For many NHL teams, the quest to identify and develop a No. 1 center is a perennial challenge, and the Calgary Flames are certainly on that list.
The latest possibility for the Flames’ top spot may be 27-year-old Roman Cervenka, who starred for the past two seasons with Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League.
The Flames certainly are rolling the dice that the Czech native, "a very significant free agent signing" according to general manager Jay Feaster, can eclipse the results created by the majority of past non-drafted talent outside the NHL.
With the departure of Olli Jokinen, who had a strong 62-point season as one of the Flames' top two centers, Feaster and the scouting staff have deemed Cervenka as top-six-ready, perhaps as the man to get sniper Jarome Iginla the puck while scoring a few of his own.
Calgary GM Jay Feaster has deemed Roman Cervenka as top-six-ready. (Photo: Getty Images)
"This isn't a signing about, 'Let's see if we can help Abbotsford,'" Feaster told Flames TV, referring to the team's American Hockey League affiliate. "[Because of Cervenka's] maturity level, that he has enough confidence in himself, we feel good about his ability to have his game translate into the NHL. He's done his homework, he's talked to players from his country who have played in the League.
"We do think he's NHL-ready, and he's ready not just to step in the lineup but to contribute."
Cervenka had been pursued by NHL teams and offered contracts, thanks to a game that is heavy on vision, passing and stickhandling.
"Cervenka's more of a one-on-one type, skill-oriented player," assistant general manager/director of player personnel John Weisbrod told NHL.com. "He's played with high-caliber players to much success, and he was at a point in his career where he seemed genuinely hungry to make his run at the NHL. He really wants to play in the best league in the world. I think he is going to put his best foot forward, and we'll see how it pans out."
Never drafted by the NHL, nor having played for a North American team, Cervenka should feel somewhat at home with the Flames’ signing of friend and countryman Jiri Hudler this summer, as well as the presence of Czech Roman Horak. The club even brokered for Blake Comeau to give up jersey No. 10 when Cervenka strongly requested to wear it.
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Amassing 100 points in 105 games over two All-Star seasons, Cervenka skated with Jaromir Jagr in his first season with Omsk in 2010-11 following six seasons with Slavia Praha in the Czech League. Cervenka (5-foot-11, 187 pounds) further enhanced his standing as one of the top talents outside the NHL when he led the KHL with 21 points in Omsk’s 20-game playoff run in 2011-12.
"For us, for an organization that is starved for adding skill, to be able to pick him up -- really for no more risk than the signing-bonus money -- that's a heck of a deal for us," Feaster said on the team's website. "He has had a number of NHL teams make offers. He had an offer from the KHL for significant money. That's what's impressive to us, is that he made the decision now. He had turned down a lot of opportunities and offers heretofore. He's decided he's ready, and just as importantly, he's leaving a lot of money on the table in Europe for his shot at the NHL."
Playing in a pressured, playoff-hungry environment like Calgary was an attraction for Cervenka, who speaks sparse English but offered through an interpreter, "After my first two days in Calgary, I have to say that I can see that this is a hockey town. Everything I heard about it -- that the town is filled with hockey [is true] and I'm very, very happy."
If Cervenka can deliver anything close to 60 points on the first or second line, it will be Flames fans who end up very, very happy.