Following a trend that has become much more commonplace in recent years, Latvian-born defenseman Oskars Bartulis opted to continue his junior career in North America, arriving in the QMJHL to play for the Moncton Wildcats two seasons ago. But the transition from the European game was not the only adjustment the then 17-year old had to make.
At the time, Bartulis was still relatively new to the blue line, having played as a forward in Russia as recently as the previous season. He actually started out as a defenseman in his homeland, but received most of his formative training as a center.
"He proved to be a quick learner," said Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren of Bartulis, the team's second selection (third round, 91st overall) of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. "Really, it's very impressive what he's done. To come over and settle into the lifestyle, the pace of the game and the smaller rinks here is one thing.
"To do all of that while still learning a new position…especially defense, which is the toughest for a skater to learn, well, that's just very impressive, and speaks to his intelligence and hockey sense, as well as his athleticism."
Bartulis not only continued to adapt to his new position, he excelled at it. Since debuting in the 'Q,' he has gone on to establish himself as one of the top two-way defensemen in the circuit.
A key contributor to Moncton's Memorial Cup run last season, Bartulis was traded to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles during the summer. The 6'2", 190-pounder is expected to turn pro next season; he signed a three-year entry level contract with the Flyers last September.
"It's a good situation for him this year [in Cape Breton], as Moncton is moving into a rebuilding phase," said Holmgren. "He's with another team that's looking to contend now, and he'll get more experience as a go-to guy in a new environment. It'll be a good thing for him as he prepares to move up next season."
The Gift of Hockey
Bartulis was born and raised in Ogre, a village of roughly 26,500 located 22 miles east of the Latvian capital of Riga. While his fortunes would eventually be tied to Riga -- the center of the country's hockey community -- he still connects with and speaks fondly of the tranquil nature and serenity of his hometown.
Orge, which took its name from the nearby Ogre River (and bears no relation to the creatures of European folklore), is a popular resort destination in central Latvia. Many of the more prominent members of society in Riga, in fact, maintain summer cottages there, amid the beautiful pinewoods the town has long been known for.
"In Ogre, the pace of life was slower," Bartulis explained. "It was very different from Riga, the big city in Latvia, or the big cities [in North America] like Philadelphia. It was peaceful, very quiet. Life was simple there, and it was a good place to grow up and explore things I was interested in."
One of those activities, of course, was hockey. However, while Bartulis had been a fan and had expressed interest in the sport from an early age, he got a late start in playing at an organized level.
"I will always remember Christmas when I was eight years old," he reminisced. "My uncle gave me a hockey helmet, and I was so excited. I wore it all day, and I still have it. The next month, for my birthday, my parents bought me a pair of skates. Not long after that, I was playing [in a league] and have loved it ever since."
Bartulis, a natural athlete, quickly gained the attention of Latvian hockey officials. He was heavily-scouted by HC Riga 2000, the country's top hockey program, but ultimately was recruited to play for Prizma Riga. Because Latvia does not have a junior system to speak of, most promising young players move up to the senior league at an early age, then seek opportunities abroad.
This would prove to be Bartulis' destiny. He debuted in the Latvian Elite League at age 15 in 2001-02, tallying one goal and one assist for Prizma. The following season, he earned more ice time, recording 10 points (5 goals, 5 assists) in 12 games.
By the time he was 17, Bartulis had proven that he could compete against grown men with much greater levels of experience in Latvia's top circuit. As such, there appeared to be little he could gain from continuing his development in his homeland.
Fortunately, bigger and better opportunities loomed on the horizon.
Russian to Conclusions
Bartulis received a big break when he was chosen to represent Latvia at the 2002-03 World Under-18 Championships (Division-I).
There, he turned in a terrific effort, notching four points (one goal, three assists) and a plus-2 rating in five games while playing as a center. Most importantly, his performance caught the attention of officials from Russia's legendary CSKA Moscow program (formerly Red Army), who convinced him to leave the Latvian league.
After accepting their invitation, Bartulis was assigned to CSKA's third-tier team for the 2003-04 campaign. During the season, the team's coaching staff took note of his superior skating ability and tinkered with the idea of using him as a defenseman. Though he also continued to play as a forward, he gradually saw more time on the blue line as the year progressed.
Bartulis would finish the season with eight points (two goals, six assists) and 32 penalty minutes in 44 games.
"The under-18 tournament opened a big door for me," he remembers. "That was my first time representing my country in an international tournament, and I took a great deal of pride in doing that. Playing well gave me the chance to move to Russia to continue my career, like a lot of Latvian players do."
Bartulis cited longtime NHL defenseman and fellow Latvian native Sandis Ozolinsh as a player he admired while growing up who followed a similar path.
