Never count a player out just because he was never drafted. The NHL draft lists are full of players who have never amounted to anything. Getting drafted is merely the beginning of a journey to the NHL. Some players who are drafted take it as a sign to coast, and conversely those who aren’t drafted often become determined to prove that NHL teams were wrong to pass on them.
This week, we’ll look at two such players – Roman Cervenka of the Czech Republic and Cory Conacher, a Canadian speedster playing in the NCAA.
Cervenka turned heads this season with HC Slavia Praha of the top Czech pro league and is probably making some teams wish that they took a chance on Cervenka in 2004. After two legends were drafted one (Ovechkin) and two (Malkin) that year, it was generally an ugly draft with lots of “who’s that” and head-scratchers as you sift through the list of draftees.
Cervenka was small at the time, but his skill was evident. He scored 20 goals and 33 assists in just 34 games in the Czech junior league. He also played some games at the pro level that year, though his numbers were nothing special. Still, it was a little taste of the pro game. Although he played for three different teams in 2003-04, it was a sign of things to come.
The next year, in 2004-05, he split time between the junior and pro ranks while playing for three teams. With Slavia Praha’s second-tier team (one step below the top pro league) he put up impressive numbers for a 19-year-old with 15 goals and 8 assists in just 23 games. Again, he went undrafted.
He played for four different teams in 2005-06 and his production doesn’t stick out at any level because he bounced around so much. He was having trouble making the jump to the pro game because of a lack of size and strength.
Still not big, at 5-11, 187 pounds, Cervenka finally cracked Slavia Praha’s top pro team for good in 2006-07. He put up modest numbers – 12 points -- but the key was sticking with one team for a whole year. The next year, he began a progression that you like to see in a prospect. He more than doubled his point total to 30, then exploded to 59 and added 73 points this season and earned a spot on the Czech Olympic team. His point total was more than double the next highest scorer on his team.
Perhaps his most impressive statistic was his playoff performance in 2008-09 when he scored 13 goals and added 11 assists in 18 games.
Though his output at the Olympics was underwhelming, just two assists and two shots in five games, Cervenka was thrust on everyone’s radar screen by some rave reviews from Jaromir Jagr, his Olympic linemate.
TSN has reported five teams (including Toronto and Ottawa) are interested in Cervenka. Reports have also suggested that he could be a package deal with Jagr, who is eyeing Edmonton.
Another undrafted prospect is Hobey Baker Award nominee Cory Conacher. Conacher, a native of Burlington, Ont., lit up the scoreboard for the Canisius College Griffins of Buffalo, N.Y.
Conacher put up nearly a point per game as a freshman with Canisius, but missed some time with a broken wrist at the start of the season and went undrafted. He upped his production as a sophomore, but scored just 12 goals in 37 games.
This year, after his coach told him to shoot more, he notched 20 goals and added 32 assists to average 1.58 points per game. That was good for second in the NCAA Div. 1 ranks (behind Detroit prospect Gustav Nyquist).
The five-foot-eight, 175-pound Conacher has pro caliber skating and shooting skills. If he continues to work on his strength and improve as he has the last couple of seasons, he could have a bright future ahead of him.
His coach, Dave Smith, told ESPN that Conacher is “the total package” who is “shifty on the fly and crafty in the corners.” He’s also smart – something that the accounting major shows in the classroom.
“He is just a dynamic hockey player, a terrific person and he is extremely committed to playing the game at a high level and high speed,” Smith told ESPN. “He is a very diligent worker who really will do anything to get better and succeed. Cory competes and has been proving people wrong his entire life.”
That last quote reminds me something that could be said of Martin St. Louis.
Never underestimate the will of someone who is hell bent on proving people wrong.