It’s been several years since the Albany River Rats have been a competitive AHL team. The story was no different in the 2005-06 campaign as the Rats missed the postseason for a sixth straight year. But unlike the majority of those seasons, this Albany team boasted a number of promising young prospects the Devils should be excited about, including center Petr Vrana.
Vrana has been one of a few bright spots on this Rats roster in an otherwise dismal season. The 21-year-old center was a key contributor this past year, seeing time on both the power play and penalty killing units as well as logging plenty of ice time five-on-five, where he found solid success skating with another up-and-coming player in Niklas Bergfors, New Jersey’s first round pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
Despite their disappointing year, Vrana contends the Rats played hard this season, pointing out that the team lost over 20 games by one goal. Though they didn’t make the playoffs, Vrana insisted that the club’s sub-par record didn’t get the team down.
“This season, we’ve lost a lot of games by one goal, which is really frustrating when you know you only lost by one and little mistakes cost you,” he said. “But the attitude in the dressing room was still positive. The guys all wanted to play hard until the end of the year. No one gave up and everyone still worked hard.”
Drafted in the second round, 42nd overall by the Devils in the 2003 Draft, Vrana began his playing career in Europe, playing for Havriov Femax HC, a club team in his native Czech Republic. Vrana, however, quickly grew tired of playing there, feeling he was not developing as well as he could have been. He decided to leave his homeland after he was able to secure a spot in the QMJHL, landing with the Halifax Mooseheads.
“I was playing for a pro team and I knew the team wasn’t doing that well,” he said of his time with Havriov. “So, I was thinking about leaving because I didn’t get much of a chance to play. A friend of mine who was coaching the National Team knew a guy in Canada who came up with the idea of going to Halifax, and I agreed with that. I thought it was a pretty nice place to be and a great hockey city, so I decided to go, and my first year was unbelievable. We made the finals two times out of three years, so it was good.”
Vrana made a seamless transition to North American hockey, and was a huge reason for the Mooseheads’ success. He put up 172 points in 180 games with Halifax. Making the decision to compete in the QMJHL served Vrana well and helped make his transition to the AHL this past year that much smoother. Looking back on his decision, he feels his time spent in juniors gave him a chance to adjust to not only the type of hockey he’d be seeing in the NHL, but also allowed him to get used to the North American lifestyle.
“It’s probably easier to play in juniors first rather than guys jumping from Europe to (the AHL),” he said. “In junior, you play 70 games and in Europe, you only play 48 or 50 games in a season at most, so that gets tough because you’re not used to playing many games.
“Plus, you adjust to the lifestyle, too – learn the language and everything. But that depends on the person too. You look at Niklas Bergfors. He’s been here seven months and he’s unbelievable. His English is great, and he’s doing very well, so like I said, it depends on the person. But for me personally, I think it’s better for the guys to come over early.”
Vrana seems to have adjusted just about as well as Bergfors, if not better. After spending three seasons in Halifax, and now with a full season under his belt in Albany, Vrana speaks English very well and seems to have carved a niche for himself with the Devils organization.
The former Halifax captain has a number of qualities the Devils should be excited about. Vrana posses a strong, quick stride and uses his skating to create plenty of chances for both himself and his linemates.
He stands at 5’11, weighing 175 pounds, which may have been an issue in years past, but not as much now in the era of the new NHL. And if the success of current Devil Brian Gionta is any indication of how much damage a player of smaller stature can do in this league, Vrana looks to have a promising future.
The diminutive forward put up just 35 points (12 goals, 23 assists) in 74 games during his rookie AHL season, but head coach Robbie Ftorek was impressed with the youngster’s versatility.
“Petr’s done well for us,” he said. “He didn’t score as much as he’d like, but he’s done a real good job as a first year player. He kills penalties and he plays the power play. I’d like to see him take more faceoffs, but he’s doing so many other things, he can’t get out there at different times because he’s fatigued. He’s also playing against bigger bodies than he’s used to in junior and it’s a long season, but he’s done well.”
While Albany may not be competing for a shot at the championship this season, their parent club is looking to have a long run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. And that team’s future only looks brighter with Vrana waiting in the wings.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.