Luka Gračnar knows that it has only happened once before.
In the years since the NHL Entry Draft has become universal, there has only been one goalie from Slovenia selected. That distinction belongs to Jure Penko, who was chosen 203rd overall in 2000 by the Nashville Predators. At the time, though, Penko was playing for the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, technically making him a North American prospect. Despite the incredible talent in goal in Slovenia, most of the netminders in that country emerge playing in that country or in other countries where they cannot get the recognition they deserve. That is why it is incredible and felicitatious to see that Gračnar, who plays for EC Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, could very well become the first one to hear his name while playing in Europe.
A native of Jesenice, Gračnar has been a remarkably accomplished goaltender during his career, both with club teams and on the international stage. He started playing under-20 hockey in his native Slovenia at the age of fourteen with the junior team of HD Mladi Jesenice in 2007-08. That same season, he even played in four games for their top professional team. After not playing at all during the 2008-09 season, Gračnar returned with a vengeance in 2009-10. The then sixteen-year-old netminder had a goals-against average of 1.50 in nineteen games with Mladi’s under-20 team and he even recorded a 2.27 GAA in 25 games with their Slohokej Liga team, incredible for a teenage goaltender playing professional hockey.
Also in 2009-10, Gračnar began representing Slovenia internationally. This allowed for him to truly assert himself as one of the best goaltenders in the country, regardless of his youth. He played at the 2009 World Junior Championships and, as a sixteen-year-old in his first tournament, he was easily their #1 netminder and his statistics reflected it. Gračnar had a 1.47 goals-against average and a sparkling .948% save percentage in four games to help Slovenia win bronze at the tournament. Later on that season, he donned the SLOVENIJA jersey once again, this time at the World Under-18s. Gračnar had a minuscule 1.09 goals-against average and a .915% save percentage in four games to help Slovenia win gold.
In 2010, Gračnar decided to take his career to the next level. He moved to Austria to play for the under-18 team of EC Salzburg, one of the best known teams in the Erste Bank Eishockeyliga. Gračnar was spectacular. He had a 2.28 goals-against average and a .931% save percentage in 26 games with the U18 team, in addition to playing nine combined games with both the EBEL and Nationalliga teams. Gračnar has actually been credited with winning the 2011 Austrian Championship with Salzburg, too, having been called up for their victory. He represented Slovenia twice more internationally that season, winning silver medals at both the World Juniors and the World Under-18s. At the World Juniors, Gračnar had a 2.89 goals-against average and an .895% save percentage in five games, allowing the then 17-year-old to be named the tournament’s top goalie. At the World Under-18s, he was named the top player on his team after recording a 2.35 goals-against average and a .930% save percentage in five games.
During the 2011-12 season, Gračnar graduated to EC Salzburg II, the team’s under-20 affiliate. He had another incredible season, recording a 2.12 goals-against average and a .929% save percentage in 25 games. He also played at his third World Junior Championships, recording a 2.45 goals-against average and a .915% save percentage; remarkably, though, Slovenia did not medal despite Gračnar’s stellar play. As well, in his first year of eligibility (he has a late 1993 birthdate), he was not chosen or even ranked for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
This season, however, has brought in even more accolades for Gračnar. After only two games on the under-20 team, he was promoted to the EBEL team full-time. Sharing the crease with former NHL goalie Alex Auld, Gračnar has once again had fantastic statistics. In 23 games thus far, he has recorded a 2.37 goals-against average and a .924% save percentage. He just finished participating in his fourth and final World Junior Championship, recording a 2.76 goals-against average and a .941% save percentage in five games en route to being named the top player on his team and the tournament’s top goalie. He has even been named to the roster for Slovenia’s Olympic Games qualification team.
When the NHL Central Scouting midseason rankings came out in January, many of the goaltenders listed from Europe did not change. There was, however, one curious addition. Gračnar had been ranked fifth. It seemed as though someone was finally noticing just how fantastic his career has been. It also helps that, during the 2012 lockout, he was teammates with some NHL players, including Derick Brassard, Tobias Enström and David Clarkson. In addition, he has been able to train not only with Salzburg’s goalie coach, Patrick Dallaire, but also with François Allaire, who has been a goalie coach for the Calgary Flames and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
If there is anything that has really helped Gračnar prepare for life as an NHL prospect, it is having a connection to one of the league’s brightest rising stars. Growing up in Jesenice, he lived on the same street as Anže Kopitar and his family. In fact, he and Kopitar’s younger brother Gašper would play street hockey together with Anže in net. Gračnar has watched his childhood friend become the first Slovene to be a first-round NHL draft pick, player, all-star and Stanley Cup champion. He actually celebrated with Kopitar when he brought hockey’s Holy Grail home to Jesenice this past summer.
Gračnar getting drafted could be another key reason for celebration in Slovenia, especially for his fellow goalies who look up to him. The fact that an NHL team is finally looking at netminders from the small Balkan nation is an amazing development, much like the drafting (and redrafting) of Frederik Andersen did for Denmark and of both Steffen Søberg and Lars Volden did for Norway. Due to the lack of suitable competition in Slovenia, however, many goaltenders are finding that their careers cannot take off as well as they hoped and some have retired. That being said, though, some have found themselves broadening their horizons and playing elsewhere. Matic Marinšek is playing NCAA Division III hockey at Norwich University. Matija Pintarič is with Olofströms IK in Sweden. Jure Verlič is with Courbevoie in France. Gračnar’s own backup from the 2013 World Junior Championships, Tomaž Trelc, is playing in the Czech Republic; he is actually eligible for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft due to a late 1995 birthdate.
With hockey fans in his homeland still abuzz about seeing the Stanley Cup, seeing Luka Gračnar being drafted to the NHL would also bring significant happiness to Slovenia. For many who know him, it is not just an unbelievable honour but also one that is long overdue and extremely well deserved for a goaltender who works hard every day and has a desire to always make himself better. It will be interesting to see what happens on that day in June.