VANCOUVER — Krystof Hrabik is trying to make the most of his opportunity at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship, getting to play a prominent role for the Czech Republic as an undrafted prospect.
Hrabik couldn’t have handpicked two better linemates, flanking a pair of first-round NHL draft picks in Martin Necas and Martin Kaut through three games while also seeing some time with them on the top power-play unit.
Vaclav Varada, their coach for the Czech Republic, called it a ‘good fit’ even though they haven’t produced much in the way of offence. The team, as a whole, has only managed four goals and that line hasn’t scored since Wednesday’s opener when Kaut netted the Czechs’ first goal of the tournament with Necas assisting for his lone point thus far.
As a result, Varada has been tinkering in an attempt to spark his squad — even loading up his top line at times with Filip Zadina, another first-rounder, replacing Hrabik for the latter half of a 2-1 loss to Russia on Friday. But Varada went back to Hrabik in that prime spot to start Saturday’s game against Canada, albeit without much success in a 5-1 defeat.
“Everyone wants to score the goals, but Krystof can do the other things also — block shots, win the faceoffs, play the body — and that’s why he’s played with the top guys,” Varada said. “But right now, we just need to put the puck in the net and obviously Krystof is one of those guys that we are looking at to get the goals also.”
Hrabik has yet to factor into the scoring — still pointless heading into Monday’s round-robin finale against Denmark (1 p.m. PT) — but he’s been getting his fair share of chances, especially in the first two games against Switzerland and Russia. Necas has set him up a few times and he’s been getting off lots of shots that just haven’t been going in.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 26, 2018
“I should be more quicker (releasing shots), but I’m just trying to shoot the puck because they can pass me good chances,” Hrabik said after the setback to Russia.
“It’s really nice to play with these two guys, it’s a great opportunity for me,” he added. “They are really skilled players and we are really good friends too. We are friends off the ice, so it helps us on the ice.”
Varada wasn’t committing to sticking with that trio against Denmark and into the medal round — beginning with Wednesday’s quarterfinals — but Hrabik’s versatility will be key going forward, according to his coach.
“We are looking to add more scoring to the depth of our lineup. For him, it’s a good thing that he can play in any position — as centreman, right wing, left wing,” Varada said of the 6-foot-4 power forward.
Hrabik realizes changes could be coming to the line combinations — given their offensive struggles — but he won’t be changing his approach.
“That’s up to coach and I’m just trying to play the way he wants,” Hrabik said. “He wants me to be strong on the puck and be in front of the net and trying to get the puck for those guys. Just help them and try to score some goals.
“I’m happy that I can be here, I’m proud to represent Czech Republic,” he added.
Hrabik on NHL draft radar
Some observers, on both sides of the pond, were surprised to see Hrabik slotted that high in the Czech lineup since he went undrafted in 2018. But he’s been coming on strong in the Western Hockey League as a rookie import for the Tri-City Americans ahead of this tournament and NHL scouts are keeping a close eye on him here as a potential overager worth selecting in 2019.
[miptheme_quote author=”” style=”text-center”]“I think Krystof could be one player that teams are looking at. He’s a big guy, can score goals, can block shots — he could be the full package of the regular NHL player,” said Varada, a former NHL forward who played 580 career games between Buffalo and Ottawa. “It’s really up to him, how he’s going to perform.”[/miptheme_quote]
Hrabik has already auditioned for the Winnipeg Jets, attending their development camp and suiting up for two games against Vancouver Canucks prospects at the Young Stars Classic in Penticton in September, so he’s definitely on the radar.
He’d be an older prospect for 2019 — already 19 and born just nine days after the Sept. 15 cut-off for the 2017 draft, thus nearly a double-overager — but Hrabik could be a late-bloomer like Canada’s Brett Leason, another 6-foot-4 forward who is getting plenty of draft hype while also skating on a line with two first-rounders in Morgan Frost and Barrett Hayton.
Every year at the WJC an undrafted #NHLDraft prospect seems to earn himself onto the lists of twitter scouts. Brett Leason and Samuel Fagemo are two to watch, but Krystof Hrabik will surprise some people. Starting to find his feet with Tri-City.
— Brayden Sullivan (@SullyDraftGeek) December 26, 2018
“I’m just trying to play harder every game and I’ll see what’s going to happen (with the draft and pro opportunities),” said Hrabik, who made the move overseas this season to get more exposure to scouts. “It was part of my decision. I was like ‘this is probably my last chance to try hockey in Canada.’”
The other part had to do with testing out the North American game, believing it might better suit his skill-set — and so far, so good with 24 points (8 goals, 16 assists) through 29 games with Tri-City.
“It’s helped me a lot,” Hrabik said. “I like the style here, in Canada and USA. It’s more physical than in Europe, so I can use my body, my size.
“The hockey is different here, but I think I’m getting a little bit used to the style, so it’s going good. I’m just trying to play my game.”
Hrabik getting better in WHL
His game has been improving by leaps and bounds since debuting in the WHL and Varada has taken notice as well.
“Krystof is a really good player and he got better from the summer when I saw him and from the last tournament we played in September,” Varada said. “He’s got better, he’s skating well, and it’s helped him that he’s playing and adjusting to the North American style on the shorter rink.”
To that end, Varada can relate. He took a similar route to the NHL, also coming over to play junior in the WHL — spending two seasons with the Tacoma-turned-Kelowna Rockets, from 1994 to 1996. He was already drafted when he arrived, though — a fourth-round pick (89th overall) in 1994 for the San Jose Sharks, who traded Varada’s rights to Buffalo in a package for Doug Bodger during Varada’s sophomore WHL campaign following a 50-goal debut as the second overall selection in the 1994 CHL import draft.
“The shorter ice really suited me and I scored a lot of goals in the junior league, but my role changed towards the National Hockey League,” recalled Varada, who is immortalized in a mural outside the Rockets’ dressing room at Prospera Place. “I had a great time there. My first year, we were still in Tacoma, and the following year we were in Kelowna in that old building (Memorial Arena).
“There were some funny memories, but the hockey there was awesome and it really helped me towards my career as an NHL player.”
Hrabik is hoping to be able to say the same thing about his time in Tri-City.
“That’s the goal for all of us, the dream for every player here — to get drafted and to play in the NHL,” Hrabik said.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.