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Playing with the big boys: Islanders' Skarek has stayed step ahead of his peers

Never shy to move up a level, netminder Jakub Skarek embraces the challenge and opportunity of older competition.

Goalie Jakub Skarek has been playing above his age for years, and he doesn’t see any reason to stop now. “It’s really helpful,” he said. “I’ve always had great teammates that helped me a lot. It’s better to play older hockey than junior hockey, because the NHL is all older players.”

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Skarek, 18, first played against men in 2015-16, getting into 20 games for second-tier squad Dukla Jihlava. The next year, he made his Czech League debut with famed Sparta Praha and dazzled with four wins in four games, including one shutout and a .946 save percentage. Bouncing between the Czech League and second tier last season, Skarek posted good numbers – though not as lofty as on his Praha debut. A big netminder at 6-foot-3, he has a solid butterfly technique and brings an aggressive approach to the crease. He tries to play his own style but also studies top-flight NHL stoppers such as Sergei Bobrovsky and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The Islanders grabbed Skarek with the 72nd pick in the 2018 draft, and his heavy international portfolio couldn’t have hurt: he has already played for the Czechs at two world junior tournaments, though last year he was overshadowed by the older Josef Korenar. The Sharks prospect stole games for the Czechs en route to the semifinal, though Skarek also got to play a decent amount. “It’s always great to play on the international team, especially the world juniors,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest tournaments in the world. I have one more chance in Vancouver, and I want to show what I can do.”

Depending on the personnel available (Filip Zadina, for example), the Czechs could be strong at the WJC this year. After some fallow years, the program is churning out more players with NHL potential, and Skarek sees it as a nationwide effort. “All coaches in all clubs are working well with the young guys,” he said. “They’re putting players at a young age in older hockey, and it’s great for experience. Czech hockey is getting better every day.”

Having said that, Skarek has moved to the Finnish League this season, where he’s playing for Lahti. He got off to a great start, posting some of the best stats in the league. If he’s in top form for the WJC, the Czechs surely won’t mind the move.

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This story appears in the Prospects Unlimited 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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