Slovak 2004 draft preview

By jes-golbez-ursulak

Since Marian Gaborik went third overall in the 2000 draft, no Slovak has been taken in the first round in the NHL Entry Draft. In the 2001 draft, an impressive 13 Slovaks were taken, but since then, the quality and quantity of prospects from Slovakia has been less than impressive. After the disaster of 2002 (just three picks), 2003 went slightly better, with 10 solid, if unspectacular selections.

Now heading into the 2004 draft, Slovakia has produced a draft crop that is both deep in quality (two possible first round picks) and quantity (a chance to tie or better that 13 from 2001), with some excellent potential at every position.

Part 1 of this preview will profile the well-known and high-upside prospects that are generally ‘for sure’ picks. Prospects are listed according to their rankings on the Hockey’s Future list.

1. Andrej Meszaros, D – Dukla Trencin
Height: 6’0”
Weight: 198
Shoots: Right
CSB Final Rank: 6th among European skaters
ISS Ranking: 4th

Chalk another one up for the hockey factory known as HC Dukla Trencin. Meszaros is, by far, the most talented and skilled prospect from Slovakia since Gaborik. While most prospects were toiling against peers in their age group, Meszaros was starring with the senior Extraliga champions from Trencin. Most Slovak pundits agreed that Meszaros was one of the best defensemen in the entire league, and played with a maturity and skill level far above that of the average 18-year-old. Meszaros was also the youngest (and one of only two draft eligible) players at the World Championships in the Czech Republic.

Meszaros is the very definition of a ‘finesse’ defenseman; he rates extremely well in skating, puck handling, hockey sense, acceleration, and passing. He loves to rush the puck up the ice and use his skill and anticipation, rather than brute force, to break up offensive forays.

Scouts love his offensive upside, high panic threshold, and efficient skating stride. Despite his ‘finesse’ tag, Meszaros is willing to throw his body around and he is strong enough to handle the bigger forwards in the Extraliga.

Once Meszaros fills out and adds another 10 pounds of muscle, the sky is the limit for him. There is no area in the game that he shouldn’t be able to excel in.

Projected Draft Position: Top 15

2. Boris Valabik, D – Kitchener Rangers
Height: 6’6”
Weight: 210
Shoots: Left
CSB Final Ranking: 6th among North American skaters
ISS Ranking: 13

The latest ‘redwood’ from the forests of Slovakia, the monster Valabik was somewhat unheralded before this season, but has shown major improvement in all facets of his game.

An atypical European defenseman, Valabik’s first steps onto the North American ice were quite awkward. Like Zdeno Chara (the player he’s most compared to), Valabik appeared quite clumsy and slow as he adjusted to the smaller ice surface. Still, Valabik seemed more at home in the North American style of game, and has to been seen as the top ‘enforcer’ type player in this draft, in terms of overall upside.

It didn’t take long for Valabik to grow into his body and use his considerable size to punish opposing players, either with his bodychecks or with his fists.

Just like Valabik has been steamrolling opposing forwards on the ice, his draft stock has moved forward with the same momentum, and he now finds himself as a sure-fire first round pick.

Although Valabik has many similarities to the aforementioned Chara, there seems to be too much hype building in Valabik’s favor. Granted, it took Chara many years to iron out his kinks, but Valabik still has issues to be worked on: 1. Skating – Valabik’s first step quickness is still an issue and will need to be worked on constantly; 2. Shooting – Valabik takes about 10 minutes (or it seems that way) to get off a slapshot, thanks to a gigantic windup; 3. Anger Management – Valabik is a bit too get riled up, and it can cause him to spend more time in the penalty box than he should. He will need to learn to pick his spots.

If Valabik were to have a similar career to Paul Laus, then whichever NHL team picks him will be getting their money’s worth. Valabik has little or no offensive upside at this point, so expect the total physical package, and consider any offense as a bonus.

Projected Draft Position: Top 20

3. Juraj Gracik, RW – Topolcany
Height: 6’3”
Weight: 187
Shoots: Right
CSS Final Ranking: 26th among European skaters
ISS Ranking: 39

Unlike a lot of tall and lanky forwards that have been drafted out of Slovakia lately and faltered (Tomas Troliga, Peter Polcik, Vlado Kutny), Gracik has both the work ethic and the proven scoring touch to be an effective threat down low in the offensive zone at the NHL level.

Gracik started out the year with Topolcany’s junior club, where he put up a near goal-a-game pace. This got him a quick promotion to the senior club (1st division), and Gracik continued to demonstrate his scoring acumen as he played games for both the senior and junior clubs. He finished with 17 goals in 29 games for the senior team (including one hat-trick), and 22 goals in 29 games for the junior squad. Amongst all of that activity, he was starring on the top line for the Slovakian squads at the Viking Cup and World Under-18 Championships.

Gracik is a ‘shoot first and ask questions’ later type of power forward. He is not afraid to let off his quick-release shot from anywhere and everywhere, and he has demonstrated a natural nose for the net. He has the skill level that is expected of a Slovakian-trained forward, and has excellent puck control in tight quarters.

