Latvian duo excels in Moncton

By Matt MacInnis

On June 26, 2003, the Moncton Wildcats used their 34th overall selection in the CHL Import Player Draft to select Martins Karsums. The generously listed forward (5’11, 170 lbs) was chosen from HC Prizma of the Latvian league and was among the smallest players chosen in the Import Draft. With an ’86 birthday, Karsums was not eligible for the NHL Entry Draft until the next summer in 2004.

Karsums reached the 30-goal plateau his rookie year in 2003-04 and was fifth on the Wildcats in points. Following this successful season, the Boston Bruins traded for the 64th overall selection in the Draft, which they used to choose Karsums.

With Konstantin Zakharov headed for professional hockey, the Wildcats had a European slot opening for the 2004-05. With the 27th overall pick in the Import Draft, the Wildcats selected another Latvian, Oskars Bartulis. Bartulis, listed as a center, had played the previous season with CSKA Moscow’s second team. He and Karsums played together for three years in Riga, Latvia in their early teens. Karsums admits that he played a role in Moncton deciding to select Bartulis, but prefers not to talk about the details.

“I sort of asked him if he wanted to come to Canada. And I just told him this was the place to come to,” Karsums told Hockey’s Future after game one of the Wildcats first round playoff series against Drummondville.

Karsums had previously ended up with Moncton after meeting some of the team brass.

“I went to Boston for a showcase. There were a few guys from Latvia who went there. The Moncton Wildcats were there, I was talking to (Wildcats Head Scout) Peter Nevin and (Director of Hockey Operations) Allan Power and they asked me if I wanted to come play here, and I certainly said yes. And that summer they drafted me and here I am, playing hockey.”

Karsums explained that he made the decision to come to Canada to play major junior because he believes it was the best route for him to take to make it to the National Hockey League.

“(It) was a level a lot higher than where I’m from. Plus the NHL Draft was coming up and the best way was to come here.”

When Karsums came to Moncton, he was fortunate to already have a good grasp on English from his schooling in Latvia and his experience playing hockey in the United States several years earlier.

“Yeah, I learned it in school, back home in school. Plus I learned some English in New York. I played when I was 15 in the Eastern Junior Hockey League.”

He says he hasn’t learned much French since coming to Moncton despite the fact that most of the Wildcats are from Quebec. He has picked some very basic sayings like “how are you”, and also, he joked, the swear words. Bartulis, currently 18 and eligible for the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, was not so fortunate. When he came to Canada he spoke no English

“(J)ust a couple words. Marty really helped me. Because I don’t understand,” explained Bartulis.

At the start of the season Karsums acted as an interpreter for the younger Latvian. Over the course of the season Bartulis’ English has improved immensely. He can often answer for himself, but sometimes needs Karsums to clarify what he had said, or explain what the question was.

Bartulis’ English has made great strides this year because, he explains, being immersed in English, he has no choice but to pick it up quickly. He says he understands the majority of what is said to him now, but sometimes has problems vocalizing his own thoughts.

“I understand, but for me it’s hard to talk. I understand what you ask me, but [it’s] hard to know the words.”

Bartulis impressive as rookie

When the Wildcats drafted Bartulis, they picked a player listed as a center. However, with the exception of a few shifts, Bartulis has been a defenseman all season long, often playing on the team’s top pairing with Nathan Saunders.

“He was a centerman; he didn’t play much defense until recently,” Allan Power said. “We thought we were getting a centerman and we ended up with a defenseman, which was a good hole to fill. And he’s doing very, very, well for a guy who didn’t play, who might have played defense for a couple of months before showing up to training camp here.”

Bartulis has been impressive in his first season in North America. The young Latvian is 6’1, 180 lbs, has shown very good natural instincts during the season and is rarely caught out of position. Despite being a converted forward, Bartulis does not have a tendency to jump into the rush at inopportune times or get trapped in the offensive zone. He has good puck skills and a good shot. In 62 regular season games Bartulis had 5 goals and 19 assists for 24 points. His 128 shots were second among full-time defensemen for the Wildcats, behind only 19-year-old Saunders. Bartulis makes the right first pass and covers well for his partner. Although he is not overly strong or aggressive, Bartulis does not try to avoid physical play. He will throw the occasional body-check along the boards and physically engages anyone in front of the net, although he is rarely involved in any scrums.

Boston Bruins regional scout for the QMJHL Don Matheson offered his comments on Bartulis.