"Ozolinsh did the same thing, moving from the Latvian league to Russia to play, before coming to the NHL," he continued. "He was a favorite player of mine I always liked to watch, along with Karlis Skrastins (who left Latvia for Finland before coming to North America).
"I learned a lot in my one season in Russia. The coaching staff there was helpful; there were a lot of great teachers. [CSKA] is a top school, so they prepare you well for whatever you go on to do in hockey. Learning to play on defense was good, and helped me to become a better player."
Bartulis initially had every intention of returning to CSKA in 2004-05, but would eventually change his mind on the advice of close friend Martins Karsums, a teammate for three seasons in the Prizma system.
Karsums, who left Latvia to join the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL the previous season, convinced Bartulis to follow him across the Atlantic. Bartulis weighed his options before deciding to go for it. The Wildcats then selected him with the 27th overall pick of the 2004 CHL Import Draft, and a new chapter in the Latvian native's career was about to unfold.
"I sort of asked him if he wanted to come to Canada," Karsums told Hockey's Future in a 2005 interview. "And I just told him [Moncton] was the place to come to."
Explained Bartulis: "It was kind of a tough choice, only because there were a lot of unknowns. But I always trust Martins, and I was anxious to come to Canada and play for Moncton. That was a very exciting time."
Making the Jump
When Bartulis arrived in Moncton for training camp, the Wildcats coaching staff was pleasantly surprised to learn about his conversion to the blue line in Russia. The team was even more thrilled with the skill and veteran-like savvy he displayed at his relatively-new position, and how easily he adjusted to the North American game.
Because defensive depth was a perceived weakness of the Wildcats heading into the 2004-05 season, it was decided that Bartulis would start off on the backline and move to forward if he struggled.
There would never be a reason to make the switch.
"He didn't play much defense until recently," explained Moncton Head Coach Allan Power early in the campaign. "We thought we were getting a centerman and we ended up with a defenseman, which was a good hole to fill. And he's doing very, very, well for a guy who didn't play much, who might have played defense for a couple of months before showing up to training camp."
Bartulis was paired with fourth-year veteran Nathan Saunders, with whom he developed an instant chemistry. The duo logged big minutes in all game situations, with the rough-and-tumble Saunders providing the toughness (he accumulated 198 penalty minutes that year). Bartulis played a steady finesse game, while also contributing offensively.
At the time, Bartulis was listed at only 6'2" and 178 pounds. However, while not a physical player per se, he was not afraid of contact. Positionally, he was rock solid, rarely committing a costly mistake or turnover. Bartulis would finish his rookie season with the Wildcats with a very respectable 24 points (five goals, 19 assists) and 55 penalty minutes in 62 games.
He earned greater exposure by being selected to the play in the CHL Top Prospects Game in Vancouver, and also suited up for Latvia at the Division-I World Junior Championships, recording an impressive seven points (one goal, six assists) and a plus-13 rating in five games.
"I would say it took me about one month to make the adjustment to playing in North America," he said. "The rinks are smaller here and the game is more shooting and less passing, unlike in Europe. And the style of play is rougher. There is more physical play.
"It took me a little time, but I think I got used to it quickly. I really enjoyed my first season in Moncton."
Bartulis is also quick to credit Karsums with helping him make the jump and settle into his new environment.
"Martins, my friend, was already here," he explained. "At the beginning, he was my interpreter and helped me with everything. I'll always remember that. Everything was new to me, but my other teammates and the coaches were great also. They all helped me so much."
After the season, Bartulis made his debut with Team Latvia at the IIHF World Championships, getting into one game. He played sparingly, drawing a holding penalty and being on the ice for one goal against.
"Just that one game, but it was a very big deal," he said. "Of course, I wish I could play more, but to wear my country's jersey and be in the tournament with the best players in the world was fun."
The exposure Karsums gained by coming to the QMJHL in 2003-04 paid off, as a strong rookie season resulted in his being drafted by the Boston Bruins in the second round (64th overall) of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Bartulis enjoyed the spoils one year later, when the Flyers made him the team's first ever Latvian draftee.
"No, I didn't think I'd go so early as the third round," he said. "That was a big surprise, but, of course, I was so happy. There still are only a few number of Latvians who have been drafted, so this was [a big deal]."
"Bartulis is a good skater and reads the play well," explained Holmgren after the draft. "He'll need to get bigger to compete in the NHL, but there are a lot of things we like about him."
Don Matheson, a regional scout for the Boston Bruins, scouted Bartulis heavily during his debut season in the Q.
