Lukes finds his game in Idaho

By Jeff Dahlia

Phoenix Coyotes prospect Frantisek “Frank” Lukes (pronounced Luke-ish) was a scorer in junior, but struggled turning pro last season. What triggered such an electric winger like Lukes to go so flat?

The answer is simple. He never lost his flair; he flat out lost his confidence. Turning in three seasons with the Toronto St. Michael‘s Majors in the OHL, Lukes averaged about a point a game, playoffs included. He ended up graduating the junior ranks and the Majors as the club’s second all-time leader scorer in club history.

Last season was Lukes’ first in the professional ranks. He skated with the then Coyotes AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons. It was during that time where it seems the unraveling began. Playing on a team that lacked offense, the Falcons proved to be the weakest team in a tough Atlantic Division, and one of the worst in the entire league.

The physicality in the AHL was not comparable to the OHL. Lukes explained that while he anticipated the change in tempo and style of play, he also was worried about fitting in with the new system guided by head coach Marty McSorley.

“When I was playing in Springfield, I really didn’t get a chance to do much,” Lukes explained about his overall output. “My ice time was limited and it was kind of hard to jump in there after sitting on the bench for five minutes at a time.”

Lukes, like the majority of the prospects in Springfield, didn’t turn in the performance that many in the front office in Phoenix would have hoped for. Even though he was able to gain invaluable experience, the window of opportunity for him was beginning to shrink.

Sent to Idaho

Heading into this season’s training camp with the Coyotes new AHL affiliate, the Utah Grizzlies, Lukes was looking for a chance at redemption in the top development league in North America. As the camp progressed, he showed that he had all the makings of a prospect would could make a solid contribution at the AHL level.

But with the NHL labor situation not settled, the club was forced to make tougher player personnel decisions. High profile players like Erik Westrum, Jeff Taffe and Fredrik Sjostrom, who had seen substantial time with the Coyotes during the 2003-04 season, were destined to be back with the Grizzlies. Coupled with the addition of other seasoned players, it became more and more apparent that Lukes was the odd man out.

The crafty Czech, who had received a lot of praise early on in camp, was sent down to the Idaho Steelheads to start the season in the ECHL.

Settling in with the 2004 Kelly Cup Champions this year, there was no question that he would be an immediate impact player. He saw time on the top lines and looked poised to really take off.

Lukes had flashes of brilliance, but his play suffered because he could find any sort of consistency. Many times when he would put on pressure in the offensive zone, he automatically became the opposition’s top target. He began to shy away and become more of an east-west type of skater.

Too many times was he witnessed at the top of the crease or at the half boards, anticipating the notion of going hard to the net and working through the tough in your face style of play. When he would happen to go down low, he showed signs of being unable to handle the physical pressure. In turn, Lukes was quickly becoming Idaho’s best setup man, not the star caliber head coach John Olver was expecting.

Even though he had been an average player for the Steelheads at the start of the season, Lukes still got called up to Utah twice, once in the month of November and then again in December. He played in a total of five games, going pointless. Nevertheless, Lukes was aware he wasn’t going to be afforded the minutes he was going to get with Idaho, though he said he remained optimistic.

When Olver was asked back in December about the winger play, he had this so say, “I would say that Frank is a guy that has struggled to find a groove within our system. The biggest thing he has had trouble with is scoring. He has had great chances, but trouble converting his chances.

“I see him as a player that wants to create his offense by beating opponents one on one. I encourage him to do that on certain situations. I think until he realizes that he’s got to become just as dangerous without the puck, he will continues to risk his chances at ever reaching his full potential.”

Olver continued to work with him and as December turned into January, Lukes was making some progress.

Once was lost…

As the second half of the 2004-05 ECHL season got underway for the Steelheads, things started to turn around. Lukes has now been terrorizing goalies and defenses for well over a month. Going on a scoring rampage during the month of February, he is finally hitting his stride and showing everyone what he had been unable to tap early on. Idaho is also on the rebound, going 9-2 during the month and gaining crucial ground on the last playoff spot.

“I’m not sure what the reasons were, but it took him sometime to find his groove,” Olver stated about Lukes slow start. “The last month he’s been one of our best players. He’s been on fire offensively scoring something like seven or eight goals in an eight-game stretch. He continues to get better for us every night.”

Lukes said, “I don’t know why I was struggling early on. I had so many chances every night. When you don’t score, you’re struggling a lot.

“During our latest stretch after the break, it seems like every shot I am putting on the net is going in. That has given me a lot of confidence with the puck.”

Not only is Lukes scoring, but he is also doing something that has caught the attention and praise from Olver.

“What impresses me is, not only is he putting up good numbers but his play without the puck is much improved,” Olver added.

And playing strong all over is something that Lukes has begun to show with a lot more consistency. He already has the skills and tools to drop jaws and captivate crowds, but he is showing that he understands what it is going to take for him to be effective.

“Sometimes a new player comes to a team and can fit in immediately,” Olver explained. “Then sometimes, it takes a player a while to feel comfortable within that team and the system. Every coach is different in terms of what they want from their players.

“I think it took Frank a while to understand what was important to me and as well for me to understand what his strengths were and how to handle him. He needed to just getting comfortable and confident as well as getting familiar with his linemates.”

Olver also pointed out that Lukes’ confidence level has definitely got a shot in the arm. He has continued to show his diverse skills, playing different roles at even strength and with the special teams.

“He is definitely one of the guys we try to get the puck to,” Olver explained about using Lukes in all situations. “Like all great offensive players, he has a really low panic level. He doesn’t panic under pressure and will hold on to the puck until the last second to give someone a chance to get open. He can really thread a pass through traffic. He has really added the scoring which always helps.”

For a player who has been full of anxiety over the past season and a half, Lukes has really started to relax and play his game to the full extent. He is on the right path and is starting to enjoy the ride once again. He is also extremely thankful to have found a coach like Olver, because it is Olver who gave him the chance to be himself again.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.