WINNIPEG – There they were – the “Czech Mafia” standing off to the side, presumably reminiscing about their childhood and the biggest of dreams that led them here. Together.
Years later and over 7,000 kilometres from Kladno, Jiri Tlusty, Michael Frolik and Ondrej Pavelec have all been reunited.
“I’m really excited. We’re great friends back home,” Tlusty, who missed most of the morning skate after an early arrival into Winnipeg, said standing in his new blue digs. “We grew up together and we still train together in the summertime, so it’s going to be a lot of fun to be on the same team.
“When I heard the news (about the trade), I was really excited. Leaving Raleigh was hard, but I’m really excited to be here and be part of the Jets. I played against them this year, twice. They were always in our faces. They play a really structured style and everyone was working really hard. It was really tough to play against the Jets and I’m really happy to be part of it now.”
Added Frolik: “It’s crazy that it happened. The ‘Czech Mafia’ has definitely gotten bigger. The team already didn’t like me and Pav (talking in Czech), and now we’ve got one more.
“We’re going to help him as much as we can, so we’ll all give him a hand with the systems, talk to him and hopefully he’ll fit in right away.”
Drafted in the first round, 13th overall in 2006, Tlusty has amassed 86 goals, 165 points and 116 penalty minutes in 396 career games.
The 26-year-old has 13 goals and 23 points this year after beginning the season on a tear, recording six goals – including a hat trick – in his first nine games.
Tlusty is confident that with a new team and a new opportunity here in Winnipeg, his production will rise after a slower second half (so far).
“The start of the season was really good,” he began, “but things changed and the puck wasn’t going in as easily as it was at the start of the season.
“I had some glorious chances, too.”
Tlusty has had only eight games this season where he hasn’t recorded at least one shot on goal.
In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, the 6-foot-0, 209-pound winger had 23 goals for the Hurricanes, which was tied for the fifth most in the NHL that year.
He has plenty of skill, all right, giving Head Coach Paul Maurice an abundance of options when it comes to his forward line combinations – both for now, and when Blake Wheeler and Mathieu Perreault inevitably return from injury.
“He’s capable of playing in the Top 6. He certainly has the hands and the skill-set,” Maurice said. “I liken him to Fro; very similar, very reliable players. We could use him at both ends of the ice and, really, in any forward position.
“It’s an unusual situation. You’re hopeful that when you bring a new guy into the room that there’s a connection there – it makes the transition so much easier. Fro and Pav are excited about our team and being here, and that wears off on the new guy.”
Tlusty will line up alongside Mark Scheifele and Drew Stafford on the second line tonight, meaning Dustin Byfuglien moves back to defence.
“The depth of their forward units (necessitated the move),” Maurice said. “They’re so dangerous with all three lines, so having Dustin back on the blue line gives us more depth. We think it makes us more evenly balanced, front and back. “
The full forward line combinations and defence pairings are as follows:
Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Michael Frolik
Jiri Tlusty - Mark Scheifele - Drew Stafford
Chris Thorburn - Adam Lowry - Eric O’Dell
Adam Pardy - Jim Slater - Anthony Peluso
Toby Enstrom - Tyler Myers
Jay Harrison - Dustin Byfuglien
Mark Stuart - Jacob Trouba
O’Dell will be making his 2014-15 debut after 14 goals and 29 points with the St. John’s IceCaps.
Michael Hutchinson will get the start in goal. Hutchinson, who is 18-7-4 with a 2.35 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage this year, has not lost in regulation in nearly a month, going 4-0-2 in a six-game span dating back to Feb. 6 vs. Chicago.
-- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com