It has become common the past couple of years to see rookies make themselves right at home in the NHL. It’s reminiscent of the neighbor’s kid who breezes through your front door uninvited, grabs a Coke from the fridge then plops down in your recliner.
The sense of entitlement can be maddening.
From Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby a few years back, through Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane, right up to current Calder candidates like Drew Doughty and Steve Mason, a lot of first-year players are performing like young dudes who’ve never heard of dues.
But not every freshman is immediately a big man on campus. Some still live in fear of being stuffed in a locker before realizing they can indeed play with the big boys.
Michael Frolik just slipped in under the fence in Florida, but he’s been making steady progress ever since.
“I give him full marks,” Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said. “He started the season as our extra forward, as a 14th forward, he barely made the team out of training camp and he paid his dues, he started on the fourth line and worked his way up to the first-second line. No one has handed him anything and those are the type of players you like to see succeed.”
If you catch Frolik frolicking to and from the rink these days, it’s because he’s productively playing right wing on a line with center Stephen Weiss and left winger Cory Stillman. That’s a far cry from where Frolik started – as a healthy scratch in three of Florida’s first four games.
Frolik wasn’t put off by having to watch games. In his mind, the mere fact he’d cracked an NHL lineup meant things were moving ahead of schedule.
“It was my dream to play in the NHL and I didn’t think I’d get it yet,” said the 10th overall pick from the 2006 draft. “I thought, ‘Just play and it will (come) later.’ ”
Later became sooner when Florida forwards began dropping like flies.
“After we got a couple injuries, we got like four, five, six forwards injured, you know it helps young players like me and I was getting to play with skill players like Weiss and ‘Stiller,’ ” Frolik said.
While the 20-year-old did eventually land a front-line forward gig, it certainly didn’t start out that way. DeBoer started Frolik with limited minutes to see what the kid would do with a small window of opportunity.
“How you get a coach’s confidence is you make sure in those six, seven minutes a night that you’re getting the job done and I think he’s done things the right way,” said DeBoer, himself a first-year NHLer behind the bench.
It took Frolik 15 games to find the back of the net, but since then he’s put up 10 more goals and 22 points in 32 contests.
“I waited a long time for the first goal, but after that the pressure was gone and it was good,” the young Czech laughed.
A very respectable 20-goal rookie year is well within Frolik’s reach, especially if he keeps up his current level of play.
“Michael’s been outstanding,” DeBoer said. “He’s turned into a top-six forward in this league as a 20-year-old.”
A number of assets – including a deadly release – have helped Frolik achieve that label. Speed and skill make him stand out, but so does the fact he stands up when other young players are inclined to sit down.
“He plays the game the right way, he battles hard for pucks, he’s not afraid to go take a hit to make a play, he’s strong defensively and it’s hard to believe he’s only 20 years old,” DeBoer said.
Added Stillman, who is 15 years older than his linemate: “Whether you’re 18 or 38, you can tell when a player has confidence and he has that right now and it’s good. You can see the difference (he can make) when he has it.”
Whatever you want to say about the development in Frolik’s game, DeBoer pointed to one sure sign the rookie has earned his place in the league.
“The biggest compliment Michael Frolik gets,” said DeBoer, “is when veteran guys like Cory Stillman and Stephen Weiss want to play on a line with him.”
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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