No questioning Horak's desire to reach NHL
Czech center, 19, takes every step necessary to adjust to North America
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
From a distance, it's hard enough to determine the mindset of any 18-year-old, let alone a prospect for the annual NHL Entry Draft. Sometimes, however, the developmental path a teen chooses after being drafted says a lot about his determination to maximize the opportunity presented to him.
For young drafted European players, the first step can be the most important one, especially since it displays a willingness to leave home for the unknown. While many drafted Europeans must initially return to their European club teams for contractual reasons, others are in position to make a choice.
The less restricted group of overseas players can continue to build on their international success or join a major-junior team and begin adapting to smaller ice surfaces and the North American lifestyle right away.
Roman Horak, a 6-foot-0, 189-pound Czech center picked by the Rangers in the fifth round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft at Montreal, is among those adventurous young Europeans who reveal something about their character by immediately moving thousands of miles in pursuit of their NHL dream.
Horak, a junior star in his native Ceske Budejovice, had just turned 18 when the Blueshirts drafted him, but within a few months, he was in Chilliwack, British Columbia, with the Western Hockey League's Bruins.
|Center Roman Horak didn't have to leave Western Canada to gain some international experience during his highly productive rookie year in the WHL, as he skated for the seventh-place Czechs at the 2010 World Junior tournament in Saskatchewan.|
Horak's commitment to learning English and blending in with North American players over the past season is a true indication of how serious he is about playing in the NHL one day.
Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel, got a strong sense Horak's determination when he saw Chilliwack play in the opening round of this year's WHL playoffs. The Bruins fell to heavily favored Tri-City in an intense six-game series, as Horak tied for the team scoring lead with two goals and four assists for six points. Clark said he was thoroughly impressed with Horak's performance against Tri-City, and no less impressed by some off-ice information he learned.
"I was waiting to talk to him after a playoff game, and I was talking to one of the Chilliwack owners," said Clark. "It turned out that Horak had clearly told the owner -- before the playoffs were even over -- that he already wanted to set up additional English lessons for next year. He wants to take more lessons to be better at speaking English, but I have no problem understanding him. His English is actually pretty good."
Although it lasted only one round, the 2010 WHL postseason experience was particularly valuable to Horak, who stepped it up with one of his best performances in Game 5 at Tri-City on March 26. He had three assists in that unforgettable 4-3 comeback victory by the Bruins, and all of those points came in the game’s late stages, beginning with a power-play assist at 2:30 of the third period that cut the lead to 3-2. With only 1:34 left, and his team facing elimination, Horak assisted on Ryan Howse's tying goal. He closed out his remarkable night with the primary assist on Kevin Sundher's game-winner at 7:16 of overtime.
Horak's ability to deliver in big games was no surprise to Clark and others who had seen him represent the Rangers at last September's Traverse City Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich. Playing a key role for a Rangers team that won its last three games to finish third overall in the tournament, Horak had a goal and three assists in the four games. That included a two-assist game in the Blueshirts' finale.
Horak began the tournament centering the Rangers' fourth line in the team's lone loss to Carolina. Despite seeing fewer minutes, he managed to tie the score 3-3 at 5:10 of the third period before the Hurricanes pulled away for a 5-3 win.
His impressive play in Game 1 led to a job centering the second line for the rest of the tournament. In a 4-1 win over the Thrashers, he assisted on the Rangers' first goal to tie the score late in the first. In the next game, a thrilling 4-3 win over host Detroit, his outstanding forechecking work led to his team's first goal.
During the Blueshirts' 5-4 win over St. Louis in the tournament's third-place game, Horak was at his best. He assisted on a goal by Evgeny Grachev at 10:54 of the second period to tie game at 2-2. Then, in the wild third period, he assisted on a goal by Luke Walker that tied the game 4-4 with just 5:36 remaining in regulation. Horak's pass came out from behind the net to Walker, whose goal set the stage for Grachev's game-winner just 94 seconds later.
|Roman Horak was one of the most impressive Rangers performers at the 2009 Traverse City Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., as he played a key role in the team's drive to third place.|
"Watching him in the first game at Traverse City, where he had his first shot at playing in the North American style and against seven other teams' top prospects, I thought it might be a little tough for him in junior this year," said Clark. "But he might have been the most improved (of the Rangers prospects) in terms of where he started that tournament and where he finished both the tournament and his season."
