The Calgary Flames have a few question marks on the roster heading into the new season, but none bigger than 26-year old winger/center Roman Cervenka. The Czech born KHL sniper has spent his entire career on the other side of the pond and has therefore never tested himself against the North American game. His better than average numbers in the second toughest league in the world are encouraging, but it remains to be seen if he can translate that production against the bigger players on the smaller ice surface in the NHL.
The Good, The Bad and KHL Equivalence
Cervenka landed on the NHL’s radar during his rookie season for Avangard Omsk, where he tallied 31-goals and 61-points in just 51-games skating with Jaromir Jagr. His production fell last year during his sophomore effort in Jagr’s absence, although he still lead Omsk in scoring with 23 goals and 39 points. That was 12 points clear of second-placed Alexander Perezhogin (former Montreal Canadien). Alex Frolov (former King) was third on the club with 24-points.
So even without Jagr around, Cervenka paced his club in points, well ahead of of former capable NHLers like Perezhogin and Frolov, which is encouraging for Flames fans. He was recently named the second best prospect in the organization by Corey Pronman based on his output in the KHL and collection of skills, including puck handling, vision and hockey sense.
On the bad side of the ledger, Pronman notes that Cervenka isn’t overly big and doesn’t have the sort of speed or skating one would expect out of a smaller forward. Also of note is the fact that Cervenka had the second worst plus/minus on Omsk last year despite leading them in scoring. Plus/minus is of course a flawed stat that can be misleading in such small samples, but finishing in the red suggests either he was dependent on PP scoring to inflate his totals or he was a liability outside of the offensive zone. Or maybe his goalies just couldn’t stop the puck when he was on the ice…
The lackluster defense possibility accords with what Cervenka himself has said about his play. In an old interview with then teammate Jaromir Jagr, Cervenka said "here in Russia centers are supposed to skate back and help their defensemen. We don’t do this in Czech Republic. I didn’t play defense over there. I like it better here because I play on the left wing and there’s no problem."
Not the best sign for a club looking to fill in their depth at center.
In terms of scoring translation, based on Bruce Peter’s work at Puck Worlds the KHL’s NHLE (NHL equivalence) is about 0.65. In 105 games in the KHL, Cervenka managed 100 points for a PPG pace of about 0.95. That makes for an NHLE of roughly 51 points over an 82-game schedule, which is a respectable total.
Some caveats obviously apply to that expected output – first, Cervenka was no doubt a top-3 forward on his KHL squad, whereas in Calgary he’ll be top-6 at best. We can reasonably assume his role and ice time will be somewhat reduced to some degree.
In addition, the season Cervenka spent as Jagr’s linemate is propping up his KHL PPG pace – if we take his production sans Jagr as more indicative of his abilities, his NHLE falls to just 38 points. That may or may not be a fair assumption since we can’t fully investigate how much of an effect Jagr had on Cervenka’s production.
It was noted when he signed that Cervenka picked Calgary from amongst his NHL suitors because of the perceived opportunity to jump directly into the top-6. If Cervenka can indeed play center at the NHL level, he will more or less be guaranteed a second-line scoring spot with, say, Hudler, Glencross or Baertschi as his wingers. If he excels, it’s not inconceivable Cervenka could land with guys like Iginla, Tanguay or Cammalleri (if Cammalleri plays wing) as well. If that happens, the upper bounds of the range mentioned (50 or so points) isn’t beyond his reach.
On the other hand, if Cervenka slides to the wing like he did in the KHL, he’ll be battling a lot of other bodies for ice time. Tanguay, Baertschi, Comeau and Glencross patrol the left wing while Iginla, Hudler and Stempniak fill out the right. Absent injuries, Cervenka will have to bump either Baertschi or an established NHLer out position in order to get the opportunity to put up a some points. If that happens, 40-points is probably a better expectation.
Assuming, of course, Cervenka can effective play in the NHL at all. There’s a much longer list of European stars arriving to great fanfare in the show and flaming out than there is of guys who have come over and succeeded. Fabian Brunnstrom is a good recent example of a player who was conservatively tabbed to be a top-6 forward before arriving and soon proved to be basically replacement level. Ville Leino is likely considered a success story owing to his time in Philly and big deal with the Sabres, but it took butter soft minutes and a season of high percentages to make him into a reasonable facsimile of an NHL scorer – outside of those circumstances (for both Detroit and Buffalo), he was a marginal NHLer.
So there is a wide range of potential outcomes. If Cervenka is an NHL quality center, he could challenge the 50+ point barrier. If he’s an NHL scoring winger, we have to scale back expectations a tad, if only because there are only so many minutes to go around.
There’s also the non-trivial possibility Cervenka can’t hack it on NA ice and will spend much of the season struggling to keep his head above water. If that happens, expect a 25 points or less before he flees back to Europe.
At this point, it’s impossible to know which road the KHL star will travel. He has some positive arrows and some red flags, but for now we can’t be sure which will prove to be the dominate factor(s). If he translate his abilities to the NHL game, the organization has added a quality player in the peak age range for next to nothing. If he can’t, however, he’ll just be another failed experiment.