When the Florida Panthers loaned goaltending prospect Alexander Salak this past August to Elitserien club Farjestads BK Karlstad, the move drew relatively minor notice on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Simply, with top Panthers prospect Jacob Markstrom on his way to North America for his rookie season, the 23-year-old Salak needed more playing time than he was likely to get with the American Hockey League's Rochester Americans.
The move to Sweden, though, has ended up paying big dividends for the Swedish club this season.
Salak has been the top goaltender in Elitserien as the 2010-11 campaign enters the stretch drive of the regular season. His 1.91 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and 6 shutouts are all tops in the league among all qualifying goaltenders.
Farjestad, a perennial championship contender -- six consecutive appearances in the finals between 2000-01 and 2005-06 and has won five Swedish championships (most recently in 2008-09) in the last 14 seasons -- has relied heavily on the Czech netminder. Salak, who has started 28 of 45 games, has generally been more effective than the other half of the goaltending tandem, Cristofer Nihlstorp.
"He has had to make two or three outstanding saves in every game," Farjestad goaltending coach Erik Granqvist said to local newspaper Värmlands Folkbladet. "Obviously, it's fantastic for him and for us that he's posted six shutouts. But it's been a team effort, all the defensemen, and everyone who contributes. Obviously, he can't blank other teams all by himself."
There are 10 games remaining in the regular season.
"Thing have gone good for me this season. But the most important thing is be in a good rhythm for the playoffs. That's our focus right now," Salak said.
Despite his youth, Salak is already a seasoned veteran of European hockey who has excelled in the Czech junior leagues in the Ceske Budejovice system, Finland's SM-Liiga with TPS Turku and now in Sweden. Unselected in the NHL Entry Draft (he was eligible from 2005 to 2007), he was signed as a free agent by the Florida Panthers in the spring of 2009 after the 6-foot-2 butterfly stylist completed his second consecutive strong season with TPS.
Salak made his North American debut last year, spending most of the 2009-10 season in the AHL with Rochester. He started 48 regular-season games and two playoff games for the Amerks, compiling a 2.89 GAA and .910 save percentage.
He also got a brief taste of the NHL, relieving Tomas Vokoun in the third period of a 7-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 9. After a subsequent recall while Vokoun was out with an injury, Salak also put in a relief appearance for Scott Clemmensen in a Dec.3 tilt against the power-packed Washington Capitals. With the score already 2-0 in the Caps' favor midway through the first period, Salak entered the net. The Caps strafed the rookie for four additional goals (three on the power play, one shorthanded) during the remainder of the game.
"Obviously, the NHL has the best players in the world," Salak said. "Those were tough games and I came in cold but you have to learn from it and make the saves when you get a chance to play."
Salak, who has said that he still hopes to get back to the NHL in the future, preferred returning to Europe this season as a starter than serving as a backup to Markstrom in the AHL. As a result, he was agreeable to the loan to Farjestad in the second season of the two-year contract he signed with Florida. At a press conference to announce the acquisition, FBK general manager Thomas Rundqvist and Granqvist provided what has proven to be an accurate scouting report on the netminder.
"We have scouted him on several occasions and been impressed with what we've seen. He has a modern, aggressive playing style, with fast legs and sees the puck well even in heavy traffic," Rundqvist told FBK's official site.
Added Granqvist, "He's very athletic and mobile with active hands. He's extremely ambitious and someone we can develop."
One thing that has gotten Salak in trouble at times during his career is his hot temper on the ice. Opponents can sometimes throw him off his game by crashing the net, and he has been known to let bad goals or unpenalized contact by an opposing player cause him to lose focus. He has already racked 41 penalty minutes this season and served a two-game suspension. The banishment came as a result of an incident on Jan. 8 that saw a frustrated Salak chase after Timra IK forward Bjorn Svensson and strike him in the head with his blocker.
When he's locked in, Salak has been all but unbeatable, as Lulea HF can readily attest. Among his six shutouts this season, three have come at Lulea's expense.
"I have no explanation for it," he said. "It's a good story for you [media] guys, but there's no special reason."
Salak has deflected questions about the possibility of playing for the Czech Republic at the 2011 World Championships. He prefers to focus first on the remainder of the current season. However, given his success and youth, there is a solid possibility that he could play for the national team this spring.