David Krejci has seen the future of Czech hockey, and it’s looking good in the form of skilled San Jose Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl.
The 19-year-old set the NHL world on fire last week when he scored four goals against the Rangers, including a jaw-dropping fourth score that ended with a backhanded top shelf flip from between his legs past an overmatched Martin Biron.
The Hertl snipe will go down as the prettiest goal scored this season, and certainly the most discussed given the circumstances.
The fact that it happened at the end of a 9-2 blowout, which brought out the crusty naysayers looking to poo-poo a picturesque example of offensive skill, is one story. But it’s patently ridiculous for a league to downgrade breathtaking displays of skill that should be celebrated like a slam dunk in pro basketball.
Joe Thornton’s graphic willingness to stand up for the rookie when the media went calling for a story is another facet to the rookie’s colorful narrative.
But the pure, unadulterated hockey story is Hertl himself, and what he represents. Clearly he’s a part of the young guard with the Sharks that’s coupling with veterans like Thornton, Dan Boyle and Patrick Marleau to perhaps lead them where no underachieving San Jose team has ever gone before. Hertl leads the league with his seven goals scored in five games, and leads all NHL rookies in points (8), plus/minus (plus-7) and shots on net (19).
He was on the B’s radar in 2012 when he was draft eligible as a standout from the Czech Republic World Junior team, but was nabbed by the Sharks with the 17th pick. Boston chose young, raw goaltender Malcolm Subban seven draft picks later.
With his sturdy build, boyish-looking face and celestial skill level, the 6-foot-2, 198-pound Hertl has drawn some comparisons to another fellow Czech countryman Bruins fans are pretty familiar with.
“It's a long way for me to be like Jaromir Jagr,” said Hertl. “He is a Czech hockey legend. Both of us have big bottoms, and I just try to use my big bottom as Jagr does.”
Anybody familiar with Jagr’s game -- protecting the puck while his back is actually to the net -- knows exactly what the San Jose rookie is referring to. But the comparison brings up another point.
To a Czech Republic country that’s always been a hotbed for hockey talent, Hertl represents the next generation of dominant players ready to inspire youngsters there. Keeping that talent pipeline fresh is a constant concern for native Czech Republic players like David Krejci, who grew up inspired by a special group of fellow countrymen who were dominating the NHL.
The B’s playmaking center hopes Hertl is that young, ultra-skilled superstar who can inspire Czech kids, just as Jagr did for him 20 years ago.
“[The between-the-legs goal] was pretty impressive,” said Krejci. “It made me happy that there’s a young Czech guy that’s coming out in the NHL and playing pretty good. It’s good for him, I’m happy for him, but it’s also good for Czech hockey.”
The Czech Republic won the first Olympic gold medal with NHL players involved in 1998, but the national team -- which in last Olympics included Krejci -- had dropped all the way to seventh place by 2010. There’s been a steady decline over the last 15 years at the top competitive levels, though the Czech Republic is still in the mix of top hockey producers in the world. It’s a sad reality for a country that’s watching once great players like Jagr, Dominik Hasek, Tomas Kaberle and Patrik Elias close in on, or reach, retirement.
Krejci saw Hertl up close last season when he was playing for HC Pardubice during the NHL lockout, and Hertl was already starting to stand out for HC Slava Praha as an 18-year-old playing against men.
It heartened Krejci to know that the future of Czech hockey is bright, just as the present is in decent shape with players like himself.
But the concern is clearly still there.
“The era where Jagr and Elias and Hasek [dominated], this era, sadly, is coming to the end,” said Krejci. “Elias might be playing for a few more years, Jagr . . . I don’t know. We need some young players for Czech kids to look up to and we need good young Czech players. We don’t have that many young guys, so we need pros like that. It was good to see [Hertl] score four goals.
“Hopefully he’ll keep doing well for himself. It’s a really good thing for the Czech hockey team. People have been saying back home in the last few years that we don’t really have a team to play for gold medals at the Olympics or World Championships. It might take a couple more years, [but] hopefully I’ll still be helpful for any team I’ll play for. You see Hertl coming up, there's hopefully more kids coming up. We’ve still got some good young players like [Jakub] Voracek in Philly and Tomas Plekanec, [Radim] Vrbata . . . so we've got some good players.”
The Czech Republic does have some very good players. But they need a truly great one to inspire the next generation, and perhaps Hertl will be it.
