The Calgary Flames waded into murky waters Wednesday with the signing of center Roman Cervenka, a 26-year-old Czech free agent who has spent the past two years in the Kontinental League. With bonuses, Cervenka’s cap hit will reach $3.775 million next season, so it’s no small commitment from GM Jay Feaster, who believes the veteran to be a top-six forward.
But we’ve heard this story from around the NHL before, haven’t we? There was Colorado’s signing of the Milan Hedjuk-approved Jaroslav Hlinka in 2007. Then the Fabian Brunnstrom sweepstakes in ’08, ostensibly “won” by Dallas – you can now find the Swedish left winger on his fourth different American League team in Grand Rapids. Then there was Ville Leino, who also came in ’08 and was touted as the “Finnish Fabian Brunnstrom.”
With 21 points in 19 playoff games for Philadelphia during the Flyers’ 2010 run to the Stanley Cup final, Leino did in fact make a brief mark on the NHL. Of course, it was the Red Wings who initially signed him and now it’s the Buffalo Sabres wondering if the 25 points he contributed this season will be the norm during the six-year, $27 million contract he signed in the summer.
But hey, maybe Cervenka is different. (*cough*)
It’s not shocking how trendy the NHL can be and with scouting so much better than it used to be, finding a Martin St-Louis or John Madden just doesn’t happen as much. You’ve got the European cohort and you’ve got the college free agent group.
With the NCAA kids, hype has also been a harbinger for disappointment. Christian Hanson is already on his second NHL organization and the Capitals had him in Hershey all season. Matt Gilroy, incredibly, is on his third NHL team in two seasons and played sparingly in Ottawa’s first round loss to the Rangers. Casey Wellman never played more than 15 games in three seasons for Minnesota before the Wild dished him off to those same Blueshirts (where he went straight to Connecticut).
Maple Leafs fans will tell you that Tyler Bozak is a top-line center in Toronto, but Maple Leaf haters will also tell you that Tyler Bozak is a top-line center in Toronto. To be fair, 47 points in 73 games this year is not awful, but when Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul are your linemates most of the time and they’re having career seasons, it’s a little puzzling.
If you want to find successful college free agents, go to Philadelphia. Matt Read was a dynamic two-way player this season, killing penalties and putting up points. The most likely reason he wasn’t nominated for the Calder Trophy is that fellow Flyers freshman Sean Couturier was also pretty effective and I have to imagine there was some vote splitting (and hey, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog and Adam Henrique are all excellent candidates).
Read came out of Bemidji State in Minnesota with much less fanfare than the Bozaks and Gilroys of the world and with lack of expectations he was able to excel in a specific role and build on it.
Scouts will admit that sometimes players slip through the cracks – this year’s draft will see second and third chances given in the form of Tomas Hyka, Nikita Gusev and Tanner Pearson (though Pearson’s late-blooming growth makes him much more deserving this year than last) – but expectations need to be tempered with players who went past their entire draft due dates. When Gilroy initially joined New York, he was a 25-year-old defenseman who had won the Hobey Baker Award with Boston University the year before. Dominating college at that age shouldn’t be a checkmark – it should be a baseline standard, just as lighting up the KHL in his mid-20s doesn’t mean Cervenka will become a star over here.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN’s associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.