One of the most buzzed-about prospects at the draft combine in Buffalo was Saint John Sea Dogs defenseman Jakub Zboril, a Czech national who plays with an edge and can contribute at both ends of the rink. It's looking like Zboril will go in the middle of the first round in Florida thanks to that combination of talents, but his physicality has made him far from a favorite amongst opponents.
“I like to play physical and hit other guys, maybe piss them off a little," he said. "When me and my brother were little kids, we always played really hard on the other guys, so the people in the stands were screaming, ‘you’re playing like pigs!’ and stuff like that.”
Ironically, that's why scouts love the kid. One NHL talent hawk I spoke to said that when he would ask other players in the Quebec League who they didn't like playing against, Zboril's name topped the list.
“Very calm and poised," said another team scout. "Has a real strength and physicality to his game. Really good fighter too; that was a surprise.”
It was a surprise to Zboril, too. His first fight came in the preseason against Bradley Kennedy of Charlottetown – talk about an introduction to North America.
“It was the first fight of my life," Zboril said. "It was just luck – I threw one punch and it was done. I was pretty happy for that. For sure I wanted to get respect on the ice and it came true.”
The Sea Dogs were pretty intriguing this season. Coming off a rebuild year that saw them finish second-last in 2013-14, the team's brass scoured the hockey world for new talent, finding gems such as Chicago product Adam Marsh and former OHL tough guy Justice Dundas. Zboril came in via the CHL Import Draft and quickly became a top D-man on the squad, building off an excellent Ivan Hlinka tournament with the Czechs in August, where he won a silver medal. Saint John ended up 10th in the 'Q,' despite still being inexperienced overall.
“We had a really young team, but we started pretty strong," Zboril said. "Then we had some ups and downs. I had my first big injury (an MCL strain that cost him two months), but I thought I handled it pretty well.”
Next season promises to be even bigger for the 6-foot-2 Czech rearguard, who put up 33 points in 44 games. He was one of six Sea Dogs invited to the draft combine, with fellow blueliner Thomas Chabot also expected to be taken in the first round. Plus, the team just won the rights to exceptional status player Joseph Veleno, who will be a fun rookie to watch.
The world juniors will also be an important event for Zboril. He was controversially cut from the team this season, as the notoriously moody Czech brain trust went with a squad largely devoid of major junior ex-pats. In the end it might have ruined them, as the Czechs put in a dog performance against rival Slovakia in the quarterfinal, costing them a chance to build on great outings at the Ivan Hlinka and 2014 world under-18s.
But Zboril was more than happy with his decision to join the Sea Dogs. He has picked up English quite well, taking lessons every non-game day during the season, and said learning to defend 1-on-1 was harder than adjusting to his new home in New Brunswick.
It's been a long time since those opposing parents screamed at him in the Czech Republic, but it also won't be too long before NHL crowds are cheering for the edgy blueliner.