By the time he got to Traverse City, Horak had already played in WHL preseason games. After Traverse City, he returned to the Bruins and helped them earn the WHL Western Conference's final playoff spot.
Horak was named the First Star of the game two times as a rookie and was among the Three Stars eight times in the regular-season. He had 11 multi-point games in the regular season and the three-assist effort in the postseason. He also had three two-goal games.
"I saw him in Chilliwack a few times this year, and I was really consistently pleased with his performance," said Ernie Gare, a Rangers amateur scout who focuses on Western Canada and the U.S. "... I think Roman's main asset is his speed because he plays at a good tempo. He also has good hockey sense and can make plays off the rush. He's learning how to win faceoffs, which he really improved at over the year."
Horak's most explosive performance of 2009-10 came in a 6-4 home win over Portland on Nov. 20. He scored at 12:41 of the first period to make it 2-0, assisted on a shorthanded goal by Howse at 9:54 of the second for a 3-1 lead, and scored his own shorthanded goal at 0:55 of the third to make it 5-3. The shorthanded goal stood up as the game-winner.
"He goes to the hard areas and the tough areas, even though he's not someone that's going to be laying guys out with big bodychecks," said Gare. "He sticks his nose in there in those tough areas and he has a willingness to go there in order to score or if it's needed on the forecheck to try to turn the puck over."
On Dec. 12, Horak capped off a two-point night against Prince George by scoring a shorthanded goal at 17:46 of the first. That goal was the game-winner in a 5-2 Chilliwack victory. In a 3-2 win at Prince Albert on Feb. 24, he scored two unassisted goals. The first came at 16:08 of the opening period for a 2-1 lead, and the second, at 4:16 of the second, was the game-winner.
Horak also had an impressive seven-game point streak from Oct. 17 to Nov. 11, picking up four goals and four assists to help Chilliwack to a 4-2-1 record over the seven-game span.
"He competes and he plays with a consistent effort game in and game out," Gare said of Horak. "He's very responsible in his end. As a centerman, you've got to play defense and help the defensemen out in your own end, and he did that well. ... His coaches are very high on him, too. They like his work ethic and tell me that he works very hard off-ice as well. He's a determined kid. He's a guy who's really going to chip in with some offense while being really responsible defensively."
Playing most of the season on a line with left wing Howse, a Calgary Flames third-round pick who had already spent two previous seasons in Chilliwack, Horak was at his best killing penalties, as he scored a team leading five shorthanded goals and assisted on a few others by Howse.
Horak also played for the Czech team at the 2010 World Junior Championship tournament in Saskatchewan. He scored a goal in a 4-3 loss to the Finns and assisted on another that briefly tied Russia in the third period of an eventual 5-2 loss.
Scouts agree that to establish himself as an even better NHL prospect, Horak must continue to focus on his conditioning and build up his strength.
"He's got a lot of good things going for him," said Gare. "He just has to get stronger right now. I think that's going to be his task this summer back in the Czech Republic. He's going to try to put some muscle on his frame, and I think that will help all areas of his game. ... The effort and determination are there. It's just a case of him working to get stronger and fill that frame out."
With so much natural talent already in his possession, gaining strength should be no problem for Horak in the years to come. If the way he has thrown himself into both major-junior hockey and North American culture are any example, Rangers fans can be sure he will do whatever it takes to give himself the best chance to make it to the NHL.
"I spoke with Roman a couple times this season, and he seems to really get it," said Gare. "He understands that he needs to get stronger as many players at his age do, but he knows, just from talking to him, I get a sense that he really knows what it's going to take to get to the NHL."