Yesterday the Calgary Flames signed Czech center Roman Cervenka to a 1-year contract with a salary cap hit of $3.775M (incl bonuses). It was a move nobody saw since Calgary is not known for a strong scouting presence in the KHL, and at this point in the Flame’s offseason the only rumors had been regarding the coaching position.
So how does Cervenka really look for the Flames? Will this be a case of signing a player who succeeded in a lesser league and can’t turn it on in the NHL?
With a December birthday, Cervenka was draft eligible in the summer of 2004. At that point he had one professional season in the Czech "elite" league, playing 15 games and notching 1 assist. His 8 playoff games were hardly spectacular either, but at this point Cervenka was a 17 year old kid who was drastically undersized. In fact, as noted by Robin Brownlee yesterday after the signing, Cervenka was just 127 pounds in his draft season. It’s therefore not surprising Cervenka went undrafted, and his next couple seasons in the Czech league were fairly lacking – though his games played and ice time both increased.
After a mediocre season which saw Cervenka post a 6-6-12 line in 51 games, the small Czech briefly lit up the playoffs, scoring 3-1-4 in 6 games. He followed that post-season success (which would be common a feature of his play) with a 2007-08 campaign where he scored 19-11-30 in 41 games and 4-4-8 in 14 playoff games. His true break through was in 2008-09. He was the second leading scorer on his team, Slavia Praha HC, managing 59 points in 51 regular season games and another 24 points in 18 post-season games. His last season in the Czech league was his best: 30-43-73 in 50 games. That was also the best season by any scorer in the Czech league that year.
In 2010-11 Roman Cervenka signed with Avangard Omsk of the KHL. He played on a line with a semi-well known hockey player named Jaromir Jagr and scored 61 points in 51 games, best on the team. When Jagr left for the Philadelphia Flyers, there was a falloff in his regular season play, but he still led Omsk in scoring and again absolutely lit up the playoffs; with 11-11-22 in 20 games, it didn’t seem to matter who Cervenka played with – just that he played.
And that led him to this point.
The Scouting Report
A Russian scout described Cervenka to Hockey Prospectus’ Corey Pronman as "one heck of a hockey player who can play a top six without any problem." That’s absolutely high praise. When asked about the 26-year old center, Pronman also complimented Cervenka’s hands and vision, though he also mentioned some areas that need work:
"He’s got high-end hands and vision, but only average skating ability and a little below-average for a smaller player. While he’s improved his physicality the last year or so, due to size/strength combo he’s replacement level in that area.
Still the offensive skills are tremendous, and if he pans out could be an above-average scoring 2nd line forward. For a team that couldn’t score last season and is devoid of any top forward prospects breaking into that role next year (outside of Baertschi)…I fully approve of this signing. With the depth chart he’s entering and his talent level, Cervenka could be a great surprise if he transitions well into the NHL."
The Flames will likely not need Cervenka for his physicality, so long as he can take an average NHL hit. Instead, what the Flames need is what Cervenka excels at: scoring.
A lot of people were asking for his NHLE (NHL equivalency) – which is, unfortunately, something of a problematic request. A KHL equivalency has been calculated, but there are some issues with it. Bruce Peter of Puck Worlds calculated a rough NHLE for KHL players to be ratio of about 0.65. The issue is a small sample size owing to relative youth of the KHL; moreover, most of the samples that are available aren’t ideal as they’re low quality players – your Kyle Wellwoods, for instance – who are the most frequent transfers between the two leagues.
In the above linked article, Peter lists the old Russian League equivalency (which is out of date, but at least didn’t have those issues) at 0.82.
Finally, FlamesNation’s dedicated stats guru, Rob Vollman, isolated Jiri Hudler and Old Jaromir Jagr as the best comparisons, given both KHL stats (100 points in 105 regular season KHL games) and perceived ability. The following table contains all the available comparisons*:
*Note that the KHL stats I’m using are both seasons and playoffs (for the best possible sample size) while the equivalency stats are pro-rated for a single full NHL season. I’ve also tossed in his last two Czech league seasons for kicks.
I’d be shocked if he managed the sort of numbers suggested by the Czech league equivalencies (he’d likely be the highest scoring player on the Flames), but given a nice SH% boost and good linemates, I think the average (66 points) is an acceptable upper-end/ceiling. Chances are we’ll see a season somewhere around where Vollman estimated – 55 or so points is a good middle area assuming appropriate acclimation to the North American game. That’s nothing to sneeze at, given this is an asset acquired for nothing but the time of Feaster, Weisbrod, and some scouts.
Given his expected output, where can we expect to see Cervenka line up? Chances are Jokinen is gone, which means Cervenka will absolutely be a top six center. It’s probably safe to assume (given nobody currently signed for next season is traded) he’ll stand between Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay, though there’s a chance he’ll line up with Glencross, Cammalleri or…Baertschi?
At this point in the off-season, with so many changes pending, line projections are tough. I can guarantee one thing though – if Horak and Cervenka end up playing together it’ll be very Roman-Czech (I’ll be here all week. Make sure to try the veal).
For now, it’s impossible to know if Cervenka will manage to translate his scoring on unfamiliar ice in the NHL. He’s a guy who has never skated on this side of the pond and sometimes European stars have a difficult time adjusting to the different sized ice and physical demands of the NA game.
If he makes the leap successfully, the Flames have filled a big gap in their organizational depth chart with a 26-year old center who can score. If not, then he’ll prove to be a somewhat pricey* but transient mistake.
*If he makes his bonuses that is.