Roman Cervenka made a little North American noise playing on a line with Jaromir Jagr for the Czech Republic at the Olympics. With two points and a plus-2 rating in five games, his numbers didn’t jump off the page, but given his coming out party in the Czech League, rumors began swirling about him joining Jagr in a trek to the NHL.
Undrafted and unsigned, Cervenka is the latest in a short list of late-blooming European prospects who were overlooked earlier in their careers, but are now being closely watched by NHL franchises. Fabian Brunnstrom, Ville Leino and Jonas Gustavsson come to mind as the most recent examples. And while acquiring a talent such as those without giving up any assets is a low-risk venture, they should also serve as warnings of what realistic expectations should be for Cervenka.
The leading scorer in all of Europe, Cervenka dominated the Czech League with 30 goals and 73 points in 50 games. To give you perspective, Brunnstrom had 37 points in 54 games and Leino 77 in 55 in their last years in Europe; albeit in the tougher Swedish and Finnish leagues, respectively.
While Brunnstrom came over with great fanfare and poured gasoline on the fire with a hat trick in his first NHL game, he’s been stone cold since. A 17-goal first year has regressed to a two-goal, 11-point season that has included 17 healthy scratches and counting. He is only 25 and shouldn’t be completely written off yet, but it’s fair to say he hasn’t had the effect anticipated when visions of Daniel Alfredsson were dancing in our heads.
Leino, 26, grew from a 20-point Finnish League player to a 77-pointer over five seasons. He arrived in American League Grand Rapids last season, scoring 46 points in 57 games and also had five goals and nine points in 13 games with the Red Wings. In the AHL playoffs he notched 13 points in 10 games and was at the top of many Calder Trophy lists heading into 2009-10.
In February, the Red Wings gave up on the project after he posted just four goals and seven points in 42 games – and a number of scratches – in Detroit, shipping him to Philadelphia for stay-at-home defenseman O-K Tollefsen and a fifth round pick. Given what we know about Ken Holland’s staunch preference for scorers over stone hands, the deal is telling of Leino’s acclimation to the NHL and where his next career step may land.
So how good will the 24-year-old Cervenka be? He’s smaller than both Brunnstrom and Leino at 5-foot-11, 187 pounds and he’s also coming from a weaker league than the other two.
“I talked to two Czech (scouts) who say he is a good player, but in the Czech Elite League,” an NHL scout working in Europe told THN.com in an email. “That league isn’t very good. They say he is quite skilled and can score, but they are skeptical he would be a contributor in NHL.
“The only notes I have on him are his lack of size, which would be a problem.”
Not exactly the best review, but it still would be a worthy investment if both sides realize the real possibility of AHL deployment. Given Cervenka’s standing in the Czech League, I’m not sure that would be his first choice.
When it comes down to it, Cervenka can’t be counted on as a top-six producer when rosters are reconstructed this off-season. If he works out as planned it’d be great, but recent history suggests if he has to be a top-liner on a team, that team is starting the year with one foot in the hole. Add in the possibility of a mercurial Jagr coming along with Cervenka and the whole thing starts sounding like a mystery box, with a stable of AHL prospects countering as the safer choice.
Cervenka deserves a shot at the NHL, but teams must be to be careful with how much (ice time, roster spot) you’re willing to offer up to get him to sign the entry level deal.
His North American noise just isn’t enough to guarantee anything, no matter what kind of numbers he’s trumpeting from Europe.
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