Gracik is somewhat of a fitness nut who has a strict off-ice regimen that has helped him develop incredible lower-body strength. He uses this strength to his advantage and opposing defenders have an awful time trying to keep him away from their goal area. His off-ice work ethic extends onto the ice as well, and he is a player that will quickly fall into any coach’s good books. Gracik should be able to add on the additional upper body weight that NHL scouts have said is lacking.

On the downside, Gracik is not much of a playmaker, and has a hard time creating chances (other than his own rebounds) for his linemates. He is at his best when paired with a playmaking center, and this aspect of his game is remarkably similar to countryman Richard Zednik. Unlike Zednik, Gracik does not possess breakaway speed, and will always do his best work in the lower third of the ice. A realistic best-case projection for him would be Chicago’s Eric Daze.

Projected Draft Position: Late 2nd round

4. Roman Tomanek, LW – Povazska Bystrica
Height: 6’0”
Weight: 172
CSS Final Ranking: 30th among European skaters
ISS Ranking: 35

The most talented forward for Slovakia in terms of pure skill, Tomanek has been a highly scouted prospect for a few years now.

Tomanek is a dynamic forward with excellent ratings in all aspects of skating and puckhandling. He has the confidence to attempt plays and moves that only world-class players can pull off (think Robbie Schremp at the CHL Top Prospects Game), and he often succeeds. Despite his smaller stature, Tomanek is a fearless forechecker, and is quite zealous in his pursuit of the puck in the offensive zone. He has been lauded for his keen hockey sense, and has shown adeptness as reading the play both offensively and defensively.

His stock was boosted with an ‘astonishing’ performance at the recent Under-18 World Junior Championships, where he completed the tournament with 7 goals and 1 assist. Before this tournament, scouts hadn’t had many chances to see Tomanek play against quality competition, as he had been floating between the midget and senior team for a poor Povazska Bystrica system.

What scares scouts about Tomanek? The off-ice and maturity issues in his life, and the lack of desire to improve himself.

During games against teams of weaker competition, or games of little consequence, Tomanek was noticeably disinterested and had trouble maintaining the high level of play that he had shown against better opposition. His lack of interest on the defensive end hurt his own team, and he tended to get by on his offensive skills alone.

Off the ice, Tomanek ran into some trouble with bad influences when he was playing, for a short time, in Bratislava’s system. Tomanek was more concerned with ‘having fun’, rather than training and preparing for games.

Whether or not Tomanek makes the NHL will mostly be up to him, as he has the skills and mental capacity that few of his peers possess. Tomanek doesn’t appear to have much interest in fitness training, and that has held him back throughout his young life.

Given the fact that Tomanek has such a high skill level, and seems to play hard in bigger games and tournaments, he will be a high-upside risk for the team that chooses to select him. If Tomanek can be coaxed into coming over to the CHL, and find a mentor or two that can help him settle his problems, then he will be an excellent risk worth taking.

Projected Draft Position: Late second or third round. Could be drafted before Gracik, depending how risk adverse NHL GMs are.

5. Andrej Sekera, D – Dukla Trencin Jr.
Height: 6’0”
Weight: 195
CSS Rank: 39th among European skaters

While Andrej Meszaros was earning accolades with his play on the senior squads for Slovakia and Trencin, Sekera was leading the respective junior squads with the same level of distinction.

With the attention focused on the other Andrej, Sekera seemed to get very little consideration or respect from the scouts, as evidenced by his CSS ranking and lack the general hype surrounding him leading into the draft. Those who have seen him generally have a very high opinion on him, while the general hockey population barely seems to know he exists.

Most recently, Sekera was captain of the Slovakian squad at the World Under-18 Championships, and his play catapulted his stock; so much so that he may vault past Tomanek and/or Gracik come draft day.

It might be easy to picture Sekera as Meszaros-lite, since Sekera has similar offensive and skill attributes and a similar frame.

Whereas Meszaros has superior offensive instincts, Sekera has demonstrated an edge with some big open ice hits, as well as leadership virtues as he’s worn the captain’s ‘C’ on numerous occasions.

Projected Draft Position: second or third round. He’ll likely be taken a lot earlier than expected by some enterprising team.

6. Michal Valent, G – Martin
Height: 6’1”
Weight: 185
CSS Ranking: 3rd among European goalies

Like Jaroslav Halak last year, Valent is another gifted Slovak goalie that has quietly taken over the No. 1 reins in his age group in his country, and provided solid performances at international tournaments.

Playing in the relatively unscouted outposts such as Martin and Povazska Bystrica over the past few years, Valent hasn’t been able to get to get the attention afforded to well known prospects such as Devyn Dubnyk and Marek Schwarz.

To his credit, Valent has played very well at every international tournament he has entered up to this point. As he has had very little exposure to many scouts, these performances were crucial in cementing his chances come draft day.

On the plus side, he is a very athletic goaltender with above-average reflexes, quick recovery time, and a quick glove hand.