“Every team is going to have their own opinion. But [he’s] a 17-year-old rookie who presents pretty well in the league. He’s presenting as a kid who makes pretty good decisions with the puck. He’s not overly big right now, physical strength is certainly an issue, he’s got to develop that to a much greater degree than he has so far. I think for sure he’s going to fit somewhere in the first part of the draft. Where he fits, could well end up being decided by how well he plays under pressure in the playoffs with a lot of ice time over a series of a short period of time. I think that he’s not overwhelming in physical stature, but thinks the game pretty well and brings some things to the table. To what degree, that’s to be decided.

“I think he’s adapted well [to defense]. If you didn’t know he had been a forward the way he reads things and plays the position you would think he had been a defenseman for a long time, quite honestly. That’s an attribute perhaps to the way he thinks the game. But I think the jury is out as to where he sits, but every team is going to make its own mind up.”

The upcoming draft event, of course, has been cancelled due to the NHL lockout. Bartulis says it doesn’t concern him, and whenever the draft happens, he doesn’t expect to go in the first three rounds, but thinks he will be taken highly after those rounds have passed. If he could choose a team to be drafted by, he’d like it to be the Colorado Avalanche because they are his favorite team. However, he admits through Karsums as he translates, it would be better to be drafted by a weaker team, so it would be easier to make the team.

Karsums has no exciting draft day story to inspire his friend with. Karsums elected to go back home to Latvia instead of attending the draft in Raleigh, North Carolina, because he didn’t expect to be picked very highly.

“I stayed home because I thought that I was going to be drafted pretty late, so that’s why I didn’t go. But unfortunately, not unfortunately, that’s good that I was drafted in the second round! It’s good, I was really happy about it.”

Karsums second season

This is Karsums’ second season in the QMJHL and he has struggled with injuries much of the season, only appearing in 30 regular season games, scoring 14 goals and tallying 26 points. He missed time with a hip injury earlier in the season and then missed the last two months of the season due to a bad ankle sprain.

“I was just skating down the ice and my ankle got cut in a rut,” explained Karsums about his injury. “I went down and came off the ice. First of all the doctor said it was broken and I ripped my ligament, but after I went to the hospital and did my X-ray they said it wasn’t broken. They didn’t know what was wrong. Then I was like treating it for a month and it still didn’t get better at all. I think it’s the second month now. And it still hasn’t gotten a lot better, it’s almost the same. I went to see a doctor in Boston and then New York and it didn’t tell me much.”

When he was in the line-up, however, Karsums showed why he was a second round pick. Although only 5’10, Karsums has a stocky build at 190 lbs. He has very quick feet and good acceleration. He does a good job defensively, both forechecking and covering his man in the defensive zone. Offensively he has good instincts and cycles the puck very well. He’s extremely dangerous on odd-man rushes or breakaways and has a powerful and accurate wrist shot. Perhaps the most appealing trait about Karsums is that he plays significantly larger than his 5’10 would indicate. Karsums is a very physical player who loves to throw his body around. Karsums is a dangerous open-ice hitter who keeps opponents’ head on a swivel as they carry the puck through the neutral zone.

Karsums is modest about his tendency to throw big hits, saying everybody likes to hit like that. But he admits that he does like the more physical style of game played in Canada compared to what he played in Europe.

“I would say yes. I like the rough stuff, not as much fighting, but I like to hit.”

The Bruins scout elaborates on the thought process behind selecting Karsums in the second round and how the organization sees his game.

“We didn’t have a first round pick, and we had one second. And our full-time staff, our head scout especially Scott Bradley liked the (David) Krejci kid, the European we took. So Michael O’Connell, our GM, knew that we had some time for Martins as well. So we had one and Mike went and did a trade with San Jose I think for right behind it and we got both kids.”

“In terms of Martins, we got a 17-year-old. Look at the points he put up, he scored 30 goals, he plays bigger than he is, he competes every night, he’s extremely strong on his skates, and he brings a lot of character. Everything we’ve checked about him in terms of attitude and character comes up aces. I talked a lot to the GM in Moncton. Every time I talk to him about Martins, I got a very positive response about his character, his attitude, his leadership, all the intangibles. But the physical play he showed us, I thought quite a bit last year, he played much bigger than a kid his size. Balance on his skates is terrific, he’s got great offensive instincts and he plays very responsibly without the puck. So he brings a good package for a second round pick. Given last year’s draft, a lot of our guys on our staff liked the package he brought.”

