Jakub Nakladal was never drafted. A defenceman of decent size, he spent his first several seasons playing at home in the Czech league; when he was 23, he moved on to the KHL. He spent one season playing in Finland before he decided he was ready to give the NHL a shot – and the Calgary Flames won the bidding war for his services.
While Nakladal spent the first half of the season adjusting in the AHL, eventually, circumstances forced his presence into the NHL lineup. He looked to have a future in the league – and seemed genuinely excited to be there all the while, from his off-ice interviews to the two goals he scored.
He’s an upcoming unrestricted free agent in need of a new contract. The only question is: where is he going to go?
The start to Nakladal’s North American career was probably not ideal. It’s one thing to require time to adjust to the new ice, and the AHL isn’t a bad place at all to do that; it’s another thing entirely to be recalled in case of personnel emergency on a couple of different occasions, only to sit as a healthy scratch.
Nakladal had a decent showing at training camp, but was ultimately beat out by Brett Kulak for the final (temporary) spot on defence. He went down to Stockton, where he impressed: he played 35 games for the Heat, scoring two goals and 14 points (.4 points per game, second out of Heat defencemen) and 80 shots on net (2.5 per game, by far the most out all defenders on the team).
Nakladal was called up on Oct. 22. He sat in the pressbox for four games, and was then sent back down.
Nakladal was again called up on Feb. 3. He sat for another three games before he finally got to make his NHL “debut” against the Toronto Maple Leafs – if you could even call it that. Nakladal’s presence on an NHL bench only happened because a handful of younger teammates forced the Flames’ hands, leaving them short a forward – so Nakladal would be the seventh defenceman who played just 1:45. Then he was a healthy scratch for another two games.
His real debut came against the Anaheim Ducks, a contest in which he played 12:28. He moved on from there, a mysterious nagging ailment to Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman’s perpetual suspension forcing the Flames to actually dress and play the guy.
Nakladal scored two goals and had five total points over the 27 games he played with the Flames. He averaged 14:11 a game, which included 43:10 of total powerplay time (plus seven shots; he had 42 shots in all), and no penalty kill time.
Most importantly, though, Nakladal went from afterthought who struggled to break into the NHL lineup to useful depth component with a booming shot, puck possession skills, and enthusiasm to make for a successful bottom pairing defenceman – so far.
Impact on team
We do have to keep context in mind. As impressive as Nakladal looked – and his 53.04% 5v5 CF, which was the best out of all Flames players to play at least a quarter of the season, very much attests to that – he wasn’t playing in world beating circumstances. Nakladal was brought along very gently throughout his first season in North American, culminating in finishing his year off in the NHL playing against team’s lower lines and getting a lot of starts in the offensive zone. He was not getting the circumstances of an established NHLer.
But that’s nothing against him – you’d rather see him succeed than not, and Nakladal thrived in those conditions. He’s 28 years old, and still has time left to prove he can handle tougher assignments – but as far as this year went, Nakladal took a huge step forward.
In Nakaldal’s WOWY stats, we see the effects of a small sample size. As one of the top performing corsi players on the team, Nakladal was better when separated from just about everyone – unless your name was Mikael Backlund (of course) or Tyler Wotherspoon.
Interestingly enough in Wotherspoon’s case, though he had an even more limited showing than Nakladal, he got slightly worse competition, but tougher zone starts. The two also didn’t seem to work well together, unlike Nakladal’s performance with Joe Colborne and Backlund, where they thrived.
What comes next?
Nakladal has a little over a quarter of an NHL season under his belt. He’s got about half a year’s worth of AHL experience. That’s as far as he goes for North American hockey – at least until next season, when he’s in line for a new NHL contract.
Will it be with the Flames? There’s good reason to hope so, assuming Calgary can clean up its glut of ineffective defencemen. Nakladal brought stability and respectability to the bottom pairing that had been lacking before his addition, and being able to partner him with Jokipakka, or maybe even an up-and-comer like Wotherspoon or Kulak, could see the Flames’ defensive depth look less bleak. Besides – he also has a spot on the powerplay, what with a great point shot and seeming ability to actually hit the net more than, say, Wideman.
But can the Flames fit Nakladal in their future plans? He’s older, and only really been tested thus far in sheltered circumstances. That works well for a bottom pairing guy, and if that’s all they’re really after, then he should be able to come relatively cheap as well – hopefully cheap enough to fit under the cap. His presence would also create more battle at camp, so any rookie who earns a spot on the team would really have had to earn it.
Nakladal’s fate should be clearer a month from now – but he was a positive presence on the Flames, and it would be great to see the right-shooting defender back.