By Samuel Dummer (@Dummer_Coleman)
HC PLZEN, CZECHIA
POSITION: D HAND: R
HEIGHT: 6’3” WEIGHT: 190 LBS
The lights of the World Junior Championships were shining bright.
Big, draft eligible defenseman David Jiricek from the Czech Republic was preparing to continue to show the world the abilities that have garnered him so much pre-draft attention. The Czech team was starting the tournament against a strong Canadian team, a battle that would be a good indicator of how they could compete against the best of the best in the tournament. A game that players like Jiricek strived most of their lives to play in.
The game started well with Jiricek playing a strong brand of two-way hockey from his defensive position. But during the second period, Jiricek watched as forward Will Cuylle of the Team Canada crossed the red line. In a split-second decision, Jiricek makes the choice to step forward and play the man. He steps up from the blue line and lines up his hit. He extends to make contact and doesn’t quite make the full hip-to-hip contact he was looking for. An awkward feeling shot up his leg as he crumbled to the ice. He struggled to skate to the bench. Unfortunately for Jiricek, his night was over, so was his tournament, and possibly even his season.
The injury would end up requiring knee surgery to repair. Many players may let a moment like this drag them down. But for Jiricek, he understood it’s just a part of the fast-paced, physical game he loves. It’s definitely not a fun part, but one that almost every player ends up dealing with, learning to cope with injuries.
Having the experience of playing in the tournament in the year prior, Jiricek was able to leave the shortened – and ultimately cancelled – tournament with a great experience to go along with his history of hockey intelligence and learning the game from a young age. To really get an idea of how the player thinks and plays the game, we need to start at the beginning.
David Jiricek is from the small town of Klatovy in the Czech Republic, jjust south of Plzen, his club team’s home city. He has a younger brother who also plays hockey, and parents that helped pave the way for his hockey success, even if it was just by getting him started.
“I started in Klatovy, it is 40km to Plzen so that is very close for me. I have one brother, Adam, he plays hockey too.”
His brother Adam is someone Jiricek likes to spend time with, when he’s not playing hockey with his hometown club, he is with his brother playing other sports or generally just hanging out. “I like to play some games with my brother. Some video, or some sports in some way. We play tennis, or soccer, so this is my favorite thing.”
When asked about who helped get him into the game and got him started, like most kids, he pointed to his parents. “My parents, I think. My parents came into the stadium, so my dad and my mother.”
Since starting to play the sport, Jiricek has been improving year after year. Initially playing the game as a forward, it wasn’t until he was a little older that David made the adjustment to playing defense. His time spent on the offensive side of the puck could be a big contributing reason why he has been able to develop into the player he is today. “I started in the offence, as a forward until I was 13 years old. Then I went to Plzen. So, I played Junior in Plzen on defense for a few years. Then at 16 years old I went to my first training, practice and game for the A team in Plzen.”
His hockey IQ, ability to walk the blue line, and make strong first passes out of the zone are regularly on display whenever he is on the ice. While he does not shy away from the offensive side of the game, due to his previous experience as a forward, Jiricek is still defensively responsible and does not usually get caught up ice. Jiricek is aware that his IQ as a player is one of his strongest, if not his strongest, asset and he will attribute his love of other sports for its development. “(My strongest asset) I think is my hockey sense. I played a lot of sports when I was younger, I played basketball, soccer and tennis as my summer hobbies. I think passing and first pass is my strongest. Hockey is the same thing. I am competitive, I know sports. I am a very competitive guy, and I think that playing a lot of sports has improved my hockey sense.”
The scouts around DraftPro seem to have the same thoughts as Jiricek, just going to show the players strong self-awareness of the game being played around him. Scout Murray Caldwell says “He is probably close to NHL ready. When he thinks there is an opportunity in the O-zone, he just explodes off the line to get into the play. The kid is a stud for sure. I am sure we will see great things from him within a few years.” DraftPro scout Kai Farenholtz had very similar words to say about the young defenseman, “There’s no one in this draft that has a hotter slapshot than Jiricek, the guy generates enough juice in that thing to power a whole apartment building. In my eyes, one of the safest picks in the draft regarding overall potential. He’s definitely top-3 in terms of highest floor and NHL readiness.”
Not only does Jiricek seem to have an innate ability to read the game and acknowledge that it is one of his strongest assets, he is also very fair in his own negative assessments, proving to be a professional minded player, and one looking and trying to improve every day. When asked for what he thought he could work more on, even as a 6’3” and 190Lbs 18-year-old, Jiricek pointed out that his strength could still use some work, as well as some of his 1-on-1 battling in the defensive zone. But really, at 18, these are very common areas to improve and can be improved greatly with the right coaching plan and schemes.
“I think my strength, my strength in the gym. I could be stronger” and “(To) combat better and have better placing in the defensive zone, some one-on-one places. That can be difficult for me because I think I am a little weak, so that’s tough.” These are just a few comments made from an 18-year-old elite prospect. Another area that Jiricek seems to nail on the head in terms of knowing his own game as scout Farenholtz had this to say in regard to his strength “He’s already got a big frame that I can see him adding more muscle to in the future, especially to his lower body.”
His desire to work on his game, even as such a high ranked player, just goes to show his work-ethic and competitive nature.