CHECKING OUT THE REST OF THE EAST
Peter Chiarelli was in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia last week to watch NHL games, but people should be careful before stoking up the trade rumor mill quite this early in the season.
Chiarelli is also serving as Team Canada's assistant general manage, and he was utilizing the Bruins' spaced-out schedule to scout potential Olympians as part of the management group putting together the squad with Hockey Canada GM Steve Yzerman. One of the biggest factors for Chiarelli is imagining what the current crop of talented Canadian hockey players will look like when dropped into the Olympic-sized arena in Sochi, Russia.
“We’re all assigned a handful of games to take a look at over the next month or so, and our slow week for Boston allowed me a chance to see some of those players,” said Chiarelli. “We’re all very familiar with the players vying for Team Canada roster spots, but it’s instructive to go see the players in person. You want to see how different players are skating, and what level they’re at as we start to make decisions.
“At this level in their careers [the skating] usually doesn't progress. It goes through stages so you want to keep an eye on their skating.”
Chiarelli was watching obvious Canadian Olympic candidates like Claude Giroux, Eric Staal and Sidney Crosby during the two-game trip to Pennsylvania, and has a handful more excursions on the docket over the next month. The trip last week was made a little more difficult with potential Oympians James Neal and Kris Letang injured, but scouting trips don’t always go according to plan.
Clearly, Patrice Bergeron should be a lock to make Team Canada; he was a versatile, contributing member of the gold medal team in 2010. Milan Lucic is advancing his candidacy with a strong start this season. Brad Marchand was invited to orientation camp, as well, but has moved away from the gritty, antagonistic game that made him attractive to Hockey Canada in the first place.
The Team Canada management group will meet once in October and again in November leading up to the selection of the roster.
It was a tough break for former B’s backup goaltender Anton Khudobin, now with the Hurricanes, who suffered a lower body injury last weekend that appeared fairly significant as either a knee or a groin. Khudobin couldn’t put any weight on his left leg as he was helped off the ice.
The real shame of it: he had looked good in stopping 65 of the 70 shots he’d faced while Cam Ward had struggled out of the starting gate with Carolina.
“We said we would do it one game at a time right now,” said Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller, before the Khudobin injury had taken place. “We really wanted to not put it on paper too early, but use both of them early on here to stay fresh and see how it evolves.”
That seemed to be the case as Khudobin got the nod against the Phoenix Coyotes on Sunday, but his lower half gave out on him when he got stuck in between playing a puck or retreating back to his crease on a freak play that led to injury.
Nobody knows if it would have been different for Khudobin had he remained in Boston, but the chance was there for him when free agency opened in July. Per a source with knowledge of the negotiations, Khuodobin turned down the Bruins’ original offer as he looked for more money and longer term, but by the time he decided to return to Boston, the B's had already signed journeyman Chad Johnson to be Tuukka Rask's backup. Khudobin wound up with essentially the same one-year deal from the Hurricanes that he was offered by the Bruins, signing for $800,000 in Carolina rather than the $600,000 Boston had slotted for its backup.
It’s too bad, because the Bruins would have liked the good-natured Khudobin to stick around in a tandem that worked so well last season.
GOOD NIGHT FOR LAVIOLETTE
Peter Laviolette became the first contestant on “The NHL Coach is Wrong” this season when he was fired by the Philadelphia Flyers after just three games. It was pretty clear that the guillotine had been poised to strike for some time, based on ownership's post-dismissal comments.
"Look, there’s no question in my mind that anybody looking at this from the outside looking in would say that [being fired after only] three games is totally unfair,” admitted Flyers owner Ed Snider. “But quite honestly . . . training camp was a disaster. I’ve been at 47 training camps and I’ve never seen one that I thought was worse. Now that’s not talking about Peter, that’s talking about our players.
“It carried right on over to the first three games of the season. It’s not simply the three games that we saw. There’s more to it than that. There are a lot of things that I know that are private, but bottom line is that I have great respect for Peter Laviolette. I’m sorry this has happened to him. He’s a class act.”
The other bottom line: Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren might be in trouble with newly hired assistant general manager Ron Hextall poised to take over if Snider opts for the ax again. It could be inevitable given how poor the Flyers have looked early in the season with little team speed, unproven goaltending and a defensive crew that’s never replaced the perpetually concussed Chris Pronger.
