To many hockey fans the name Jan Hlavac might ring a bell. Although it has been a few seasons since Hlavac skated on NHL ice, the Tampa Bay Lightning forward is hardly a rookie in the league. After all, the 31-year-old Czech native has five years of NHL experience under his belt.
When the lockout in 2004-05 sent many players across the Atlantic Ocean looking for a place to play, Hlavac was one of the many who went to Europe. However, unlike other skaters who returned to the league following the lockout, Hlavac took three years to make his way back to North America.
For Hlavac, who signed as a free agent on June 14, 2007, the chance to play with the Lightning is a second chance at playing in the NHL. That second chance means playing on the second line with Brad Richards, which also brings heightened expectations of what the left winger expects out of his game.
A former second-round draft pick (28th overall in 2005) of the New York Islanders, when Hlavac broke into the NHL in 1999-00 he did so with a bang by scoring 42 points (19 goals, 23 assists) in 67 games with the New York Rangers. Through 79 games the following year, he improved his totals to 28 goals and 36 assists, ranking him sixth on the team behind star players such as Brian Leetch, Petr Nedved, Theoren Fleury and Mark Messier.
Thanks in part to his early success, Hlavac began the 2001-02 season as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers after being included in a trade for Eric Lindros. He split part of that and the following season with the Vancouver Canucks before being traded to the Carolina Hurricanes. He returned to the Rangers in 2003-04, but shortly thereafter made his return to Europe.
That return proved to be a building experience for Hlavac, and in 2004-05 he led Sparta Praha to second place in the Czech Extraleague by ranking second on the team with 38 points in 48 games. The following season he led Geneve-Servette of the Swiss Nationalliga with 34 points in 42 games. That was all Hlavac needed to grab the attention of the Lightning and their European scouts.
“Our pro guys in Europe, Kari Kettunen, Mikael Andersson, those guys have really been on him the past two years as far as watching him play and they felt he would be a good fit for us and would help our skill level,” Lightning executive vice president & general manager Jay Feaster said. “He demonstrated he was serious about [returning] and that he wanted to play here and what we like about him is that we believe he can score goals.”
Coming off a 20-goal season with Sparta Praha of the Czech Elite League, one in which he ranked second on the team with eight playoff goals, it’s apparent that scoring is just one of the many things Hlavac hopes to bring to the table.
“It’s nice to be back again, in this league, and hopefully I’ll be successful and not disappoint the guys who have given me a chance to play here again,” Hlavac said. “After five years here and then transferring to Europe, it’s a lot of experience. It helped me a lot with everything probably; I grew up a lot here.”
As Hlavac skates into his first season with Tampa Bay, he finds himself on the second line with Brad Richards and newcomer Michel Ouellet. The Lightning hope Hlavac will use his playmaking skills as well as his keen vision of the ice to improve not only his game, but the potential of his linemates.
“We believe he’s a very good playmaker, so if we develop that chemistry with him and Brad Richards, and now with Ouellet on the other side… we feel that the three of them give us a very potent second line to roll out there,” Feaster said. “He needs to learn our defensive zone coverages and he needs to learn the system and what John [Tortorella] expects, but as far as his skill level, he really is a very talented player.
“He sees the ice incredibly well, he has very good hands and he’s able to make good plays in tight places,” Feaster continued.
Only a pair of games into the season Hlavac has not disappointed. Although the second line was held off the scoreboard on opening night against the New Jersey Devils, the trio posted seven shots. On an early power play Hlavac and Richards combined on a quick passing play that resulted in Devils netminder Martin Brodeur snagging a hard shot by the left winger.
In the following contest the trio continued to show signs they were clicking as they pressured the Atlanta Thrashers midway through the game. In particular, Hlavac had a couple of solid scoring attempts including a play in which he beat two Atlanta defenders to fire a shot on goaltender Johan Hedberg. Hlavac would later try to jam the puck past Hedberg off a centering pass by Richards, indicating that it may be just a matter of time before the success of the line takes off.
“He has certainly earned a spot on the team, and he increases our skill level,” Feaster said. “He’s going to help us on a second unit power play and I just think that line is going to work.”
“I feel very good,” Hlavac emphasized. “I feel pretty good physically, healthy. I do feel good so far.”