After losing the likes of Nathan Smith, Yannick Tremblay and Brandon Reid in the off-season, alongside nine other players who jumped ship, the Moose spent the summer retooling their roster.
Thirteen new players were brought in (seven forwards, five defencemen and a goaltender), and although these newcomers offer a lot of promise for Manitoba, it’s tough to find any facial hair on the majority of them.
Of the 13 first-year players, 10 are below the age of 25, meaning the Moose are clearly relying on their youth to help them capture a second consecutive division title and third 100-point season in as many years.
Twenty-year-old forward Juraj Simek is one of the players Manitoba will be leaning on throughout the season.
The 6’1”, 189-pound native of Presov, Slovakia, was Vancouver’s 6th round choice, 167th overall, in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. He joins the Moose this season after tearing it up last year with the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Western Hockey League. Brandon’s first choice of the 2006 Canadian Hockey League Import draft, Simek helped lead the Wheaties to a first place finish in the Eastern Conference’s East Division. He finished the season fifth in team scoring and eighth in overall rookie scoring with 28 goals and 29 assists in 58 games, while tallying an impressive 17 powerplay goals.
“It was a real good season and I really learned a lot,” said Simek, who started skating at the age of four. “Coach played me a lot and that helped me improve my game and I think I got better defensively there, and I got to play a lot of special teams so that was good for me too.”
The Wheat Kings couldn’t get past the Calgary Hitmen in the Eastern Conference semi-finals last season, but Simek did his part recording one goal and five assists in nine playoff games.
Before heating up the cold Manitoban winter with his aggressive stick-handling and crafty skating, Simek played three seasons in Kloten, Switzerland, for the Kloten Flyers. His natural skills were apparent during his first two seasons with the team as he amassed 44 points in 75 games from 2003-2005, but his skills truly blossomed in the 2005-2006 season as he scored 24 goals and dished out 44 assists in 45 games.
After developing a lethal slap-shot and a tricky wrist shot to go along with his deceiving speed, Simek left Switzerland for Brandon in what he called “an easy decision.”
“Hockey is okay back home, it’s pretty big there but I want to make it to the NHL,” said Simek, the son of a retired national team handball player. “Back home it’s tough to advance because everybody is just happy where they are. They have a lot of money there and you have nobody to compete with you because if you have a spot on a team, you keep that spot, and here you have to work hard all day, everyday and work for your spot.”
Simek clearly has the work ethic needed to be successful in the AHL, and one day hopefully the NHL, but he recognizes that he still has a few flaws to his game.
“Defensively I need to get better. I need to be more active in the defensive zone and give more support to other players. Offensively I am strong on the puck and strong in the corners and in tight areas. I have a good shot and good playmaking ability; so I need to play better defensively.”
Simek has taken part in Vancouver’s last two rookie camps, and was invited to take part in Canucks’ main camp both times. Coaches had high praise for him this year, especially after some decent pre-season play, but Simek isn’t ready for the big leagues, much to the delight of Moose head coach Scott Arniel.
“I like a lot of the stuff he does, he’s got great offence and he’s got great tools and he’s got a good shot,” said the second year coach. “But it’s his play away from the puck that he’s going to have to continue to work on. It’s about more than just being on the offence and, like any young player, when you have success and you’re a scorer, you tend to maybe not worry about those areas. But at the pro level coaches worry about that stuff and you can’t be a liability when you don’t have the puck.
“I watched the exhibition games that he played with Vancouver and there are some things he needs to continue to work on, but that’s a big part of it. These guys come in here raw and as coaches we have to polish them up everyday and make them better and get them that one step away from being NHL players.”
Simek was pleased with his performance at Canucks camp this year and he believes his skills took a major leap from last year’s camp. The game seems to be getting easier for one of Vancouver’s brightest prospects, which will hopefully translate into more goals for the Canucks in a few seasons.
Until then, Simek will continue to skate hard and light the lamp for the Moose as much as possible. Oh, and work on his computer skills.
“I am getting used to it now,” said Simek about being playing so far away from home. “Last year, for the first two months it was really tough being without friends and family and my girlfriend, but now I am talking to my family through the computer almost every day, for sure 3-4 times a week.”