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Rookie Bartulis Seals Starting Job

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
There is a lot of Ogre in Philadelphia Flyers rookie defenseman Oskars Bartulis -- Ogre, Latvia that is. It was in this central Latvian town of 26,500 people that the 22-year-old was born and raised. It’s a long way from the pinelands of Ogre to Broad Street in Philadelphia, but it looks like Bartulis is here to stay for awhile.

Now in his third professional season, Bartulis improved slowly but steadily over the course of two AHL campaigns with the Phantoms. Following a solid training camp with the big club, Bartulis earned a call-up in November after 12 games this season with the Phantoms. He quickly impressed now-former head coach John Stevens and has continued his solid play under new bench boss Peter Laviolette.
Oskars Bartulis is the only Latvian-born player to ever be drafted by the Flyers. (Getty Images)

In so doing, the Flyers first Latvian player has moved up on the NHL depth chart. Bartulis has become a regular starter in the Flyers’ lineup, paired with Ryan Parent (with whom he was also paired at times in the AHL). Even prior to his call-up, Bartulis was a candidate for the Latvian Olympic team.

“I have to prove myself every day,” said Bartulis. “The players in the NHL are so skilled and I have to show I belong. The Flyers have shown a lot of faith in me and I want to play good for the team.”

The Flyers recently rewarded Bartulis with a three-year contract extension. General manager Paul Holmgren says that Bartulis is an example of a player using his time in the American Hockey League to grow and improve his game. A converted forward, Bartulis only had a few seasons of junior experience as a defenseman prior to signing his first pro contract. Rather than becoming frustrated quickly and returning to Europe, Bartulis stayed committed for the long haul.

“We like the poise Oskars has shown. He’s a young defenseman but he’s pretty calm under pressure,” said general manager Paul Holmgren. “He skates well and he moves the puck effectively. As far as [his offensive game] goes, that’s something that might come over time.”

Latvian roots

The name of Bartulis’ hometown of Ogre, Latvia derives from its proximity to the Ogre River and has no relation to the mythical ogres of northern and western European folklore. Ogre has always been closely tied to Latvia’s capital city of Riga. Situated 22 miles east of Riga, Ogre became the place where many of the more prominent members of Riga society built summer cottages. Even during the oppression of the Soviet era, Ogre remained a lovely little town lined with pinewoods and a pace of life similar to the slow, flowing waters of the river.

In Latvia, Riga is the center of the hockey community -- all Latvian hockey schools are located in the capital. Latvia, however, lacks a junior league. Promising, young players from the hockey schools must either play in Latvia's senior league or move abroad. This is the path Bartulis followed.

The top Latvian hockey program, HC Riga 2000, produces almost all of the players who go on to play professionally and appear on the national team. Bartulis, however, was recruited to play for Prizma Riga, making his debut in the Latvian league at age 15. A swift-skating, but extremely skinny forward, Bartulis played nine games for Prizma in 2001-2002, scoring one goal and one assist, and earned more ice time the next year, tallying five goals and 10 points in 12 games.

As often happens with top young Latvian players, Bartulis then moved up to the more challenging environs of Russian hockey. After a strong showing at the 2002-03 World Under-18 Championships (Division One level), in which the pivot registered four points in five games, he was contacted by officials from the legendary CSKA Moscow (the former Red Army program) in Russia.

Bartulis was assigned to CSKA’s third team, to enable him to compete against a more appropriate level of opposition. Coaches thought he had potential to be a defenseman as well as a forward, and Bartulis skated a few shifts on the blue line in addition to playing center during the 44-game season. He scored two goals and eight points and also suited up for Latvia at both the Division One Under-18 Championships (three goals, five points, 16 penalty minutes in five games) and Division One World Junior Championships (two goals, four points, plus-3 defensive rating).

Joining a friend in Canada

Bartulis planned to return to Moscow to train with CSKA in the summer of 2003. But a talk with a friend soon changed his mind.

In 2003, the Moncton Wildcats used the 34th-overall selection in the CHL Import Player Draft to select Martins Karsums, one of Bartulis’ closest friends on Prizma (Note: Latvian players often drop the “s” off the end of their names in North America. Martins Karsums now goes by Martin and Oskars Bartulis may go by Oskar within a few years). The two played together with Prizma for three seasons. Karsums, now a rookie with the Providence Bruins in the AHL, scored 30 goals as a rookie for Moncton and was drafted by the Boston Bruins in the second round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. The player didn’t forget his friend back home. He lobbied the Wildcats to select Bartulis in the 2004 Import Draft and floated to Bartulis the idea of joining the Wildcats.

“I sort of asked him if he wanted to come to Canada. And I just told him this was the place to come to,” Karsums told Hockey’s Future. Things worked out so well with Karsums that the Wildcats rolled the dice on Bartulis as well. Still listed as a center, Bartulis was the 27th-overall pick of the 2004 Import Draft. The player, who grew up rooting for the Colorado Avalanche and lists countryman Sandis Ozolinsh and Avs captain Joe Sakic as his all-time favorite players, quickly agreed to play in North America.