When asked about his training regime, he was willing to share a little about what it is he does to help himself improve. “In the summer, there’s more time on a day-to-day basis, to work with my strength coach. This is my first goal for next summer, to gain kilo’s and to build more strength. I call them (strength coach), I think once or twice a week. He sends me some training in the season, but it is very difficult because of games and practices everyday, so it is not time to gain. So, in the summer I have everyday physical training. I do about 30 minutes of training at home, and then 1 hour in the gym with the team and then practice on the ice. After practice on the ice is when we go to the gym and do exercises. In the afternoon.”
His schedule is busy, between games and practices, Jiricek is left with little time to do much else. It’s tough to imagine for a kid that is just old enough now to be finishing high school. The professional mentality, desire to do better, and competitive attitude are driving factors in being as good as he is and keeping the fire burning for a hockey player’s demanding schedule. “We play three times a week for the club, so it was tough for me because I go to school in Plzen, I am from Klatovy, I play in Plzen, so I am travelling. I am trying, I am trying to be better and better.” Even with the busy schedule and grueling practices, Jiricek wouldn’t want to do anything else. When asked if he could do anything in the world, what would it be, his answer was simple, “Maybe one thing, hockey. I love hockey.”
Jiricek has been playing against older competition from a young age. Since 16 he has played for the A team of Plzen and has needed to develop faster than many kids his age would need to. The transition from junior hockey to the A team would seem like a rather large jump for a young player such as Jiricek, but he seems to have handled it pretty smoothly and without overthinking much as many young kids can find themselves doing. “Juniors is more skating, more skating on transitions. Playing on the highest level, instead, older guys have more strength and hockey sense.” It’s the old adage of work smarter not harder, hockey edition. He can use his natural body size to assist with playing against the older stronger guys as well, scout Farenholtz seems to be a fan of the long reach that comes with the 18-year-olds large frame, “He’s got the wingspan of an NBA player, making his defensive stickwork a pain to play against. He isn’t the most creative guy on the planet, but he doesn’t have to be. He’s a heads-up two-way d-man that does what he needs to do to be effective and he’s a presence in all zones.”
The game comes naturally to him, and he allows himself to just play the way he can without letting his thoughts take over. “Everything is in my own head, my own brain. If I see a player (open), I pass to him. This is my first goal, my first top skill, is my hockey sense.”
Jircek took this mentality and work ethic with him to the World Junior Championships (WJC) where, in the short time we were able to watch him play, he was seen as a calming presence on the blue line and in his defensive end. Whether it was stopping the play as it crossed the blue line, making a first pass from behind the net to start a rush, or breaking up an odd man rush, Jiricek’s experience playing with an older crowd was seen and on full display through the first period and half against a strong Canadian team. He always seemed to make the right plays at the right times. Because of this, it was a devastating blow to the Czech team when they lost their star defenseman to the awkward hit in the second period.
Trying to make a play on a dashing Will Cuylle as he received a pass and crossed the red line on a Canadian break out, Jiricek stepped up to the plate to deliver a big hit. Jiricek appeared to have mistimed the hit by just a half a second and ended up going hip-to-hip with the young Canadian. This hit would prove to be Jiricek’s last hit and shift of the WJC. He would leave the game because of a knee injury, an injury that unfortunately has put a damper on his whole season. “Yeah, I was sitting on the bench, and I realized (how bad it was). It was tough for me because as a player you want to keep playing. I think I realized then, and the game kept going.”
He still loved the experience of the tournament though and had nothing but good things to say about his time in Canada. A true professional attitude. “It was amazing. It was an award for us. I was there twice. I was there last year, we lost in the quarterfinal. It was fun, a very good tournament. Very good, very young guys. Highest level of hockey (for the age bracket), so it was a good experience.”
Even with just his teammates around him due to the Covid-19 protocols, he seemed to enjoy his stay, even off the ice. He said while smiling, “We played some cards, because of Covid we had to be in the hotel, so it was difficult. But we played some video games, watched some films, so that’s about all.” Growing up playing tournaments myself and spending weekends in a hotel room, I couldn’t help but ask the types of games the team found themselves playing. The answer wasn’t much of a surprise. “NHL, and FIFA soccer, yeah that’s my favorite game.”
Since returning home from the tournament, Jiricek has been able to get surgery on his knee and is currently awaiting the results and a plan for rehabilitation. He seems to be good spirits and even still holding some hope that he might just make an appearance again this season. “It was tough, so we will see. I am waiting for results from surgery, so we will see how what is next. I go to rehabilitation for three months. We’ll see if I can play this year or next.”
Jiricek gave his thoughts on the upcoming draft and how he was feeling about it, he didn’t seem to be letting it get to him too much, “This is my first (major injury), we will see what happens in June and July, in the Combine, we will see what happens. What happens it doesn’t matter.” In the end, it is about getting healthy and letting the injury heal, where he falls on the rankings list doesn’t seem to be his number one priority. He just wants to play in the NHL day, however that opportunity arises.
When asked about where he sees himself in the next five years his response said it all, “I want to play in the NHL in the next 5 years. I mean, maybe I play in Europe, I don’t know.” While no one knows exactly where some of these players end up playing in their futures, it would be very surprising to many scouts if Jiricek is playing anywhere but the NHL. DraftPros own Mikko Saarela says it well when asked about his thoughts on Jiricek, “Absolutely elite slapshot. He’s very active off the puck but you rarely see him making mistakes.”
When it comes to the kids looking up to players like Jiricek and wanting to be in his shoes someday, Jiricek has some simple advice on what to work on. “I think everything, in order to be in the NHL. Just play hockey.”
Photos courtesy HC Plzen