Instead of learning at home, Euro teens are being brought over early by their teams to get acclimated to the North American game
The Czech Republic came into the 2015 world juniors with high expectations thanks to its deepest lineup in years. But glory wasn’t to be had. The Czechs struggled throughout their stay in Toronto, and everything ended with a dispirited quarterfinal loss to a much more game underdog squad from Slovakia. One player who didn’t disappoint, however, was
David Pastrnak, the Boston Bruins first-rounder who had been playing in the AHL. Had his team gone further at the world juniors, Pastrnak would have garnered more consideration for the tourney’s all-star team because of his combination of talent and drive. But even in the midst of the event, he knew his time in the AHL had been valuable so far. “It’s definitely different hockey,” he said. “I try to do my best, but sometimes it doesn’t go well and you feel bad. I have to get better with everything. I’m not satisfied right now.”
The kid might have been a tad too hard on himself. Fast-forward a week or two and the Bruins were more than satisfied. Pastrnak, who had ripped the AHL for 10 goals and 27 points in 24 games with Providence, was called up to the big squad and quickly worked his way up to being the top line right winger. His center was
David Krejci, a player the B’s hope Pastrnak will turn into one day.
Pastrnak, who had been playing in Sweden before this season, is the most successful case so far in a wave of European teenagers who have been brought into the AHL this year. William Nylander (Toronto) and Kevin Fiala (Nashville) also went from the Swedish League to North America’s second-best circuit, while Finland’s Julius Honka is honing his craft in Texas with Dallas’ affiliate.
Honka, an offensive defenseman who skates well and handles the puck with confidence, is a bit of an outlier in the group, since he played major junior last season with Swift Current of the WHL. But based on how his rights had been loaned out by Finnish club JYP, Honka couldn’t go back to the Broncos this season. The options were JYP or the Texas Stars. Honka, a 2014 first-rounder, played at the Red Wings-hosted rookie tournament in the fall, and that’s where he really opened some eyes. “When we saw him in Traverse City, he was one of the best players in the whole tournament,” said Mark Janko, Dallas’ director of hockey administration. “He definitely has the skill set to play in the pro game. It’s good for him and good for our organization.” Nylander and Fiala really turned the AHL Euro teen thing into a trend when their organizations brought them over after the world juniors. Nylander, selected eighth overall by the Maple Leafs in 2014, had been playing very well for a Modo team that was flailing at the bottom of the Swedish League standings and getting pushed around so much they signed Donald Brashear as a policeman. Though Nylander was familiar with North American rinks from his youth (as the son of ex-NHLer
Michael Nylander, William was born in Calgary and played for minor hockey teams in Maryland and Chicago), joining the AHL’s Marlies allowed him to get the full-on experience of pro hockey on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. “It’s hard to compare,” Nylander said. “It’s a lot more down-and-back, a lot of north-south. Back home it’s a little more east-west.” In Nylander’s early games with the Marlies, his strengths and weaknesses were obvious. The kid has great speed and a smart hockey mind to go with highlight-reel hands, but he still needs to figure out how to get around defenders more than happy to give him the business as he tries to create chances. Luckily, that’s just what the AHL can do for a young player. “He has good vision out there, and when he’s moving his feet he creates a lot,” said Marlies coach Gord Dineen. “He just has to figure out a little more of the structure that we play. He’s on a learning curve, and we expect him to make mistakes, but he’s going to get there.” The same can be said for Fiala, a dynamic Swiss national who had been playing in Sweden for HV71 before coming to the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. Fiala’s new coach, Dean Evason, said Nylander’s extraction from Sweden prompted the similar action Nashville took with its 2014 first-rounder (Fiala went 11th overall), and he’s more than happy to work with the Swiss sniper. “He’s clearly a gifted athlete and hockey player,” Evason said. “He plays hard, practises hard and he’s a real committed athlete, which has helped him fit in right away.” There have been the expected growing pains but, as with Nylander, the AHL is the perfect fit for Fiala, especially if the Predators see him as a viable NHLer sooner than later. “Although he played pro in Sweden, it’s a different game here,” Evason said. “You could tell in his first game. The time and space he had in Sweden wasn’t there.” The lesson-learning has been crucial already, however. Naturally, AHL foes targeted the new kid in Fiala’s first games with Milwaukee, and in one case he took a retaliatory slashing penalty. Evason and the coaching staff told him after the game that he had to be smarter out there, but at the same time they were happy he pushed back instead of just taking the abuse. While the high-flying Preds aren’t suffering in the depth department, getting Fiala up to speed quickly means one more weapon at Nashville’s disposal. Playing against men is one of the big advantages European prospects have in their development tracks, but players born and raised in North America get a head start battling on a smaller ice surface with players who are more inclined to physically test their opponents. For players such as Pastrnak, Honka, Nylander and Fiala, they’re getting the best of both worlds at an early point in their careers.
This feature appears in the Playoff Preview 2015 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.