When Karsums came to Moncton, he already had a good grasp on English from his schooling in Latvia and playing tournaments in the United States. Bartulis wasn’t as fortunate. When he first came to Canada he spoke virtually no English.

Bartulis’ English came along quickly, as did his adaptations to a new league, a smaller rink and a new position. Impressed by his speed, defensive awareness and ability to make a quick pass under pressure, the Wildcats shifted him from center to the blue line.

Quick transition

Bartulis quickly settled on to Moncton’s top pairing. Although he only carried 178 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame and was by no means a big hitting defenseman, Bartulis didn’t shy away from getting hit to make a play.

Just as importantly, the left-handed-shooting Latvian adapted remarkably fast to the positional demands of playing defense. Despite his lack of experience, he was rarely caught out of position and consistently made smart decisions with the puck.

In the locker room, he quickly gained acceptance from his young Canadian teammates. Although Bartulis socialized mostly with Karsums during his first few months with the team, he soon came out of his shell. Dubbed “Ozzy” by the Wildcats’ players, Bartulis became one of the guys.

Given his speed and skill set, Bartulis may have been an NHL Entry Draft selection even if he stayed in Europe. But the decision to come to North America greatly increased his exposure to North American scouts, including Philadelphia Flyers Quebec scout Simon Nolet and Don Matheson of the Bruins.

Bartulis participated in the 2004-05 CHL Top Prospects Game in Vancouver. He also played for his home country at the 2005 Division One World Junior Championships, dominating the tournament with seven points and a plus-13 rating in five games.

“If you didn’t know he had been a forward, the way he reads things and plays the position, you would think he had been a defenseman for a long time, quite honestly,” said Matheson in 2005. “That’s an attribute perhaps to the way he thinks the game.”

Bartulis finished his first season in Q with five goals and 24 points in 62 games. He also posted a solid plus-7 rating. In the playoffs, however, the Latvian had some problems, registering two points (one goal), 16 penalty minutes and a minus-7 rating in 12 games.

Bartulis ranked 47th among North American-based prospects in Central Scouting’s final 2004-05 ratings. After the junior season, he made his debut on the senior Latvian team at the 2005 IIHF World Championships, getting into one game.

Bartulis didn’t expect to go in the top three rounds of the 2005 Entry Draft, but was pleasantly surprised when he did crack the draft’s upper tier. With the 91st overall pick of the draft, the Philadelphia Flyers made Bartulis the first Latvian player drafted in team history.

“Bartulis is a good skater and reads the play well. He’ll need to get bigger to compete in the NHL, but there are a lot of things we like about him,” Holmgren said on draft day.

The road to the NHL

Bartulis’ confidence and performance grew in 2005-06. Although his goal scoring and points output only increased modestly (six goals, 31 points in 54 games), the statistics were not a good gauge on the progress of his play.

Now 10 pounds heavier at the start of the season, he played a little more aggressively. Bartulis logged heavy ice time in the second half of the season and emerged with a strong plus-16 rating. In the QMJHL playoffs and Memorial Cup, Bartulis was even better.

His play was a major contributing factor in the Wildcats reaching the Memorial Cup finals before succumbing to the Quebec Remparts. In all, Bartulis posted 20 points (including 19 assists) and a stellar plus-22 rating in 21 playoff games. He also suited for the final time for Team Latvia at the 2005-06 World Junior Championships – this time at the elite level.
We like the poise Oskars has shown. He’s a young defenseman but he’s pretty calm under pressure. He skates well and he moves the puck effectively." - Paul Holmgren

The summer of 2006 was a busy time for Bartulis. He continued to work out and increased his weight to 195 pounds. Shortly after the Memorial Cup, Moncton traded Bartulis to Cape Breton. In early September, he reported to the Flyers' rookie camp and appeared in two preseason games with the Philadelphia Phantoms before the club assigned him to Cape Breton.

On September of 2006 the Flyers signed Bartulis to a three-year entry-level contract. Bartulis went on to have a fine year in his final junior season, tallying 13 goals and 48 points in 55 regular season games and 3 goals and 12 points in 16 playoff tilts. Bartulis made his pro debut for the Phantoms the following October. He played sparingly in his first AHL season, dressing in 57 games and recording 21 points (20 assists).

“I tried to keep my game simple and learn to play at [the pro] level. There is less time to make plays and react compared to junior hockey,” Bartulis recalled.

Last season, Bartulis emerged as a Phantoms regular for then-coach John Paddock. The coach praised his puck moving ability and work ethic to the big club. By all accounts, Bartulis’ game progressed steadily over the course of the season. Nevertheless, the Flyers resisted the temptation to call him up to the big club and allowed him to continue his development over the full season. Over the course of this past summer, Bartulis added some additional strength and reported to camp in excellent condition.

The results have spoken for themselves. With Latvia having relatively slim pickings (compared to the world’s most dominant hockey countries) for its pool of Olympic candidates, Bartulis’ name was on the radar screen even prior to his strong play this fall. He’s only helped his chances with his performance since then. The rookie, however, takes nothing for granted, whether it’s his Olympic status or his ability to maintain his newly won starting role with the Flyers.

“It would be great to play in the Olympics if I get chosen,” he says. “But all I can do is go out and try to prove myself on the ice.”
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