Friday, 27 July 2012

Staying at home or making the jump.

It's a question that has certainly been getting more heated over the past couple of years, especially in countries such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic, whose junior programs are certainly nowhere near as successful as they were a decade or two earlier. Numerous young players are making their way over in droves, and last season saw a total of 33 Czechs playing in the combined three leagues which make up the Canadian Hockey League, as well as a further 15 Slovaks. Not only does this mean a large amount of youngsters are moving away from home at an early age, playing in a foreign country, but it also deprives the junior leagues of often their best talent, which means that players who have missed their chance of getting to the CHL are stuck in lower quality junior leagues, or are forced to make the jump to professional hockey at an earlier stage than perhaps they would otherwise.

There are clearly both pros and cons to each side, but an interesting interview by the great SlovakProspects site (link) with Matúš Matis, a 1993 born prospect who made the move to North America in 2009. He was then drafted by the Chicoutimi Saguenéens in the QMJHL 18th overall in 2010. Matis would then go on to play 33 games with the Saguenéens 2010-11, scoring only three goals. He was then sent down to the GMHL and the Bradford Rattlers, where he had played in 2009-10, scoring 14 times in 12 games. The Saguenéens once again left Matis out of their plans last season, and the Košice born forward played in the second best American junior league, the NAHL.

Julius Sinkovic (left). A tale of unfulfilled potential?
Matis' situation isn't anything new, but it once again highlights how it can be the off ice pressures at such a young age which can derail careers. In the aforementioned SlovakProspects article, he talks of the complete lack of communication with the Francophone head coach of the Saguenéens. Matis could not speak French. There are also the differences in the training regiments, as the extra focus on individual training seems to go against what is preached at the Slovakian junior schools. Couple these off ice issues, with the huge stress of trying to impress NHL scouts in order to get drafted can often push a player to breaking point, and a number of players who spent their junior years in the CHL have often failed to shine when making the jump to professional hockey. Julius Sinkovic seemed to have all the tools to have a great career, and he made the jump to the QMJHL in 2006, scoring 50 points in his debut season with Val-d'Or, whilst having a great World Junior Championships with Slovakia. Fast forward six years, the Slovan Bratislava junior is now playing in the German fourth tier. Martin Bartos is another who looked like a star in the making in the QMJHL, scoring 81 points in 2006-2007 with Acadie-Bathurst Titan, to only then fail to make the grade with Vitkovice. He spent last year in the Austrian Nationalliga after bouncing around the 1.liga and 2.liga for a while.

There are always going to be different circumstances for different people though. For some players, the move to the CHL appears to have been one that has paid off. Marek Hrivík, who was an exceptional junior in the Žilina program made the move across the Atlantic, and has now secured himself an NHL contract after finishing his junior career and scoring a point per game in the AHL playoffs. Richard Paník and Jaroslav Janus were both part of the 2012 Calder Cup winning Norfolk Admirals team after finishing their junior careers and being drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, it is too early to say whether these players will go on to meet the potential which they clearly have. Two players who seem to have benefited greatly from their experience in the more physical WHL have been the pair of Košice born defencemen, Martin Marinčin  and Martin Gernát, the cornerstone of recent Slovakian national junior teams who are both in the Edmonton Oilers system. Another WHL star, Andrej Kudrna, who scored 82 points in 2010-11 has gone on to secure himself a KHL contract with HC Slovan Bratislava at the tender age of 21. 

There is no doubt that there are potential advantages to going abroad to the CHL, not least the increasing exposure and in recent years, the better likelihood of getting drafted. However, it seems that the players that go on to pursue great things in the CHL are simply better than the majority of players that go over and try to chance it in the CHL. Players such as Hrivík, Kudrna, and Memorial Cup winner Tomáš Jurčo had extremely impressive junior numbers, and seem to have all the tools to make it at the next level. However, it seems for many players that aren't at that elite level, the move to the CHL can be one which has disastrous consequences. No doubt the exposure to different coaching styles, smaller ice, and increasing competition against their North American counterparts can be an exciting prospect for many, but for quite a few players, the move to the CHL fails at setting them up to make the jump to professional hockey. That is why there is many an argument tohave a player stay in their domestic leagues and slowly be blooded in the elite professional league.

Sweden came calling for Matej Paulovič,
but was it the right move?
Photo: Andrej Čičman
A player that seems to have benefited from this is Marko Daňo, who has progressively worked his way up through the Dukla Trenčín system, being given a chance in higher age groups as he grew as a player has seen him make his professional debut at the age of 16, sign a KHL contract at the age of 17, and be Slovakia's top scorer at the World Under 18 Division 1 Championships. There is obviously a long road ahead of him, but over the next two years it will be interesting to compare his progression with the likes of Martin Réway and Tomáš Török, with both of them looking set to make the jump across to the CHL. Another currently playing abroad is big bodied forward Matej Paulovič, who is currently playing in Sweden. However, Paulovič really failed to shine when playing for the Slovakian side at the Under 18 World's, and next season will really be make or break for him.

Do I have a conclusion for what I think is best? Of course not. Each player and each person reacts to different situations in different ways. I believe that for the best young players, it doesn't matter the route that they take as I think they will get to the next level one way or another. However, I can't help thinking that the experience of playing in the Extraliga at the age of 17 or 18 goes a long way to helping a player bridge the gap between junior hockey and professional hockey. Even though he played a season in the WHL, Marian Hossa had already played a season of Extraliga hockey before that, while Marian Gaborik made the jump straight from the Extraliga to the NHL. Many people want the big chance to come quickly. To come on a plate. However, maybe the youngsters of today should be making their decisions more carefully, and take things a bit slower.

Perhaps the juniors of today should take note. More haste, less speed.

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