Skip to main content

How Kubalik Became a Blackhawk

By Chris Kuc

M

ats Hallin first set eyes on Dominik Kubalik five years ago when the winger was playing in the Czech Republic.

 

The Blackhawks' Director of European Scouting saw a player who stood out with his skating ability, lethal shot, tendency to take a direct path to the net and, in Hallin's words, "is a finisher."

 

Hallin, whose job along with pro scouts Peter Sundstrom and Anatoly Semenov - under the stewardship of Vice President of Pro Scouting Ryan Stewart - is to scour Europe for hidden gems that could blossom into valuable members of the Blackhawks organization.

 

Hallin included Kubalik in a scouting report to Stewart, who then relayed the information to Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman, noting that Kubalik was property of the Kings, who had selected him in the seventh round (191st overall) in the 2013 NHL Draft.

 

"We always keep track of other teams' draft picks and then we have small meetings and we decide who we're going to put on a list to suggest to Stan," Hallin said. "You never know, but we thought Kubalik had a good chance to make it. But when it's their property, we can't do anything and we suggested we do a trade for him."

The Blackhawks had previously mined Europe and signed Artemi Panarin, Dominik Kahun, Jan Rutta and Erik Gustafsson, among others, so Bowman was all ears when Stewart, Hallin and Co. approached him about Kubalik.

 

"Their job is to look for players in Europe that they think can play in the NHL and help our team," Bowman said. "So their focus is mostly on free agents because you don't have to trade for them, you can just sign them. In the process of that they will also mention if there is a player from another team that they believe might become available."

 

That was the case with Kubalik, who hadn't been signed by the Kings and was eager to begin an NHL career.

 

"They didn't know why he hadn't signed," Bowman said of his scouting group. "They just said, 'There's this player that we like so if you're ever in discussion with L.A., maybe just ask about him.'"

 

While the scouts continued to monitor Kubalik's progress - Hallin said he saw the Plzen, Czech Republic, native play approximately 15 games - Bowman got to work. He began by watching video of Kubalik, who was tearing up the National League in Switzerland while with HC Ambri Piotta after successful international stints with Team Czech Republic, and then sought the advice of someone who was familiar with him.

 

"You do your research on him and I had noticed that he had played in Sudbury years ago with Dominik Kahun, who was with us at the time," Bowman said. "I went and asked Dominik one day, 'What can you tell me about (Kubalik)?' and he had a big smile and said, 'Oh, he's a great player. I haven't played with him recently but I know he's having a really good year, he's a great guy, really talented.'"

Late in 2018, Bowman made a phone call to Kings General Manager Rob Blake.

 

"I just said, 'There's a player and I'm not sure what your plans are with him, but we like him,'" Bowman said of Kubalik.

 

Blake told Bowman that the Kings were hoping to sign Kubalik but he wasn't sure how the process would play out. Meanwhile, Kubalik was yearning to bring his game to the NHL and had been working with his agent, Jiri Hamal, on facilitating a move to North America.

 

"I felt like I'd like to try to move up in my career and make another step," Kubalik said. "Me and my agent knew that we would do anything we could to have an NHL contract for the next year."

 

Bowman remained on the case, keeping in contact with Blake.

 

"Nothing really happened right away," Bowman said. "I checked in with (Blake) again and then there was something going on there and it appeared like maybe (Kubalik) wasn't in their plans so I said, 'Well, we're trying to find players' and the discussion went on. We had a follow-up call and then at that point they finally decided, 'OK, well, we'll trade him. We're looking for a draft pick.'

 

"For us, whenever you trade a draft pick away you don't do it lightly because we believe in the draft as well but the hope was Dominik could come over and he's already done a lot of his developing," Bowman continued. "He was already a ready-made player, he's 24 years old."

 

On January 24, 2019, the Blackhawks sent a fifth-round draft pick to the Kings in exchange for Kubalik, who got the call while on the bus following a game in Switzerland.

 

"When the trade came up I was actually really happy because I knew that, for example, with Panarin, Kahun and Rutta that Chicago was giving a chance to those guys so I felt good about it," Kubalik said.

Much of the Blackhawks hierarchy got their first good look at Kubalik at training camp and came away impressed. For his part, Kubalik was focused on proving that he was NHL-ready.