Busy season

It has been an exciting season for the two Latvians. Their Moncton Wildcats dominated the QMJHL during the first half of the season before faltering after a number of injuries, Karsums’ included. The squad finished the season sixth in the league and is currently in the midst of playing a first-round playoff series against Drummondville. After missing the first game of the series, Karsums played in the second. He did not, however, appear in the third game in Drummondville.

In addition to playing for the Wildcats, the two teens travelled to Narva, Estonia to compete in the Div. I, Group B Championship, which also served as qualifying for the 2006 WJC in British Columbia, Canada. The teams played five games in six games in the round robin tournament, and Latvia came out on top with a record of four wins and one tie. Both players were major contributors to Latvia’s win. Karsums tied for the lead in team scoring with Lauris Darzins with ten points, while Bartulis finished fourth in team scoring with seven points from the blue line. With seven goals, Karsums finished second in team scoring behind only Slovenia’s Anze Kopitar, a 2005-eligible forward. Bartulis finished in a three-way tie for assists with six, and tied for the second lead among all defensemen. Not surprisingly they are very pleased with their accomplishment.

“Latvia has never done it before. We were pretty happy about it,” Karsums explained. “We played before in World Juniors, and I think this was the best team we’ve had all these years and that’s why we did it. A lot of fun.”

Latvia has been placed in Group B, which plays its round-robin games in Kelowna and Kamloops. Latvia is joined by Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden, and Slovakia. The Latvian team has 12 players who are eligible to return, but remain huge underdogs to avoid relegation. The two feel they were fortunate to get placed in the group without Canada or the United States but still know the challenges that face them.

It won’t be Bartulis’ first time visiting the western province. Earlier this year he participated in the CHL Top Prospects Game in Vancouver. Bartulis had an average showing at the game himself, but it was a good experience for him, who said, through Karsums, that he enjoyed playing in front of the biggest crowd of his life.

“Top players showed their best game, it was a very fast game. There were a lot of scouts and they want to show their best. It was a very good game,” offered Bartulis on the game.

Earlier this season Karsums was fortunate to have his parents travel from Latvia to see him play a few games in Moncton. One of these games was a particularly rough contest against the Gatineau Olympiques with some bad blood leftover from the QMJHL Championship series. At one point Karsums was approached by Nick Fugere (NAS), who began to push the much smaller Karsums and throw gloved punches at him. Karsums moved closer to the 6’2, 230 lbs Fugere, and their heads came to rest together, Fugere’s chin basically resting on Karsums’ helmet as the two continued to talk and shove one another a bit. When the melee was sorted out Karsums had been given a penalty, ejected, and a match penalty for head-butting.

“Oh yeah, that was bad!” joked Karsums about incident. “(His parents were) a little upset that I did that. They came to see me play hockey not head-butt people, but I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it! My mom doesn’t like this hockey. She says it’s too rough. Especially that game. It was a very, very rough game.”

Karsums and Bartulis are of course still teenagers who have left their home country to pursue their dream to play in the NHL. They have transplanted themselves during some of the formative years of their lives. When asked if they are attending high school, the two teens looked at each other shamefully and then burst out laughing. When the laughter subsided, Bartulis responded in broken English.

“No we go to December to learn English and computer. But now, now it’s playoffs and what can you do?” he said trailing off. Karsums explains that both enjoyed the experience, and that it helped their English, but it’s difficult to compare school in Canada to school in Latvia.

“It was not bad, I think. Of course it’s different from Latvia, everything’s in English. We only took two courses so we can’t really say. It’s fun, a lot of fun, and a good experience.”

Both look up to Latvian players who have paved the way for young Latvians to make the NHL. One of Karsums’ favorite players is the late Sergei Zholtok. Among his heroes Bartulis lists Sandis Ozolinsh and Joe Sakic.

According to Karsums, their teammates like to call Bartulis “Ozzy” or “Ozzy Osbourne.” Neither recall how exactly it got started, but speculate it just came from saying “Oskars” over and over. Bartulis revealed that sometimes Karsums is referred to by the Latvian word for “beast,” but Karsums shook his head in embarrassment in response.

The two players represent the future of Latvian hockey. Karsums has the potential to be a second line player for the Bruins in the future as an offensively talented player who has a physical edge and a solid defensive game. Bartulis, although needing work in the strength department, is projected as a second pairing defenseman because of his hockey sense and puck skills. Both players are under tremendous pressure to succeed, not only for their own ambitions, but for the long-term success of the Latvian hockey program. If these two successfully make the NHL, they may inspire more Latvian youth to seriously take up the sport.

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