On the downside, Valent has to improve his mental focus, something he has admitted himself. He also needs to improve his stickhandling and passing, which is far less important than actually stopping the puck.

According to his Valent’s agent, he has arranged to move to Sparta Prague’s system next year. He is slated to be the No. 1 goaltender for Sparta’s junior squad, and he will challenge Jaro Halak for the No. 1 job on Slovakia’s Under-20 squad.

Projected Draft Position: Valent could go as high as the third round, or slip to the ninth round like Jaroslav Halak did last year.

7. Michal Sersen, D – Rimouski
Height: 6’1”
Weight: 200
Shoots: Left
CSS Ranking: 43rd among North American skaters

Sersen is the classic ‘toolsy’ player that just can’t seem to put his game in concert on the ice. He is an athletic defender with a solid frame, but a wobbly hockey mind.

He had trouble staying healthy this year, and while he put up decent offensive numbers, his defensive struggles were well documented. Sersen finished with just 1 point and a –4 rating for Slovakia at the World Under-20’s.

Sersen is very much a ‘raw’ talent, much like former Canucks prospect Rene Vydareny, although not quite as fast of a skater. Whatever NHL team takes Sersen will hope for the best, and try to shape his skills into a competent two-way defender.

Projected Draft Position: Fourth Round.

8. Jaroslav Markovic, C – Martin
Height: 5’11”
Weight: 176
Shoots: Left
CSS Ranking: Unranked – Ranked 79th among European skaters in 2003.

Markovic was a solid prospect heading into last year’s draft, but thanks to some fouled up paperwork, Markovic was not opted into the 2003 draft, and had to wait another year to get picked.

In the year that has passed, Markovic hasn’t made any significant moves up or down the ranks in any respect, but should find himself the property of some NHL team come draft day.

Jaroslav is definitely ‘bigger’ than his 5’11” and 176 would indicate, thanks to good strength, balance, and puck control skills. With his penchant for shooting, Markovic would be better off as a full-time winger, rather than as a centerman.

Positives: Possesses a good work ethic, good poise, and accurate shooting ability. He pays attention to his defensive duties, and plays well in high-traffic areas.

Negatives: Average speed, unremarkable acceleration, relatively unproven against stronger competition.

Ranked in the Top 100 by The Hockey News, Markovic would likely do well in the North American game. Due to his age, he’s a bit too old to get into the CHL, so he will likely remain in Europe for quite a few years. Whichever team drafts Markovic will need to exercise patience, or have a good development plan in place to get him playing against stronger competition.

Projected Draft Position: 6th or 7th round.

9. Stanislav Lascek, C – Chicoutimi
Height: 6’1”
Weight: 176
Shoots: left
CSS Rank: Not ranked
ISS Rank: 89

Stano Lascek is the ultimate dark horse, or black sheep, in this draft for the Slovaks. Inexplicably, he finished the year unranked by CSS, but other sources, such as ISS, see potential and production within Lascek’s game.

Unlike the other Slovak prospects, Lascek is not very polished or smooth in the least. ‘Choppy’ would be a nice way of describing his skating ability, and he does not excel at carrying the puck.

On top of his described feeble skating skills, Lascek is also quite thin and not very strong. A lack of size combined with poor skating ability is the death knell for most any prospect.

For all of his faults, there are things Lascek can do very well, mainly score goals and produce offensively.

There was once a poor skating right winger who lacked strength, yet went on to score 50 goals with the Red Wings one season. His name? Ray Sheppard.

Like Sheppard, Lascek is a master of reading the play and being at the right place at the right time. To make up for his lack of speed, Lascek will be sure to put himself in position to accept the puck, or break up opposing plays. Lascek is very good at a ‘ninja’ style of hockey; sneaking in behind enemy defenses undetected.

Lascek is similar to Boris Valabik in that they are both ‘made’ for the North American style of game, as it plays to their strengths and somewhat minimizes their skating deficiencies. He didn’t have to take as many bad penalties for tripping and interference as a result of being behind in the play, as he did back with Zvolen. Lascek showed a good ability to cycle the puck and generate scoring chances down low in the offensive zone.

After some preliminary struggles, Lascek finished the regular season with 57 points in 59 games, before setting the QMJHL on fire with 18 points in 18 games (good for fifth place). Stano continued to produce offensively as the games got harder and more meaningful, and has produced good numbers at every level he’s been at.

Come draft day, it will be very hard to guess if NHL teams can overlook Lascek’s deficiencies and draft a player based on proven production. There have been bigger ‘project’ players that have been drafted, and never produced well at any level. He just may make one lucky team very happy.

Projected Draft Position: Optimistically, he’ll get taken in the sixth round. He may just as easily go higher, or, in the worst-case scenario, go undrafted.

With two sure fire first round picks, and some quality second tier players, the nine players profiled above are good bets to be taken on Day 1 or Day 2 of the draft, and give the Slovaks some much needed quality to the senior team in future years.

Part 2 of this preview will focus on the lower-ranked prospects and some capable overagers available in this draft.