Just over 14 months ago, the Calgary Flames were backed into a corner. With former first round draft pick Tim Erixon refusing to sign with the club and the team poised to lose him for a mere compensatory second round pick, the team rolled the dice on a trade with the New York Rangers. Just before the deadline to sign draft picks, the Flames sent Erixon and a fifth round pick to the Rangers for prospect Roman Horak and a pair of second round picks (used to take Tyler Wotherspoon and Markus Granlund).
A year hence, the move seems pretty smart, especially considering Horak spent the balance of the 2011-12 campaign with the big club while Erixon bounced between the Rangers and their farm team in Hartford all year (and is now singing the blues in Columbus).
But now that highly touted prospects with names like Sven Baertschi, Max Reinhart and Michael Ferland are headed to the pros and expected to challenge for NHL duty, where does that leave Roman Horak?
EXPECTATIONS AND COMPARABLES
Almost immediately, it should be qualified that Roman Horak has probably already exceeded expectations. A fifth round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, the odds were against Horak to become a pro in North America. Most domestic juniors drafted that late fizzle, so that a Czech import who had played exactly two seasons in North America prior to turning pro managed to play NHL minutes is pretty impressive. Overall, Horak put up 11 points in 61 NHL games, along with 4 points in 14 contests with the Abbotsford Heat.
That said, now that Horak has jumped over that bar, it’s probably time to raise expectations a tad. Now 21 years old (the age he’ll be all season long), Horak’s comparable players are other mid-to-late round picks who flirted with the NHL in their freshman pro year.
It should be noted that, indeed, every single of these players spent (at least) half of their sophomore year in the AHL. And there was also a very wide variation in the amount of time that these guys spent in the NHL and their production while they were there.
In terms of Horak, he was given a bottom six role, in part because he was 20 and needed some time to learn the pro game, but also because the coaching staff seemed to like him and wanted him to succeed (Brent Sutter praised him several times throughout the season). His numbers in terms of face-offs and production gradually worsened throughout the season, but Horak was always an energetic presence in the line-up.
The old coaching staff liked Roman Horak. He made the team out of camp. He stayed in the show for 61 games – more than three-quarters of the regular season. But the old coaching staff is gone, and now the Flames have Roman Cervenka and Sven Baertschi pencilled into their line-up, along with incumbent Lance Bouma. And another dozen players on one-way contracts. And recent call-ups Greg Nemisz and Akim Aliu.
And the highly-touted Max Reinhart and Michael Ferland are turning pro and may be hoping to be this year’s version of Horak – the rookie who makes the team out of camp.
That said, Roman Horak has the advantage of knowing exactly what being an everyday NHL player entails. While he ultimately got shuffled down the depth chart due to the numbers game once players got healthy, Horak might just have the inside track among the younger players heading into training camp.
But he’s going to have to be really, really good in camp (again) to earn a roster spot.
Roman Horak played 61 NHL games last season. As a first-year pro who was drafted in the fifth round, he has already exceeded the expectations most people would have for a late round pick. But he still needs to prove that he can hack it as a full-time, full-season NHLer, which is the step that a vast majority of prospects fail to take.
The challenge for the young center is he is going to have to out-perform at least a half-dozen really highly-touted players, including guys who are already pencilled into big-club roster spots in order to do that.
It’s not exactly Mission: Impossible, but expect to see quite a bit of Roman Horak in Abbotsford next season.