At last year's NHL Draft, Canadian and American defensemen took over a large part of the first round. Seven of them were selected among the top ten of the draft, an indication that the 2012 North American defensive class was simply exceptional.
In Central Europe, where the Czech Republic is located, the future isn't as bright for the defenders. The last defenseman chosen in the first round of the draft from the region was Italian-born, Swiss-raised versatile rearguard Luca Sbisa, chosen in 2008 by the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Czech Republic itself saw its last defensive youngster drafted in the first round in 2005 (Jakub Kindl of the Detroit Red Wings) and hasn't generated much attention since then. In 2011, the Edmonton Oilers opted for David Musil with their first pick of the second round, but the tough native of Western Canada is coming off of an average performance at the 2013 WJC in Ufa, Russia. At the last draft, there were no Czech blueliners picked at the NHL Draft, which leaves one wondering what the future holds for this country at defense.
Some pressure might be taken off of the Czech defense if Jan Štencel manages to impress the NHL scouts enough to make an NHL team decide to spend a draft pick on him, maybe as early as the third round of the 2013 NHL Draft. The 17-year-old playmaker had some bright moments at the World Junior Championship, but also made some memorable mistakes that led to goals. Štencel does have a lot of potential and, if he manages to further improve as a powerplay quarterback (pretty much what he's doing with his junior team in Vítkovice), he might one day be effective in the NHL as his vision is exceptional for a defenseman.
After Štencel, the second-best draft-eligible defenseman out of the Czech Republic appears to be Alex Pisarik. Pisarik will have to work hard to reach his potential, and to show the scouts that he's heading in the right direction. He might not be drafted earlier than the seventh round, but even so, he could be considered a steal one day and make a moderate impact in the National Hockey League. He's got the hockey sense and, if he keeps working hard, he will be able to overcome the fact that his skill is the main weakness that is keeping him down low in the draft rankings.
During three games with the Czech U-18 national team played in mid-December against Russia, the native of Třinec, a small city most notable for its Czech Extraliga team and one of the largest steel plants in the country, performed similarly to Štencel at the U-20 WJC. He came up with some big plays, especially on the power-play, but sometimes lost his cool – mostly forced by Russian speed and flashy forechecking – and turned the puck over. But, he was the most solid defenseman on the Czech squad. Pisarik plays two-way hockey, being able to create a lot of pressure with shots on the man-advantage, and doing what defenders do in their own zone, namely doing their best to stop the opposition's attack.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Pisarik is his off-ice IQ. This attribute might not have that great an impact on his on-ice performance, but knowing he is intelligent and mentally strong gives any coach a good reason to make Pisarik a go-to player during critical stages of a hockey game.
Hockey's Future recently caught up with the versatile Czech defenseman for this interview.
Hockey's Future: What does it feel like to play for your country's Under-18 national team?
Alex Pisarik: It's a great feeling and the fact that we play at home makes it even better. However, it also makes me more sorry that we failed to win today.
HF: The coach sidelined the captain Luboš Rob today and gave the captaincy to you. What does it mean to you?
AP: Well, it was something new for me as I had that “C” on my jersey for the first time. Luboš is a big player and I wanted to fill in for him the best way I could. Unfortunately, we lost, but it was a great honor for me to be this team's captain today.
HF: The coach has also given you more playing time on special teams, especially on the power-play. Are you used to that role from your junior team in Třinec?
AP: Yes, my junior team gave me that opportunity a while ago and I'm getting comfortable on both the power-play and the penalty kill.
HF: What do you think caused the failure at the Under-19 WJAC in Canada, where you played last month with this team?
AP: We scored just two goals in the entire tournament and it's pretty clear that if you can't score goals, you can't win games. Less than a goal per game is too few, the main problem was in my opinion the finishing. Also, we should've tightened up a little more over there.
HF: What would you say about your playing style?
AP: I'd say I'm an offensive defenseman that is looking to support the attack in every situation. I think I can start something from my own zone with a good passing play. My most notable weakness is the play along the boards where I need to strengthen up. Right now I'm having problems whenever a stronger player comes in there against me. I try to build my playing style after Marek Židlický or Erik Karlsson.
HF: Talking about NHL players, you might become one one day, too. Where would you like to end up if you got drafted next summer?
AP: My favorite NHL team is the Boston Bruins, but we'll see if I get to that draft. It would be a huge honor and it would be amazing. We'll see after the season and after the Under-18 World Junior Championship, that will tell us a lot, as well.
HF: What about going overseas and playing among juniors over there?
AP: I've thought about it and, despite having a long injury last year, I had an offer from the United States Hockey League after the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. After all, I decided to stay at home.