Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Opportunity Knocks for Roman Horak

If there’s one topic that’s been discussed more in Calgary this summer than the weather, it’s been the Flames lack of depth at centre.

Heck, even Roman Horak talked about it when I caught up with him after the second of two scrimmages held during the Calgary Flames Development Camp.

“For sure, it’s a huge opportunity, ” said the 22-year-old Czech, one of the candidates for the four jobs up the middle. “There’s a bunch of new guys coming in and all the centres are fighting for spots.  Right now, obviously there’s Matt Stajan, Mikael Backlund, then there’s going to be battles for spots so obviously I’m going to try to do my best to earn one of those spots.”

Of the 44 players at the development camp, Horak was by far the most decorated in terms of NHL service time having accumulated 81 games with Calgary his first two seasons, 56 more than next best Sven Baertschi.

Great Trade in the Most Difficult of Circumstances

Horak was acquired by the Flames on June 1, 2011, coming over from the New York Rangers in exchange for disgruntled prospect Tim Erixon, who the Flames drafted 23rd overall in 2009. Erixon’s refusal to sign with the Flames forced new Calgary General Manager Jay Feaster into salvage mode and despite the gun to his head, Feaster ended up faring quite nicely. In exchange for the Swedish defenceman and a fifth round pick, Feaster got Horak and two second round picks in 2011. Those picks turned out be Finnish centre Markus Granlundwho had an excellent development camp, and highly touted blue-liner Tyler Wotherspoon.

Horak, a fifth round pick by the Rangers in 2009, also had a solid development camp for the Flames.  With Ben Hanowski skating as his left-winger in both scrimmages, the two of them played well together. I thought Horak showed assertiveness, confidence and a veteran’s poise at both ends of the ice. Contributing to Horak’s veteran ‘look’ was the jersey number on his back. Gone was the unconventional No. 51 and stitched on in its place was No. 21, the same number worn by Andrew Cassels in the late 90s and on some pretty bad Flames teams, Cassels was one of the more dependable centres.

“Yeah, I’ll keep this one. It’s not one of those high numbers so it feels a little more ‘mature’ I guess,” said Horak with a chuckle. He said he received a call prior to the camp from Flames Equipment Manager Mark DePasquale. “He asked me if I wanted to change numbers. I asked him what options he had and he gave me a few numbers and I picked 21.”

A Bunch of Scoring in Bunches

It was during the NHL lockout last season, while wearing No. 20 with the Abbotsford Heat, that Horak showed the most promise yet with a scorching hot streak to start the year.

With the AHL as competitive as it gets thanks to the many NHLers playing in the minors due to the lockout, Horak got off to a blazing start racking up 10 goals in his first nine games while peppering the opposing goalie with 34 shots over that span. The bad news is he would score just six goals in the final 52 games. There was a correlation. After averaging nearly fours shots per game that first four weeks, Horak averaged less than two shots per game the rest of the season.

His fast start did confirm one thing we’d seen already seen from Horak in his young career and that is he’s a streaky scorer. Horak played 61 games with Calgary his rookie season in 2011-12 and that year, two of his three goals and four of his seven points came in back-to-back home games in late October.  Not co-incidentally, those two games were also the top two that season in terms of his ice time. Horak says production hinges greatly on opportunity.

“It all depends on where the coach puts you. I can play an offensive role, too. In Abbotsford last year, I had a good start to the season," said Horak, who finished second on the Heat in goals behind Krys Kolanos. “But if the coach says you’re going to play fourth line, you can’t expect to have 20 minutes of ice time. It all depends on how much you play and if you’re going to play first two lines, you have a different role than third or fourth line.”

Stuck in the Middle

As we look at the depth chart for Calgary as it stacks up today -- pending any late dips into free agency, you can pencil Backlund in as the No. 1 centre. Stajan was arguably the Flames most consistent player last year in what was a nice bounce-back season so it would be easy to simply slot him in as No. 2. However, I’d suggest Stajan’s game is more conducive to a third line role. Corban Knight is fresh out of U.S. college and considering his strength is his defensive prowess, he’s probably best-suited for the fourth line to begin his pro career -- if he makes the big club. Conceivably, that leaves a second line centre position open if you’re of the mindset, which I am, that 2013 sixth overall pick Sean Monahan is best served with one more year of seasoning in the OHL (i.e. Not burning the first year of his entry-level contract on a Flames team going nowhere this season.)

 “The way I look at it, wherever they put me, I’m just going to do my best to be part of the team,” said Horak. “Obviously one day, I’d like to play top six but there are so many good players so it’s going to be a battle.”

While a long season lies ahead for the rebuilding Flames, Horak likes the direction the team is going, acknowledging that this year’s development camp was a better calibre than in years past.

“It was a higher tempo, for sure,” Horak admits.  “It was good. It was tough for me because before I came here, I skated only twice so it’s always hard to adjust to game speed again. The second game was good. I felt better, I felt stronger on the puck.  But still, it’s the middle of summer and I still have some time to get into game shape and that’s what I’m going work on when I go back home now.”

Team Identity in the Making

While Calgary may not win many games in 2013-14, Horak says they’re not going to get outworked.

“Everyone knows Bob (Hartley).  He demands that his players be in the best shape and you could see it, it’s why we’re doing mountains and all this skating in the middle of summer,” Horak said. “We’re going to be the best-conditioned team in the league and that’s where we’re going to start.”

If the older, regular season version of the Calgary Flames play with the same energy and enthusiasm that the younger, July version of the team displayed during development camp, maybe this isn’t merely a start, but more so is the start to something good.

Related Development Camp Reading

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