Saturday, April 30, 2016

Tightrope: Pribyl Signing Leaves GM Walking Fine Line Between Excitement and Caution

With his signing finally made official by the Flames, my phone conversation Friday afternoon with Calgary GM Brad Treliving was an opportunity to learn more about Daniel Pribyl.

His height -- 6-foot-3, his weight -- 216 pounds, where he played and when he played there, his point totals... been there, read that. Anyone with an Internet browser has been poring over such particulars for weeks, ever since the first rumblings that Calgary was among the NHL teams pursuing the 23-year-old Czech forward.

This was a chance to dig much deeper, to glean more intel on a player that I've never seen play. If there is an Extraliga version of NHL Game Center, I don't subscribe to it and the Czech Republic is where he's spent his entire career.

So, armed with a list of probing questions, I got into it and like any good reporter should do, I began with an easy one. How do you pronounce his last name?

Pree-bull is the phonetic version of his response, accent on the first syllable. "Or at least that's what I've been calling him and he hasn't corrected me yet," chuckles Treliving.

Next up, does he remind you of anyone?

Now this a question met with some hesitation. The humming and hawing at the other end, while saying nothing, is also saying a lot. Clearly it's a question he's reluctant to answer because he knows the risks.

"I hate to use comparables," he finally says. "Let's be clear, this isn't Panarin. They're totally different players."

Fair disclaimer.

While the circumstances may be similar to last summer's coup by the Chicago Blackhawks -- 23-year-old offensive forward signed as a free agent after playing in Europe -- the expectations should not be.

Artemi Panarin just put up 77 points, 21 points more than Jack Eichel who was second in rookie scoring. It was the most productive rookie season since Evgeni Malkin had 85 points for Pittsburgh in 2006-07.

Pumping the Brakes on Expectations

"We are not pencilling him into top line right wing. He's not carrying the franchise on his back to the promised land," says Treliving. "What we've done today is made our reserve list better by adding a player, who fits the profile of the type of needs that we have.

Via HC Sparta Praha website
"He's going to come into camp in September and we'll see where he is at. There's a good likelihood he'll need time in the minors but with a two-year, two-way contract, you're mitigated in terms of your risk. But we think there's upside."

The other reason for caution is to learn from history and avoid a repeat of how things unfolded with the last Czech forward Calgary signed. Four years ago when Roman Cervenka was inked, Flames GM at the time Jay Feaster was guilty of overhyping him, of building up too high of expectations.

After battling through blood clot issues that sidelined him during training camp, Cervenka would score nine goals and 17 points in 39 games -- not bad all things considered -- yet the signing was generally viewed as a failure and he returned to Europe the next season. So you can understand Treliving's desire to downplay expectations.

However, in terms of comparing style of play, Treliving eventually coughs up a couple of names.

When he first saw him, he admits Pribyl reminded him of longtime NHLer and Czech Robert Lang, who Treliving had in Phoenix in 2009-10 for what was the 39-year-old's final NHL season.

"He's built differently than Robert, who was a real thick guy, Daniel is more lean, but he's got big, strong legs and he's got a good frame on him. Robert was also a smart offensive player."

San Jose centre Tomas Hertl is another name that comes up although again, not in terms of future projections. After all, Hertl was drafted 17th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft, one year after Pribyl was a sixth round pick of the Montreal Canadiens,.

"He's a little bit like a Hertl when he came into the league. Now Hertl is a terrific player, but during his draft year, you worried a little bit about his skating and that's improved. So he's that style of player."

Lots to Like

With the disclaimers out there and on the record, Treliving did have plenty of complimentary things to say about the Pribyl, who was sought after by multiple NHL teams and with 45 points (16 goals, 29 assists) in 45 games, finished second in 2015-16 in league scoring. Here's a delicious plot twist. The only guy with more points? Roman Cervenka.

Via HC Sparta Praha website
Pribyl also had 11 points (5 goals, 6 assists) in nine playoff games before getting hurt.

"He's a big body, a long, lean guy, but he's a skilled player. This isn't a guy that's going to run you over," says Treliving. "His assets are real soft hands and real quick hands, a big reach and an ability to make plays in small spaces. He sees the ice real well too."

As for his skating, there's room to get better but Treliving didn't sound overly concerned.

"His skating is fine. He's not a dynamic skater by any stretch. He's got to improve in terms of quickness off the mark, in terms of an explosiveness, but once he's in motion, he has a long stride."

Credit for identifying Pribyl early, tracking him and getting him over the finish line goes to a trio of Flames scouts. European amateur scout Bobbie Hagelin, based out of Sweden, played a role. So did North America and Europe pro scout Todd Woodcroft and North America pro scout Derek MacKinnon. Treliving tipped his cap to the latter two in particular for taking the lead on this one. Involved was multiple trips overseas to the Czech Republic as Pribyl had been on Calgary's radar going back to last year.

However, it was this season that things really took off for him as he posted the best offensive totals of his career.

