The first week of men’s ice hockey at the 2010 Olympics has produced no shortage of highlights and lowlights. Canada started the week with a bang, but went out with a fizzle. Alex Ovechkin’s seismic hit on Jaromir Jagr was a collision of arguably the two most physically dominant forwards of the past 20 years. Ovechkin is more of an aggressor, while Jagr could shield off entire teams behind his unusually large rear end. From a fantasy hockey perspective, many dream line combinations have been realized. How would Evgeni Malkin look centering Ovechkin and Alex Semin? We finally have the answer, and it is “fantastic.” And with regards to Team USA, the question marks surrounding their inexperience have been overshadowed by the sublime play of Ryan Miller.
Flying well below the radar of the average hockey fan have been two forwards looking to make a name for themselves – Mats Zuccarello Aasen of Norway, and Jagr’s sidekick on the Czech Republic, Roman Cervenka. Both are good enough to be playing in the NHL, especially the pint-sized Zuccarello Aasen, who should expect the offers to pour in after his season in Europe finishes up.
Zuccarello Aasen, who turns 23 in September, was overlooked by NHL teams during his draft eligible years for one single reason – size. He stands in at 5’7” (a generous measurement), and tips the scales at about 170 pounds. He has played with MoDo of the Swedish Elite League for the last two seasons, and he leads the team in scoring with 18 goals and 51 points in 2009-10. The next highest scoring forward on the team has only 33 points. Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund both have 20 points, but they have played considerably less games than the rest of the roster.
His lack of size scared away many scouts, even though he has produced at every single level of hockey. Before playing with MoDo, he tore up the junior leagues in Norway. Obviously no great accomplishment, though. However, at the 2010 Olympics, Aasen has had a coming out party of sorts. He has displayed a tenacity and willingness to battle against bigger and stronger defensemen. He even singled out Chris Pronger in a postgame quote, saying how much of a thrill it was to compete against one of the nastiest defensemen in the world. Aasen looked great against Canada, and has consistently made fantastic NHL quality plays against NHL quality opposition throughout the Olympics thus far. His work ethic and the fact that he has been able to step up his play on the world stage has increased Aasen’s stock with regards to the NHL in a big, big way. He is still young at 22, and there is obvious room for growth. For all the hype Fabian Brunnstrom received, Aasen is a better talent, and like Brunnstrom, he can be had for essentially nothing (aside from an entry level contract, of course).
Peter Forsberg had this to say about Aasen,“He's an incredible player, [he has] got no fears and very good technique. He is going to go far. He's good enough for the NHL. Some may say he's not big enough or heavy enough, but I'll think he will get there anyway. He's got a big hockey heart."
What is his upside? It is tough to say. At this point, his defensive game is below average, but he has gotten by in Europe because of his fantastic skill level and his willingness to compete. His size may very well prevent him from fully developing in North America, as there will always be some level of size bias in the NHL. For every Martin St. Louis or Brian Gionta, there are dozens like Corey Locke and Brett Sterling. Aasen could potentially become a 25 goal, 70 point winger in the right environment, but he could just as easily struggle to find a scoring role in the NHL.
Roman Cervenka already had five or six NHL offers before the Olympics began. TSN has reported that both Toronto and Ottawa are interested in the Czech centre, and there are whispers around town that the Canucks are eying him as well. Jaromir Jagr speaks glowingly of his game, and there are some out there who believe the two will come over to the NHL next season as a package deal. He hasn’t stood out at the games as much as Aasen so far with only one assist in three games, but he isn’t receiving the same amount of ice time, either. He is playing under 14 minutes per game, fourth among Czech centres behind Tomas Plekanec, David Krejci, and Petr Cajanek.
Cervenka is destroying the Extraliga this season with Slavia Praha. He has 30 goals and 71 points in 48 games so far in 2009-10. The second highest scorer on Slavia Praha has only 35 points. He has decent size at 5’11” and 190 pounds, as well. His skating stride is a bit choppy, but he sees the ice very well and is a supremely talented playmaker. If an NHL team is serious about going after Jagr, Cervenka may have a scoring line position gift wrapped for him as early as next season in the NHL. He has to sign a one year entry level contract, much like Jonas Gustavsson did with Toronto last summer, so there is a cap on what teams will be able to offer him. Jagr was reportedly close to signing with the Oilers last season, and has gone on record saying that Edmonton would be his first choice because he was so grateful for their interest in him at that time. I wonder if that remains the case with the abysmal season they are having in 2009-10?
Cervenka’s 30 goals this season is a total he probably won’t hit in the NHL, especially if he finds himself on a line with Jagr. He could be a 50 point player as early as next year, with a great deal of those being assists. So much of his production will depend on where he signs. If he goes to Toronto, he could be centering the first or second line next season. If he goes somewhere like Ottawa or Vancouver, he could find himself on the third line. Keep an eye on Cervenka’s production for the rest of the season with Slavia Praha. It will be tough to get a full analysis on him playing limited minutes on a deep and talented Czech club at the Olympics this year, but if he keeps up his Extraliga dominance, expect him to be NHL bound this summer.