With a number of draft picks taken in prime drafting positions in recent years, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been stockpiling their system with loads of skill and speed, regularly showing readiness to take a shot at picking up smaller players with big offensive upside.
Certainly fitting into that profile is Latvian Martins Dzierkals, who the team took in the third round of the 2015 NHL Draft. Relatively unknown to many, the 6-foot, 170-pound Dzierkals has since come to North America, where he is playing for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL. This season, he has produced 21 goals and 54 points in 48 games while sporting a +16 rating. He also missed a few games while assisting his nation of Latvia in gaining promotion into next winter’s IIHF World Junior Championship.
Hockey’s Future recently had an opportunity to discuss this and more with the 18-year-old Dzierkals, with that conversation being presented below..
Hockey’s Future: A Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick from Latvia, you’re now playing in the QMJHL. How are things going for you in North America and on the smaller ice surfaces?
Martins Dzierkals: That’s hard to say. There’s not much space to work with and this demands that you shoot more and quicker and a team simply has to be physical to keep guys from doing whatever they want in close quarters. In the meantime, I’ve gotten used to ice in Canada and actually like that type of game better than the one back in Europe.
HF: What about the style of play in the QMJHL?
MD: Oh, there’s some really good hockey there and it’s a very skilled league. It’s quick and the skill players really get to shine and have to make things happen. It’s basically my type of play as I like to play a skill game and make quick plays and fast decisions. I’ve adjusted well and feel I’ll keep being better as the season progresses. I feel it’s a really good league.
HF: You were drafted in the third round last summer. What was that like?
MD: Oh my, yeah, I think that was the best feeling in my entire life. I was so excited. I was really just hoping to be drafted whatsoever and then I felt pretty surprised that the team took me that early. If anything, I thought I’d be taken as of the fifth round, but things worked out fine.
HF: You then attended the team’s prospect camp in the summer. How did you like that?
MD: Yep, I was brought over for the team’s development camp roughly five days after the draft. After that was then the prospects camp and then played in the rookie camp. There, we had three games between the Toronto Maple Leaf prospects. They have a lot of skilled prospects at the moment and most all of them are now having a good season. So that was all a lot of fun.
HF: Do you guys already follow each other? For example, were you watching William Nylander at this winter’s WJC?
MD: Certainly, a good bit. In particular William, who is having a special season in the AHL. I played together with him on a line in the first game of the Maple Leafs’ Rookie Tournament. He’s an extremely talented player and I feel I can learn things from him and the things he does on the ice.
HF: Being drafted by anyone is a special thing, but Toronto is in many ways the epicenter of the NHL universe and a very special environment to be a part of. Have you already been able to pick up on all of that?
MD: Before I got drafted, I wasn’t really too familiar with the team. But once I got there, things were amazing. People LOVE hockey there and desperately want a winner. It was something I could really feel. There are A LOT of Maple Leaf fans and they are everywhere. Even when I’m playing in Quebec, there are fans there and they seek contact with you as a prospect, looking for signatures. It’s an awesome feeling being part of the Toronto Maple Leafs. On top of that, the WJC will take place in Toronto and Montreal next winter and I simply have to be there. My country, Latvia, gained promotion to the elite group before Christmas and I simply have to do everything possible to be there and part of that tournament right there in two of the biggest hockey cities on the planet.
HF: What was the Division 1 World Championship that included Austria, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Norway, and naturally Latvia like for you?
MD: The competition was very good, often surprisingly good, and we had our work cut out for us, but we did what we needed to do to gain promotion. Even Italy gave us a huge battle in the last game, but we did what we needed to do to get the wins at every step of the way.
HF: At that tournament, you scored a goal and four points in five games. Were you satisfied with your performance?
MD: I was satisfied as long as the team was winning. And we did. But the hockey there was a good bit different than in Canada. There was a lot of space out there and I had to take a few more steps than usual and also had to realize that I have more time with the puck. But in general, I certainly can’t complain about the results and it gave me an extra boost coming back to my team in the Q.
HF: Your Latvian team consisted of players who are playing all over the place. The team was made up of players in several North American leagues and no less than Sweden, Norway, and Russia. How did you guys manage to come from all these different backgrounds, get together for a trip to Austria, then gain promotion back into the top group?
MD: I played together with two ‘North American’ guys and I felt that our styles were very similar and meshed well together. We did really well together. We had a good understanding of what each was going to do despite not having practiced much together. We talked a lot about where to be and what passing lanes we’re going to look for. But in general it wasn’t easy to come into a ‘new’ team midseason, even if I know a lot of these players, and go from one locker room to another with totally different goals. That was an adjustment, one that our opponents were fortunately doing as well.
HF: You are now playing for Rouyn-Noranda. What type of feedback are you getting from the Maple Leafs organization?
MD: They get in touch with me all the time. They send emails and instructions about what I should be doing and how I should be preparing myself. They talk a lot about what it’ll take to go pro and ask how things are in the Quebec league and what issues I’m dealing with on and off the ice. I talked with them before the Division I World Junior Championship and they pretty much said that Latvia had to gain promotion in order to be in Toronto for the WJC next season. That was some incredible motivation for me.
HF: Do you feel that your game has improved and if so, what have you improved on?
MD: After Toronto brought me over and had me go through all those camps, and then by going to the QMJHL, I feel my game has improved a lot. I mean, like in leaps and bounds. I feel faster and more skilled. I’ve learned so much about how to take care of your body and sleep right and eat right. They give you so many tips and all you have to do is follow what they say and the results speak for themselves. Then your play improves.
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