It is rare for a young defenseman to make a consistent impact in the NHL during his first few professional seasons. Learning the position at the highest level requires time, perhaps more than any other in hockey.
The process is filled with trial and error on and off the ice, and in the mind. The rewards often come to those who wait.
Vladimir Mihalik, 22, is on that road now, two full years into his professional career, adding knowledge each day, molding his game. Lightning Executive Vice President and GM Brian Lawton said the 6-foot-7 Slovakian is a work in progress, but is right on course.
“We’ll be very patient with him,” Lawton said. “He can be a regular in this league for 10-12 years. We just have to give him the foundation to succeed. We have to let him play games and take the pressure off him.”
Mihalik, who played 11 games with the Lightning last season, moves very well for a big man and has the ability to be a factor on both ends of the ice. Lawton said Mihalik is still growing into his massive frame at around 230-240 pounds.
Every bit of experience will help. Mihalik, training in Eden Prairie, Minnesota this summer with other players including Matt Smaby, recently attended Slovakian Olympic team camp. The final team will be picked later this year for the tournament in Vancouver next January.
“Slovakia is small, but it has a lot of great players all around the country,” Mihalik said. “It was an honor to be there.”
Mihalik, who developed in the Presov system in Slovakia, played twice for his country in the World Juniors. He expected to continue developing his game in his homeland.
When the Lightning made Mihalik the 30th pick in the first round in 2005, a little more than a year after they won the Stanley Cup, playing juniors in North America became a real option.
Mihalik landed with Red Deer of the Western Hockey League and experienced culture shock.
“My first year was so hard,” Mihalik said. “I didn’t speak very good English, the rink was smaller. You had to make quicker decisions and be stronger.”
Mihalik battled through the adjustments and enjoyed his second season in the WHL with Prince George, contributing seven goals and 26 points in 53 games.
The Lightning signed Mihalik and he made the best of his first season in Norfolk. Mihalik had a goal and 15 assists for the Admirals and led the team in plus-minus with a plus-9.
A few months later Mihalik was playing for the Lightning on opening night against the New York Rangers in the Czech Republic.
“Vladimir is a big man that was learning the game and had a tremendous camp,” Lawton said. “He deserved to stay with the team.”
When the Lightning got a few regulars back, Mihalik was sent back to Norfolk to get more ice time. Mihalik admits the demotion affected his play for a while, a common result with young players. He battled back to have a strong second half in Norfolk, with two goals and 15 points.
Throughout the season, Mihalik said the biggest thing he worked on was the mental part of the game.
“Everybody here is strong, fast and good enough,” Mihalik said. “But you need to be able to think the game to react quicker and that’s what I try to work on. I just try to get better every day and wait for a big chance.”
Mihalik said he got a lot out of his time in the NHL last season.
“When I started playing it didn’t go really good, but the last few games I thought I played more solid,” Mihalik said. “I knew what it took to prepare and play quicker.”
Mihalik said he is also learning to train better and improving his nutrition. Whatever happens in training camp, he is ready for it.
“I think I’m stronger and faster,” Mihalik said. “My mindset is better than it was before. I know what is going to happen, what to expect at camp.”
Lawton used an example of Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericcson, who bided his time at Grand Rapids of the AHL for 176 games and then made a strong impact late last season and in the playoffs at 25-years old. Mihalik has played 129.
“The only thing that can derail [Mihalik] is if we force him into NHL duty,” Lawton said. “He just needs to get games and progress. I’ve never felt better about him than I do now.”