 

"You have to be confident so that's what I was trying to be," Kubalik said. "Come ready to be in the best shape that I could be to be NHL ready. The camp was really good and it was a good start."

 

Kubalik won a roster spot and began his NHL career in front of family and friends when the Blackhawks opened the season against the Flyers in Prague, Czech Republic, about 55 miles from his hometown of Plzen.

 

In his second game with the Blackhawks, their home opener against the Sharks on Oct. 10, Kubalik notched his first career goal and by then it was clear he had the skills to perform at the NHL level.

 

"You're always wondering if the transition will happen right away or if they need some time and we are well into the year and he's blossomed," Bowman said. "It's been great."

 

So great that Kubalik has proven to be one of the Blackhawks' most dangerous offensive weapons with 21 goals in 49 games this season including 10 in his last nine contests.

 

"You have some goals in your head and the first goal was to make the team and be on the roster and when I did it it was still trying to reaching your goals," Kubalik said. "Then I was like, 'OK, I'm going to get my first goal and get my confidence going and play well, do the little things right.' I knew the season would be up and down. Everybody has that during the season but I'm really happy with the way things are going right now."

So, too, is Bowman, who admitted he's surprised that Kubalik has been able to score on a current pace that would have him finish with 34 goals.

 

"If he would have scored 20 goals for the season it would have been a nice first year," Bowman said. "He was a high-scorer in Europe so we knew he had skill, we knew he could skate and shoot and had the ability to get to the net - those are the things that are obvious when you watch him play. What you don't know is how will he acclimate to a smaller rink? It's a different game here. In Europe it's more of a possession game.

 

"He's pretty much of a North-South kind of guy," Bowman continued. "He gets going and he gets up the ice and he puts pressure on the other team, throws the puck at the net. Those are somewhat simple things but some guys complicate the game too much. He manages the puck pretty well and he gets it going to the other end. Now, you can tell he's got his confidence and he's been able to a lot of opportunities he's converting at a higher rate right now. I don't know if it will stay that way but he's riding a hot streak right now and we want that to continue."

 

The Blackhawks will need that to continue if they are to remain in the hunt for a Western Conference postseason spot. With injuries having slowed the production of Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Dylan Strome, as well as a dip in scoring from Alex DeBrincat, the Blackhawks needed someone other than Patrick Kane to step up and provide some offense.

 

"Every year you need somebody to step forward that maybe you weren't expecting," Bowman said. "We were expecting Dominik to have an offensive impact on our team. I was hoping he could be a 20-goal scorer and that was probably a high expectation. Between 10 and 20 is pretty good for a first year in the league so for him to have 21 before his 50th game is impressive.

 

"He's finding those little holes to get himself some space and then he's got that quickness that he can accelerate and beat guys," Bowman added. "He's had breakaways and he's converted. He even had some early this year where he didn't score and he's hit some posts so he could certainly have 25 goals by now. So it's not a fluke watching what he's done."

Kubalik's emergence will likely result in a big payday next season. He signed a one-year, $925,000 entry-level contract on May 29 and will look to make a deal to remain with the Blackhawks.

 

"I would love to stay, that's for sure - no question about it," Kubalik said. "But I don't worry about that. There are still 31 games this season. I just need to prepare and be ready for that."

 

Bowman, who has decisions to make on a number of free agents for the 2020-21 season, said that adding Kubalik to that financial mix is a good problem to have.

 

"He'll have a new contract next year," Bowman said. "You need as many good players as you can have so I think it's a good situation to be in. We're just looking for Dominik to continue to improve and build on where he's at. He's had a great run but we don't want this to be the end of it. We want him to keep playing a bigger role on our team."

 

Watching Kubalik turn into an offensive force has given Bowman a sense of pride knowing the effort the European scouting staff - and his own - has paid off in a big way.

 

"Whenever you can find a player like that who a year ago at this time wasn't even on our team and now is a big part of it, it's great," Bowman said. "You need to have some of those things go well for your team to push forward. We're still looking to find the next player like that, whether he's another team's player that we want to trade for or a free agent. There isn't always somebody but we're out there looking and we're going to chase them down if there is."