Sabres Report: Prospecting for Czech Gold

By Ken McKenna

While the Czech Republic’s ’98 Olympic gold medal performance in ice hockey came as a shock to many casual hockey observers, the Buffalo Sabres hockey department likely took this development in stride.

Throughout the 90’s, the Sabres have mined the Czech hockey vein for talent, where they have come up with some 24-karat prospects. During this decade, the Sabres have drafted 10 players from the Czech Republic, while acquiring 4 others via trades. The most notable of these acquisitions is, of course, goaltender and two-time NHL MVP Dominik Hasek. Had the Sabres simply stopped with Hasek, they could have labeled their Czech experiment a success. But the names Richard Smehlik, Vaclav Varada and Michal Grosek also dot the Sabres roster, proving that the Sabres eye for Czech talent is not a fluke.

While the players mentioned above have made it to the NHL, there are other Czech prospects that could someday play for the big club. Some of them are teenagers in the early stages of their development, while others are slightly older players who might deserve a second look from the Sabres scouts.

Not all the players I’ll be profiling will come to North America to play, but it is fun to speculate. So, with that in mind, I present the Czech Republic prospects of the Buffalo Sabres.

Young and Promising

Jaroslav Kristek (RW)
The most promising prospect of this group, Jaroslav is also the only Czech prospect of the Sabres to be skating in North America. He is playing for the Tri-City Americans of the WHL, where he has quickly become a fan favorite. Jaroslav, a ’98 2nd round pick, has 4 goals and 10 assists in 16 games for the Americans. He has won fans and teammates over with his spirited play and offensive prowess, attributes that have helped him keep his team competitive in a tough division. His quick adaptation to the North American style of play would seem to indicate a bright future for Jaroslav.

Ales Kotalik (RW)
Ales, a 6th round pick in ’98, is a boy currently playing amongst the men of the Czech Elite league. He appears to be holding his own in that league, picking up 6 points in 18 games for Budojovice. He is on a pace to equal or exceed his point totals of last season (16 points in 47 games). While playing against the best players in his age group in the ’98 World Junior Championships, he picked up 4 points (3 goals, 1 assist) in 7 games for the Czech Republic. This would seem to indicate that Ales has some offensive skills which have not yet come to the surface in the Elite league. Kotalik has the size to play in the NHL, but it will likely be a couple years before it can be determined whether he has the skill level necessary to play for the Sabres.

Kamil Piros (C)
The Sabres scouting staff has a knack for finding good hockey players in the late rounds of the NHL draft, and they appear to have another sleeper in center Kamil Piros. Piros, an 8th round pick in ’97, generated little interest until his fine performance in the ’98 World Junior Championships. He picked up 2 goals and 6 assists in 7 games for the Czech Republic, which placed him amongst the top scorers in that tournament. He put up more modest numbers in the Czech Elite league last season, totaling just 11 points in 28 games. Piros is playing for Litvinov this season, where he has chipped in with 8 points in 16 games to date. Kamil is a finesse center who possesses better playmaking skills than goal-scoring ability, which would indicate that he is a prototypical European player. Whether he has the grit and/or desire to play in the NHL remains to be seen, but he is certainly an intriguing prospect worthy of a good look.
Older and Improving

David Moravec (LW)

Like Kamil Piros before him, David was chosen in the 8th round of this year’s draft. Unlike the 20-year old Piros, however, Moravec was drafted many years past his draft eligibility date. The 25-year old Moravec benefited from his association with the ’98 Czech Olympic gold medal-winning team, but Sabre scouts also were able to watch him play in the Czech Elite league while following the progress of his teammate and Sabre prospect Piros. Moravec did not disappoint the scouts, scoring 38 goals and 64 points in 51 games for Vitkovice. He appears to be struggling this season, however, as he has picked up just 11 points in 17 games, which may indicate that David was just a flash in the pan. Should he bounce back this season to regain his form of last year, the Sabres might try to bring him over once the Czech season is completed. The more likely scenario is that he will stay in the Czech Republic, where he is looked upon by his countrymen as a hero.
Ondrej Steiner (C)

Ondrej (pronounced as either on-day or on-dray, take your pick), a 2nd round pick in ’92, was drafted as a potential checking center rather than for any offensive abilities he might have. He did not disappoint in that respect, since he rarely displayed an ability to generate offense in any way. Over the past couple seasons, however, Ondrej has put up some fairly impressive numbers for a checking center. In 97-98, Steiner chalked up 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) in 50 games for Karlovy Vary of the Czech Elite league. His stats for the current season total 13 points (4 goals, 9 assists) in 17 games, again as a member of Karlovy Vary. At 24 years of age, Ondrej is just entering his prime playing years. A checking center with some offensive ability is a player that is valued by all NHL teams, so perhaps some NHL team will give him a look if the Sabres don’t.

Martin Spanhel (LW)

Martin was acquired in the same trade that brought Vaclav Varada to the Sabres, but his career has not had the same upward trend that Varada’s has taken. Martin was a good scorer in the Czech junior league before playing junior hockey in North America. Over the course of a couple seasons, Spanhel played in both the WHL and the QMJHL, but he was unable to recreate the offensive fireworks that he displayed in the Czech Republic. He returned to the Czech Republic last season to play for Zlin, where he put up a modest total of 16 points (7 goals, 9 assists) in 40 games. This season, however, Martin has displayed a good scoring touch, as well as a bit of feistiness. In 18 games for Plzen, he has picked up 6 goals and 7 assists, as well as 20 penalty minutes. While his penalty total may seem modest by NHL standards, they are positively robust for the Czech league. Spanhel turns 23 next week, so he is still developing. He has already taken a crack at the North American game, so he might not get another chance. Still, it might be worth the time to give Martin a second look, assuming he continues to show improvement in his game.

Loose ends-
Defenseman Alexei Tezikov has re-joined Moncton of the QMJHL while he continues to work out a contract with the Sabres…Daniel Bienvenue and Mark Dutiaume were assigned to the Broome County Icemen of the UHL. Dutiaume took this assignment in stride, but Bienvenue stayed just one day before asking Rochester for another assignment. Daniel is currently in limbo while waiting for that assignment…Jeremy Addouno joined the Canadian National Team…Edo Terglav has missed several games due to injury.