Defenseman Martin Vagner understands very well the ups and downs of life as a hockey prospect.
In 2001 he was drafted third overall in the CHL Priority Import Draft by the Hull Olympiques, and in his QMJHL rookie season of 2001-02 he collected 34 points in 64 games. That season he also appeared in the 2002 CHL Top Prospects game, but perhaps as a hint of things to come, he made the score sheet only with the tripping and hooking minors he took in a losing cause. Despite that, Vagner looked to be a good bet to make the NHL as a two-way defenseman.
At the 2002 NHL Entry Draft the Dallas Stars thought just that when they selected him in the first round, 26th overall. At the time Vagner was considered one of the best skaters in the QMJHL for that draft crop.
Being selected 26th can make a difference when it comes to expectations, and heightened expectations on both sides led to problems during his second season in the Q when he failed to replicate the offensive numbers of his rookie campaign.
“(Dallas) had higher hopes in me, and I did too,” said Vagner of his play following the draft.
There were missed games for various injuries, but in the following two seasons combined while the Stars held his rights Vagner managed only 31 points, three fewer than in his rookie year alone. And while his offensive numbers decreased, his penalty minutes increased. In his first season in the league, 2001-02, he had a penalty minute per game average of 1.27, in 2002-03 that average increased to 1.85, and then in 2003-04 it jumped to 2.24 penalty minutes per game.
His coaches, the media and fans began to grumble and Vagner was aware of it.
“(The criticism) came up to me, I heard it too,” said Vagner. “I try to move my feet all the time, and go with the players, and don’t try to hit them all the time. But sometimes there are some penalties to take.”
Vagner also points out that his rookie season wasn’t as steady as it appeared with a look at just the statistics.
“My first year, the first half, I had a lot of space for me to play my game,” said Vagner of his time playing under then coach Guy Lalonde, but two other coaches would stand behind the Hull bench before that season concluded. “I couldn’t get used to the (new) system.”
Vagner and the Gatineau Olympiques (renamed Gatineau from Hull after the 2002-03 season) made the CHL Memorial Cup two seasons in a row, and both times they were the runner up.
“It was great,” Vagner said of the experience itself. “But two years in a row in the finals and we lost. I had a lot of fun, it’s just too bad we didn’t win.”
In 2003 the Olympiques lost 6-3 to the Kitchener Rangers and Vagner was held pointless in five games with one penalty while in 2004 they lost 2-1, this time to the host Kelowna Rockets team, and Vagner had three assists in five games.
The Stars and Vagner spoke leading up to the signing deadline last summer but with his uninspiring junior numbers and concerns with his game on the one hand, and his being drafted in the first round with, arguably, a lot of untapped potential on the other, the Stars elected to allow him to re-enter the 2004 draft.
“We couldn’t find some way to continue,” said Vagner of the negotiations. “It was kind of my fault too. I didn’t play as good as I was supposed to for a first rounder.”
Vagner went from being a prospect to be envied, one who looked to be a lock to fulfill his NHL aspirations, to one who had been discarded, thrown back into the heap by the team that had thought he was worth a first round pick at one time.
His North American hockey future very much in doubt, a sliver of hope appeared at the 2004 NHL Entry Draft in Raleigh when the Carolina Hurricanes used their final pick of the draft, 268th overall, to select the 20-year-old Czech. The drop in draft position was severe, from 26th in 2002 to 268th in 2004, but it was still another chance, one that Vagner hoped to make the most of.
It appeared at the time that his career in the Q had come to an end following the Memorial Cup loss in Kelowna. Gatineau didn’t have room for him as an overage player and Vagner had originally planned to stay in the Czech Republic and play for hometown Pardubice of the Czech League, but plans changed when he was drafted.
“I talked to my agent and told him I was going to come for one more year here (in the Q). Then the chance to come to Bathurst came up.”
This season with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan has not been an easy one for veteran. The team is six points deep in the league cellar and Vagner has missed time with injury and, again, the points have not come as they once did. In 42 games he has 3 goals and 8 assists, and even as an overage player on a poor team he is still only on the second defensive pairing in all situations.
The positive of the 2004-05 season has been that the finer points in his game have continued to develop while playing in North America where the Hurricanes could take a look whenever they wanted. What they’ve seen is a player who is very good with the puck in his own end, one who has good offensive instincts and aggressiveness and whose lapses in coverage in his own end as well as his penalty minutes (1.64 per game) are fewer than in the past few years.
Perhaps the biggest change of all has been his outlook.
“There’s been a lot of positive things and a lot of negative things, but I guess I learned a lot about it,” Vagner said of his QMJHL career. “I struggled, learned from my mistakes, and learned to go with the flow.”
Vagner confirmed that his agent has had talks with the Hurricanes but gave no details. “My first choice, I would like to stay in North America, but you never know what’s going to happen.”
When asked about the immediate future and his hopes of turning pro in North America, Vagner looked out over the vacant ice at the Halifax Metro Centre following his team’s 1-1 tie with the second best team in league. “I just want to enjoy my last few games in the Q, and whatever happens, happens at the end of the season.”
In the off-season he plans to return to Pardubice and train for wherever hockey might take him next year.
And on the subject of going from a first round pick to a ninth rounder two years later, Vagner stared again at the resurfaced ice.
“I’m just trying to put that behind me and start all over now.”
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.