"If you didn't know he had been a forward," he told Hockey's Future prior to the draft, "the way he reads things and plays the position, you would think he had been a defenseman for a long time, quite honestly. That's an attribute, perhaps, to the way he thinks about the game."
Bartulis put on 10 pounds of solid muscle over the summer, and returned to Moncton for his second season in the Q with a new sense of confidence and determination. His offensive numbers increased only slightly from the previous year -- to 31 points (six goals, 25 assists) in 54 games -- but his overall game was much improved. He also displayed more of an aggressive edge, reflected in his 84 penalty minutes.
The sophomore rearguard continued to earn more ice time and responsibility on a team that had acquired top defensive prospects Luc Bourdon and Keith Yandle to an already impressive stable of talent. The Wildcats enjoyed a terrific season, winning the QMJHL title, but ultimately fell to league rival Quebec in the Memorial Cup final.
Bartulis was a major factor in the team's success along the way. He stepped up his game in a big way during the postseason, registering 10 points (one goal, nine assists), 22 penalty minutes and a phenomenal plus-22 rating in 21 total games.
He also suited up for the last time for Latvia at the World Junior Championships, though he was held off the scoreboard and was a minus-3 in three games for an overmatched squad.
"I think we continue to see nothing but progression in Oskars'game this season," explained Holmgren. "From his willingness to increase his workout and get bigger over the summer to the way he took his game to another level with Moncton on their Memorial Cup run, we saw some very encouraging signs - very encouraging."
Added Bartulis: "Last season, I thought, was very big for my development. I felt like I was becoming a better player. I wish we could have won the Memorial Cup, but it was a great effort. We were a very close team, and we played hard."
With offensive leaders like Philippe Dupuis, Stephane Goulet, Adam Pineault and defenseman Yandle moving on to the pro ranks in 2006-07, the Wildcats made the decision to enter a rebuilding phase. Shortly after the season ended, Bartulis was dealt to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
"I wasn't surprised by the trade at all, though I was sad to leave Moncton," Bartulis explains. "I really loved it there. But [then-Wildcats head coach and director of hockey operations] Ted Nolan met with me after the season and talked to me about what was best.
"I really appreciate what he did. They traded me to a good team that has a better chance of winning for my final season [in the QMJHL]."
Bartulis continued to put on muscle over the summer, increasing his weight to 195 pounds. He went on to have very strong showings at both the Flyers' prospect mini-camp and regular training camp in September, earning the chance to appear in two exhibition games with the Philadelphia Phantoms.
He was eventually reassigned to Cape Breton, but not before inking his first pro contract with the Orange and Black.
"We are extremely excited about having him signed," said Holmgren in making the announcement. "We thought that he was one of the top young defensemen in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season and he certainly should be one of the top defensemen in that league this season.
"We look for big things from him this year and big things from him in the future. He has really good size and still has room to grow. He is an extremely good skater and is very good with the puck. He can play big minutes and is a very good young prospect."
Bartulis got off to a slow start with Cape Breton, mostly due to suffering a concussion and a wrist injury in the early going. He has since recovered and, as expected, has formed a top defensive pairing with Minnesota Wild draftee J.C. Sawyer.
Presently, the pride of Ogre ranks seventh overall on the team with 45 points (12 goals, 33 assists), 42 penalty minutes and a plus-20 rating in 50 games.
Bartulis also participated in the WJC Division-I tournament, as Latvia was regulated and did not qualify for the top level competition this year. The team fell short of earning a trip to next year's tournament, but Bartulis was stellar in recording seven assists, a plus-4 rating and six penalty minutes in five games.
He was honored as the best defenseman in the tournament by the IIHF directorate.
"I'm proud of what I've been able to accomplish so far, but there is more to do," said Bartulis, whose Screaming Eagles team currently owns the second-best record in the QMJHL at 44-19-2-0. "We feel we can go for the Memorial Cup title this year and that is something I want to add before I leave.
"I need to focus on helping Cape Breton now and finishing our goals here. But, I'm looking forward to coming to Philadelphia next year and playing, with the Flyers or the Phantoms, whatever is best for me."
Competition on the blue line should be very interesting to watch at next year's training camp, with Bartulis joining a promising young stable that also recently added Braydon Coburn and Lasse Kukkonen, along with OHL standout Ryan Parent, who is also set to turn pro in 2007-08.
Added Holmgren: "Oskars is a player we're really looking forward to getting in here. We think he has a great deal of untapped potential, even though he's already shown how talented he is in juniors. He probably still needs to continue to put on a little muscle, but that will come.
"I don't know that he'll be ready for the NHL next season. That's something we'll have to wait and see on, and see what happens between now and then. But, we really like his potential."