But before that happens, GMs around the league will be sure to call the rash Holmgren, who has never been afraid to blow up hockey clubs through trades heard round the NHL world. It wouldn’t surprise if a serviceable veteran like Kimmo Timonen would be on the market, or perhaps even a prototypical power forward like Wayne Simmonds could be had if the pieces going back to the Flyers are seductive enough.
Notice we said “seductive enough” rather than “good enough.”
The “Dry Island” fiasco that shipped both Mike Richards and Jeff Carter out of Philadelphia is the perfect example of Holmgren quickly hammering away on the trade plunger, and then watching as Richards/Carter won a Stanley Cup for the Kings while Dry Island Laviolette has been relocated to Pink Slip Island.
Where there was one, there will clearly be more. Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo is probably on the clock now for a team that’s invested plenty of money on its roster and is impatiently looking for results at this early point in the season.
LUONGO LOVES HIM SOME CORY SCHNEIDER
Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo sounded like he’d taken an emotional walk along the sea wall in Vancouver before locking up with former backup Cory Schneider in a game between the Canucks and New Jersey Devils last week. Goaltending tandems can be an interesting thing, given that it’s two competitive individuals essentially competing for playing time, and things really could have spun out of hand last season when Schneider was handed the job while Luongo was trade bait.
But Bobby Lou is still standing in Vancouver looking like a true survivor, and feeling like a little kid.
"I'm just looking forward to playing against my friend,” Luongo said. “That's what it's all about for me tonight. I want to win. I want to play a good game. And I want to enjoy being at the other end of the ice from Cory, just like every day we had at practice here.”
And . . .
"I like to be friends with my backup. You know right away the guys who are a bit more selfish and rooting for you to fail. But Cory wasn't like that. That's why it was so easy to become friends with him. Instead of going against each other, we'd push each other to help this team win games.”
None of this is surprising given the class and intelligence of the former Boston College standout. It sounds like it was a much healthier pairing than the Tim Thomas/Manny Fernandez duo in Boston five years ago, which would have been a hockey therapist’s dream.
PLAYERS WHO COULD BE ON THE MOVE
It’s still early, but there are always players being talked about, lusted after or simply stalked by general managers attempting to fill holes on their roster one way or another. So here are some names that could be on the move:
-- Los Angeles Kings defenseman Alec Martinez has started the year in Darryl Sutter's doghouse, and that’s a difficult place to escape once you’ve taken up residence. The 26-year-old certainly isn’t flashy along the blue line, but there’s always a need for NHL caliber defenseman across the league.
-- Paul Stastny is in the last year of a contract with the Colorado Avalanche that’s paying him $6.6 million a year, and it’s pretty obvious the Avs don’t need the pricey 27-year-old UFA-to-be with youngsters Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon manning the top two center spots. Stastny is still a viable offensive player who's topped 20 goals and 50 points in five of his six full NHL seasons, and should yield the Avs a pretty healthy price tag should they decide to deal him. One monkey wrench: it’s difficult to see Joe Sakic and the Colorado front office dealing Stastny as a rental if Colorado continues to win games and put itself in a playoff position.
-- With the emergence of young defensemen like Olli Maatta and Robert Bertuzzo in Pittsburgh, the Penguins could end up placing experienced blueliners like Deryk Engelland and Matti Niskanen on the trade block before too long. Niskanen is off to a great start in Pittsburgh with five points (1 goal, 4 assists) and a plus-7 while averaging 20:14 of ice time in five games. Perhaps Niskanen knows the pressure is on him with so many young, inexpensive blueliners joining the ranks in Pittsburgh, but there’s little doubt he would bring some value in return on the open market as a viable top-four defensemen.
-- Dany Heatley is in the last year of a contract paying him $7.5 million, and the 32-year-old has one assist and 11 shots on net in five games for the Minnesota Wild. He arrived in training camp slimmer and trimmer with something to prove after struggling last season with the Wild, but it just hasn’t clicked in Minnesota. He’d be a prime candidate for a deal as a new change of address could revive a skill player that averaged 45 goals a season during his four years with the Ottawa Senators. That being said, there’s probably a reason that a mega-talented player like Heatley is on the fourth organization in his career, with a fifth surely on the horizon.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“He's like a bobblehead. You ask him to do something and he nods, then he goes out and does it. Coaches like that.”
– Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins, talking about Ryan Nugent-Hopkins playing 28 minutes in a shootout win over New Jersey in his first game back after missing six months with a shoulder surgery for a labrum tear.
Remember to keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.