldn’t adjust to the midget game smoothly
and struggled with the pace at times. He wasn’t able to score against the
midget opponents and in 27 midget games Zapletal recorded mere 3 points
for 3 goals, a -8 and 8 PIMs. According to these stats Jan
Zapletal would have the upside of a district league player and it didn’t
look like he is going to develop into a coveted prospect.

But he felt that he is capable of achieving a higher level of play and
in the games of his first midget seasons he showed glimpses of talent,
which didn’t remain hidden to the staff of the HC Vsetin team. The
nearby Extraleague franchise was looking to add new young talent to their
prospect pipeline and Zapletal was penciled as one of the potential
boosts. Upset by the situation in Brno and looking for a change of teams,
Zapletal didn’t hesitate to move to Vsetin as soon as he had the offer
in his hands. He joined the Vsetin midgets squad prior to the 2002-2003
campaign.

“I didn’t have so much playing time in Brno as I would like
to, so I couldn’t find my game. When I had a chance to join a team such
as Vsetin, it was a no-brainer for me.”

In Vsetin, Zapletal, nicknamed ‘Zaple’ from his surname, got to feel
the coaching methods of experienced midget coach Jiri Hudler, father of
the Detroit Red Wings forward of the same name. With more playing time
his confidence grew and Zapletal emerged as a decent, but unspectacular
two-way forward. Besides providing some offense he took care of his own
end with a solid maturity. He wasn’t a feared physical menace, but his
smarts enabled him to be effective on the backcheck. Zapletal was
skating mostly on the third line of the Vsetin midget team. This squad
enjoyed a cinderella playoff run in the 2002-2003 edition of the midget
Extraleague when they swept aside all the opponents before facing the
mighty Kladno midgets in the finals. Vsetin took the Kladno squad to five
games of the best-of-five series, despite battling the odds of being an
underdog in this series. In the fifth game they lost, but still the
second place overall was a remarkable success for a squad, which besides
Zapletal boasted other noticeable players such as defenseman Lubomir
Stach and forwards Martin Husicka and Marek Knebl. En route to the silver
medals Jan Zapletal dressed out for 37 midget games, recording 7 points
for 4 goals and 3 assists to go along with 10 PIMs.

The summer of 2003 saw Jan Zapletal, a Detroit Red Wings fan, finish
his midget eligibility and move up to the junior ranks. Vsetin juniors
head coach Bretislav Kopriva, the current head coach of the Czech
Under-17 team, made now the turning point in Zapletal’s career. Looking at his
sub-par offensive stats, he repeated the experiment of coach Zdenek
Stepanik back in Brno and has slotted Zapletal to play defense. So
Zapletal took on the ice for the summer exhibition games already as a
defenseman and the results of this move were soon to be seen. Zapletal saw that
this is the best for him and began to display a good mix of swift
skating skills, solid smarts and defensive awareness. At the beginning of
the season he wasn’t rushing forward as much as a former forward would
do, fitting the mold of a stay-at-homer. He didn’t have any problems with
adjusting to the junior Extraleague and established himself as one of
the defensive anchors of his team, albeit being a rookie. He prefers to
play alongside experienced rearguard Frantisek Krystynek and this duo
gets along well on the ice. Jan Zapletal has appeared in 43 junior games
so far, registering 8 points for 2 goals and 6 assists along with 24
PIMs. Zapletal saw his stock soar also among NHL scouts.

“I’m very
thankful to junior head coach Kopriva for this move. He gave me the chance
to show that I can handle the junior Extraleague game and the switch to
defense turned out to be very smart. It suits me well to play defense
in the end.”

It was only a matter of time before he wore the Czech junior national
team jersey. This happened for the first time at the Christmas
evaluation camp of the Czech Under-18 team. There they played four exhibition
games, in which he went scoreless, but leaving a solid impression with
his defensive savvy and reliability.

So it came that in the first week of February he was invited to the
Four Nations Tournament already with the Under-20 team, one of
the quickest examples of progress in Czech junior hockey. There Zapletal was
performing alongside other former Brno defenseman, Ondrej Smach, and
recorded his first international point for 1 assist.

At 6’2″, 185 lbs. one of the strongest assets of Jan Zapletal is his
above-average size. He skates remarkably well for a big man, Zapletal
possesses a smooth stride and has a good agility and first-step quickness
to go along with solid balance. He is reliable in his own end as he
doesn’t suffer from glaring positional breakdowns and stays with his man.
Zapletal sees the ice quite well and once he has his defensive duties
done, he sometimes takes advantage of the chance to join the rush.
Zapletal possesses decent puckhandling skills, but needs to keep his game
simple in order to avoid mistakes when rushing the puck. He unleashes
slap shots with an adequate accuracy, but could use a harder blast. He is
a solid passer who needs to further develop his work on the offensive
blue line, though. Bulking up and using his frame to a bigger extent is
another thing to work on for Zapletal, who isn’t a feared physical
presence at this point.

Even then, he considers hard-nosed former Czech NHL defenseman and
current Edmonton Oilers European scout Frantisek Musil his biggest hockey
role model.

“I watched him playing in the NHL and admired his play.
He was helpful also to the Jihlava team in the Division I senior league upon
his return from the NHL and I like his style.”

Jan Zapletal isn’t a very superstitious player, but he has a few things
he does before each game. He takes the same massage before each
contest, has to have his gear always on its right place and he never forgets
to clear the visor on his helmet before the pre-game skate. The last
thing is using the same warmup excersises.

Zapletal is dedicated to hockey also in his free time. He is aware
of how relaxing is important for a professional athlete and does also
lots of running for regeneration. Zapletal has to fill school duties
besides playing hockey, he is a student of the secondary school for
bussiness “Kostka” in Vsetin. When he has some more spare time left, he often
hits the weight room in order to boost his strength. When Zapletal
isn’t active, then he is frequently just hanging out with his friends on a
hostel where he stays. He prefers to listen to hip-hop and rap music
and likes to be surrounded by music.

Zapletal tends to stay in Europe for the next season, but still the
player represented by agent Jaroslav Palat didn’t fully rule out the
possibility of performing in the CHL next season. Ranked 57th among Europeans by the CSB
mid-term ranking, Zapletal looks like a lock to be selected in the 2004
NHL Entry Draft.