When European players come to North America, there's always an adjustment to the style of hockey played on this side of the Atlantic.
In the case of Czech-born defenceman Jakub Zboril of the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, scouts didn't need long to see he would do just fine on the smaller rink with the more physical play.
Zboril, a 6-foot-1, 184-pound left-shot defender, had 13 goals and 33 points in 44 games. As skilled as he was offensively, he also had 73 penalty minutes and never backed away from physical play. NHL Central Scouting ranked him No. 12 on its final ranking of North American skaters for the 2015 NHL Draft.
"We think he's a solid two-way player," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr said. "His game with the puck, without the puck, I don't know there's too many holes in his game. … He's a solid two-way guy that these are the type of guys you see playing in the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs."
Zboril developed with his hometown Czech Republic team, Brno, but after he had 21 points in 36 games with the under-20 team last season as a 16-year-old, he wasn't sure he'd get quality ice time he felt he had earned in the top Czech men's league.
So he decided last summer that a move to North America was the best step in his development. The Sea Dogs selected him with the fifth pick of the 2014 Canadian Hockey League import draft.
Zboril knew a bit about the QMJHL; his older brother, Adam, spent the 2012-13 season with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan and now plays with SaiPa in Finland.
While Jakub said Adam didn't enjoy his North American experience, Jakub said he had no reservations.
"At the start it was pretty hard to say goodbye to my father," Zboril said. "But I was pretty excited to live on my own. It was hard to say goodbye, but when I got here it was not so bad."
Saint John arranged for Zboril to stay with a billet family that had housed European players in the past so they could help his transition. Zboril also took English classes to help him learn the language. His teammates offered some help, but in a good-natured way they weren't all that helpful.
"They're more laughing at me," Zboril said. "It's my accent; that stuff. They're repeating in my voice what I was saying."
While Zboril was open to joking with teammates, it was a different story for opponents.
"One of our first exhibition games we were playing in Charlottetown, and the play was down in their end coming back up our way and one of the Charlottetown players was challenging him to a fight the whole way up the ice," former Saint John coach Ross Yates said. "I was yelling, 'Jakub, no, no, no.' He dropped his gloves and knocked him over with one punch and that was it for the fight. When a 17-year-old does that, that's a pretty good sign that he's willing to get involved and not afraid. … He was finishing checks and playing hard in front of the net pretty much from Day One. That's just the style of play he plays."
As Marr said, "That's his game; keep your head up."
Learning when to rein in the physicality was an issue for Zboril. He was suspended twice, one game in December for kicking and two games in April for a hit to the head.
Despite those two incidents, Yates said he had no problem with Zboril's physical play.
"There were a few times he needed to pick his spots better," he said. "But he was pretty good at that, especially as a European coming over to the Quebec league. So we really didn't have a problem with that."
Zboril said he doesn't want to be viewed as just a physical player. He played on the power play and also the penalty kill this season, and was more than capable of starting the break out of the defensive zone and then joining the attack in the offensive zone.
"He's got a great slap shot," Yates said. "He's got a great wrist shot. He sees the ice well. He was decent defensively, played with a little bit of an edge."
Besides the suspensions he missed seven weeks after sustaining a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee Jan. 3. But when he returned he had five goals and six assists in his final 11 regular-season games and one goal and two assists in six QMJHL playoff games.
"He's a real gamer," Central Scouting's Troy Dumville said. "He brings a lot to the table. He's a good skater, has a great shot from the point and has good mobility. He plays good at both ends of the ice."
Zboril said he was happy with the season he had; NHL teams were as well, as he had 27 meetings during the NHL Scouting Combine. Others believe the best is yet to come for Zboril.
"He got a ton of ice time," Yates said. "He killed penalties, played power play, played most of the time against the top line of the opponent. He's only going to get better and better. Nothing will be new for him [next season]. He'll be comfortable coming in. I think this will be a real breakout year for him coming up."
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor