February 05 2009 10:00PM
The first serious scouting report that I can find on Josef Hrabal is a rather interesting Hockey’s Future article by a fellow named Robert Neuhauser. It was published in December of 2002, early in Hrabal’s draft year. Given where it was written and the occasionally sloppy prose, I was initially tempted to conclude that Neuhauser’s first language wasn’t English, and that he was probably something of an amateur amateur scout (it’s funny because I repeated the words... never mind). As it turns out, Neuhauser’s a pretty serious hockey guy – in addition to at one time being the Czech editor for Hockey’s Future, Neuhauser writes for McKeen’s Hockey and scouts for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The point here is that the information on Hrabal comes from a credible source, so it’s probably worth a full read to anyone interested in the player, although I’ll sum up some of it here.
Hrabal’s father apparently pushed him into the sport, but Hrabal took to it quickly and was used as a defenseman by his early coaches. He had a reputation not only as an offensive defenseman early on, but as a team leader. There’s a bunch of irritatingly trivial personal stuff in the report as well (Hrabal’s nickname is “Hrabos”, which means Vole in Czech), but one thing of note is that Hrabal had no intention of playing junior hockey in North America because he wanted to finish high school education in the Czech Republic, and although he had the desire to play in the NHL, he really wasn’t in a rush, preferring to progress through the European leagues. Likely of more interest is the scouting report that Neuhauser gives us of the 17-year old:
A smooth, poised blueliner, Josef Hrabal brings a nice two-way game to the table. He is a talented puckrusher with a strong creativity, he only needs to keep his game simple and avoid unnecessary mistakes when making the decision with the puck. Josef plays a positionally sound game and has very good passing skills. He doesn't possess a cannon of a shot, but his shots are very accurate and quite easy to tip. He is effective at bringing his shots through. Josef has to mature more as he is sometimes guilty of some defensive lapses and his defensive-zone intensity neeeds some upgrading, too. Right now he seems better suited for a career in Europe given the fact that he doesn't play the body very often and relies more on his finesse. The key factor will be how far Josef is able to upgrade his skating. He skates only average and could use a better agility and balance. To sum up, Hrabal is very raw, but talented, he looks like a project.
Let’s balance that scouting report with Hrabal’s European statistics, courtesy of Eurohockey. The Czech Leagues are divided by age, and we can get an interesting look at Hrabal’s progress through HC Vsetin’s feeder system (in the Czech league, like most European leagues, every franchise has a senior team and a system of junior teams). The 2001-02 season was when Neuhauser wrote his report.
- 1999-00: 32GP – 0G – 0A – 0PTS – 2 PIM - -9
- 2000-01: 43GP – 3G – 5A – 8PTS – 33 PIM - -19
- 2001-02: 10GP – 2G – 5A – 7PTS – 6 PIM - +5
- 2001-02: 38GP – 4G – 2A – 6PTS – 18 PIM – EV
- 2002-03: 30GP – 6G – 7A – 13PTS – 12 PIM – unk.
- 2003-04: 46GP – 12G – 7A – 19PTS – 54 PIM - -2
- 2004-05: 19GP – 6G – 8A – 14PTS – 42 PIM - +15
- 2002-03: 6GP – 0G – 0A – 0PTS – 4 PIM - -4
- 2003-04: 13GP – 0G – 0A – 0PTS – 2 PIM – EV
- 2004-05: 23GP – 0G – 2A – 2PTS – 9 PIM - -13
- 2005-06: 34GP – 3G – 9A – 12PTS – 34 PIM - -8
- 2006-07: 21GP – 3G – 7A – 10PTS – 30 PIM - -6
We see that Heuhauser’s description of Hrabal as a project was fairly accurate. The Oilers drafted Hrabal with a late (8th round) pick in the 2003 draft; Hrabal was primarily scouted by Frank Musil.
The next real report on Hrabal came in March of 2005. Hrabal was described as an “unspectacular... but reliable” player, which would seem to be at odds with his scouting report. Kevin Prendergast spoke highly of him, while Guy Flaming pointed to his offensive struggles in the Czech senior league (a league bolstered by NHL’ers during that lockout season). Looking at the statistics above, we see that Hrabal managed only two points in the top league, but was a dominant player in junior.