Pribyl's scoring statistics with HC Sparta Praha:
  • 2011-12 - 17 gm, 2-0-2 (0.12 PPG)
  • 2012-13 - 42 gm, 12-10-22 (0.52 PPG)
  • 2013-14 - 46 gm, 9-16-25 (0.54 PPG)
  • 2014-15 - 21 gm, 8-7-15 (0.71 PPG)
  • 2015-16 - 45 gm, 16-29-45 (1.00 PPG)

Coveting His Right-Hand Shot

"He's a late-developing guy. He's not 18 or 19, he's 23 and we feel his body is physically developed and his game has been developing too. At times, he was a real dominant player this year," says Treliving. "As the season progressed, I kept hearing more and more about him. The attractive part is his size, his skill and he has a right-hand curve on his stick and that's somewhat unique on the old depth chart."

Isn't that the truth.

At the end of the NHL season, the only right-hand shooting regular forward on the Flames roster was Josh Jooris, who is a pending RFA. That's it. There's not a lot of help on the way either. At Stockton, the only right-shooters up front were Garnet Hathaway, Austin Carroll, Hunter Smith, Freddie Hamilton, Drew Shore and Bill Arnold. The last three also being pending RFAs.

Treliving says finding right-hand shots isn't imperative but it is a focus.

"Is it an area we'd like to strengthen? Absolutely. But it's not let's just go out and sign everybody that shoots right and see if they're any good later. You still go with talent, ability and where they fit in terms of how you build your team."

Via HC Sparta Praha website
Treliving adds that where a right-shot up front would be a nice addition is on the power play, which was ranked last in the NHL for much of the season.

"It gives you that second option. You look at the Washington power play this year. It's significantly improved. You've got (Alex) Ovechkin sitting on one spot. Having (TJ) Oshie come in there as a right-shot in the middle of a diamond, it changes the look. It's another option and it gives you another weapon for people to be concerned about."

While Pribyl has spent most his career at centre, he played some of last season on the right side and make no mistake, that's where the Flames plan to deploy him.

"As we went through this process, we talked to him about our plan, which is to start him on the right side. The right wing position is not a strength of ours right now. This may help."

Recovering From ACL Surgery

Another question is how quickly will he be ready to play. Pribyl suffered a torn ACL in early April during the semi-finals. As a result, he missed missed the league final in which his team lost four games to two.

The surgery was performed in Calgary earlier this week. He will spend a majority of the summer in town with Flames doctors and other staff overseeing not only his rehab and but also getting him conditioned to be ready for training camp.

While it can vary, the typical recovery timeline on ACL surgery is six months. So we'll have to wait and see if he'll be ready for rookie camp in early September. At this point, that seems overly optimistic but the good news is the injury wasn't as bad as it could have been.

"It is a significant injury, but if you're going to have an ACL tear, our medical staff looked at it and said this is as good as it could be," says Treliving. "There's no structural damage, there's no meniscus or bone issues, there's no collateral damage there. A lot of times with an ACL, once you get in, you see other problems, but there was none of that. This was as clean as you can get it in terms of an ACL tear."

The reality is coming over to North America for the first time, stepping right into an NHL line-up was always going to be a big ask. It will be even more difficult if he misses all or a part of training camp. Getting back to speed in the American Hockey League could be the smart move, especially considering you can do so without issue.

"I've had a lot of experience with these things. There's a physical and a mental part. A lot of times after an ACL injury, you'll be back playing, but you may not be back to the level that you were at prior for some time," Treliving says. "You have to take that all into consideration."

The Right Thing To Do

Via HC Sparta Praha website
What speaks volumes about the Flames fondness for the player and his character, Calgary had the option after he tore up his knee to walk away from the deal, but chose not to.

"When he got injured, we had the ability to say you know what, we're going to pass. But we felt strongly that we had done the recruiting process, he got injured but we still felt we believe in this kid, we're going to stick by him, we're going to do what we feel is the right thing to do," says Treliving.

"Players get hurt. We felt that the risk to bring him in was still mitigated. Plus, if you're going to get hurt, better to get hurt in April than in November. Now he has all summer to get ready and this still gives us the full two years to see if we have a player here or not."

Even if the recovery goes slow, Treliving says it's still a worthwhile investment.

"Let's say it takes him a year to get back and maybe he's playing in the minors during that time. Still, at the end of the day, next year you have a 24-year-old who is still 6-foot-3 and highly skilled."

Value Contracts Key in a Cap World

The Flames hope he pans out because on an entry-level contract, he'd be making less than $1 milllion in NHL salary and that's the type of value contract the Flames will need on their roster going forward considering the big raises coming to Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan in particular and Joe Colborne also.

"In today's game, you have to cast a wide net. Talent is coming from all corners of the universe now. You can't be limited to one spot, or one place, or one avenue. You need to find talent wherever you can find it," says Treliving.

"In this system where your hope is you're going to have young players that eventually grow and you're going to have to pay them accordingly, you have to find players that fit in certain roles at a skill level set that helps you win but also at a dollar that is manageable," says Treliving.

The attraction with this signing is it's addition without subtraction. It doesn't cost you an asset.

"I look at this as a swing at the plate," he says. "Where he goes and progresses from that, only training camp and the preseason and the months ahead will tell, but we've made ourselves a little deeper at a position and in areas that we need to get deeper in."

But one last time, Treliving implores everyone to just see how it plays out.

"I can't be any more emphatic about just letting this kid play. We're not telling him to buy property or anything yet."

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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