By: Chad Lynch
When the Phoenix Coyotes used their seventh-round draft pick (208th overall) in 2003, they were trying to find a good, young player who would improve over time. They wanted to find a player that possessed size, strength and a wealth of skill. They wanted a safe pick. What they got was Randall Gelech.
At the time of the draft, Gelech, at least on paper, didn't appear to be much of an offensive threat. In fact, in his first two seasons with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League (WHL), Gelech had only posted 18 points (7 goals, 11 assists) and 52 penalty minutes in 99 games. But Gelech was also just 16-years-old when he broke in with Kelowna and after two seasons of limited ice time, he was ready to make 2002-03 his breakout year.
That season (2002-03), Gelech elevated his game and wound up scoring 45 points (25 goals, 20 assists) and registered 93 penalty minutes in 67 games. He continued to hold the hot hand in the playoffs as he scored 12 points (8 goals, 4 assists) in 19 games.
"Randall really matured as a player during the 2002-03 season," said San Antonio Rampage (Phoenix's American Hockey League affiliate) Head Coach Pat Conacher. "He came into the WHL at such a young age and it took him a couple years to find his identity as a player, but once he did, he latched onto it."
The following season, Gelech again raised the bar, this time by posting 49 points (30 goals, 19 assists) and recording 117 penalty minutes in 71 games. He also led the team in the post-season collecting 14 points (10 goals, 4 assists) en-route to a Memorial Cup title.
The change in Gelech's game coincided with his decision to step into the role of a scorer; a role he doesn't plan on giving up any time soon.
"After my second season in Kelowna, I really wanted to make a change in my game and I was given a chance to assume a larger role," said Gelech. "I began to understand the game better and my own game was maturing at the same time. I earned more ice time and power play time and I eagerly took on the role of a scorer and since then I have been playing the best hockey of my life."
In 2004-05, Gelech was again asked to assume a greater sense of responsibility when he was sent to the Coyotes former AHL affiliate club in Utah. There, Gelech finished second on the club in goals (15) and fourth in points (27) in his first season of professional hockey.
"His hockey sense really set him apart from a lot of other players last season," said Conacher. "He was ahead of the curve in understanding the game in all three zones. I could put him out there against the other team's best line, I could put him out there on the power play, it didn't matter, he was up to the challenge."
This season, Gelech is again ready to tout his offensive ability, but first he is focused on the 2005 Rookie Tournament. Back in 2003, Gelech helped lead the Coyotes to the rookie tournament title as he posted six points (2 goals, 4 assists) in the four game series. However, last season saw the Coyotes squad finish a disappointing third place, a performance Gelech refuses to let repeat itself.
"This tournament is very important not only to myself, but everyone on this team," said Gelech. "There's no Stanley Cup waiting for the winners or any trophy, but our pride is on the line and for any athlete at this level, that is enough.
As far as the coaching staff is concerned, this is a perfect chance for Gelech to step forward and become a team leader.
"I expect for him to be a dominating force this week," said Conacher. "He should be one of the best players on the ice every game. I expect him to use this tournament as a springboard into next week's training camp and hopefully earn a look for moving up to the next level."
Like a fine wine, Gelech has only gotten better with age. In just a few short years, he has transformed himself from a 7th round draft pick into a dominant offensive threat in the WHL and then the AHL. He has turned his 6-foot-3 body into the mountain of muscle you would expect to see on a gritty, power forward. Now the questions surrounding Gelech are not "if he will be a good player", but rather, "just how good will he be?