Hrabal turned a corner next season. Superficially, Hrabal’s numbers look bad. When you realize that his team, Vsetin HC managed only seven wins in fifty-three games, and that their leading scorer managed 20 points and a -14 rating, you begin to understand that Hrabal was a ways ahead of his teammates. Here’s Vsetin’s defense corps from that season:
- Hrabal: 34GP – 3G – 9A – 12 PTS - -8
- Kucny: 45GP – 3G – 5A – 8PTS - -16
- Bauer: 45GP – 1G – 6A – 7PTS - -14
- R. Hruska: 33GP – 1G – 4A – 5PTS - -7
- O. Hruska: 38GP – 3G – 1A – 4PTS - -9
- Horak: 38GP – 0G – 3A – 3 PTS - -5
- Ponomarev: 26GP -3G – 0A – 3PTS - -13
Vsetin was easily the worst team in the league, going 7-33-9-3, managing 32 points (the next worst team, Kladno, had 53, while league-leading Liberec had 106). They scored 80 goals, and allowed 152. Hrabal attended the Oilers’ prospect camp that summer, and impressed team executives.
2006-07 was an even better year for Hrabal. Vsetin was again miserable, posting an 11-37-0-4 record, finishing 29 points back of the next worst team, and scoring only 88 goals while allowing 192. Hrabal was the best player on the team while he was there, and figured in on roughly one-third of the team’s total offense (as a defenseman!) over the 21 games he played. To put that in perspective, the NHL’s highest-scoring defenseman this seas (Mike Green) has figured in on less than one-quarter of his team’s total offense. The point I’m trying to make here is that even mired on a team that makes the New York Islanders look competent, Josef Hrabal was making a difference. Half-way through the season, Hrabal moved over to Cherepovets Severstal of the Russian Super League (RSL, today known as the KHL). Let’s put up his numbers for over there as well:
- 2006-07: 20GP – 3G – 4A – 7PTS – 24PIM - +4
- 2007-08: 56GP – 3G – 10A – 13PTS – 73PIM - +10
Hrabal’s offensive numbers for that first season stand out; the RSL has always been a low-scoring league (by way of example, Cherepovet’s scoring leader was Andrei Kovalenko, who managed 28 points in 49 games – even Alexander Ovechkin only managed 27 points in his best RSL season). His +4 came on a team that was +2 as a whole, and was one of the best numbers on the team. In 2007-08, Hrabal’s offensive numbers declined (although he was still one of the top offensive defensemen on the team), but his +10 stands out here. Cherepovets finished five games below .500 and had a team +/- of -10; in that context Hrabal’s number is fairly spectacular (the next best defenseman on the team was Petr Caslava, who managed a +5 rating). His 73 PIM ranked third on the team.
It was in this context that the Oilers signed Hrabal (who was about to become an unrestricted free agent) in the summer of 2008. Kevin Prendergast compared Hrabal to Denis Grebeshkov, calling him a “riverboat gambler”, something Guy Flaming took issue with, seemingly based on Hrabal’s career offensive numbers. Hrabal entered training camp for the 2008-09 season with an outside shot at an NHL job, and the likelihood of playing lots for Springfield.
Things have gone badly. Hrabal suffered shoulder injury in training camp that sidelined him for the early part of the season. When he was healthy, Hrabal found himself in Stockton, and didn’t get an AHL opportunity until nearly the end of October. Hrabal was one of very few defensemen to keep his head above water at even strength (although he wasn’t contributing much offensively) while playing second-pairing opposition. Despite the fact that the Falcons’ defence is a bit of a trainwreck, Hrabal was dispatched to the ECHL on three separate occasions, where he excelled (four points in eight games, +2). The third time Hrabal was assigned to the ECHL, he refused to report and has since signed on to play with Modo of Sweden’s Eliteserien for the remainder of the year. Modo features three former NHL defensemen in Matthias Timander, Hans Jonsson and Pierre Hedin, as well as highly touted prospect Victor Hedman.
It’s entirely possible that despite Hrabal’s strong European track record, his excellent ECHL numbers, and the fact that he’s one of the few Springfield Falcons’ defensemen who hasn’t been turned into a charred, smouldering hulk of a defenseman that Jeff Truitt is right to send him down to the ECHL. If, however, he plays well for a Modo club (the team that developed Forsberg, Naslund, the Sedins, and more recently Tobias Enstrom) full of NHL veterans, I think it will be safe to say that the handling of this player was very wrong. Given that Truitt’s currently at the helm of the second-worst team in the AHL, it’s somewhat difficult to trust his judgment.
I think Hrabal’s a player, and I’d rate him much higher if not for the lack of confidence that Springfield’s coach has shown in him this season. Hrabal should be back in training camp next season, and we should know if I’m right by the end of 2009-10, if not sooner.
NHL Contract Status: 675K for 2008-09 and 2009-10
AHL Performance Compares To: Bruno Gervais
Career Projection: Top-six defenseman