Coming off another remarkable season for the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Jakub Voracek arrived in Columbus this summer with the idea that he was going to have to win a place among the Blue Jackets’ top six forwards.
In reality, though, the job was his to lose, and after the summer Voracek had, that wasn’t about to happen.
“This game is going to be different,” Voracek said. “The NHL game is just going to be different.”
Maybe so, but so far Voracek has looked and acted the part. The left-handed shooting right wing, who through the first 5 preseason games had 1 goal and 4 assists, likely has landed the job as Columbus’ second-line right wing.
He has looked good all preseason, but before that he was one of the best players at the Traverse City Prospects Camp. In fact, he was so good the Jackets held him out of the lineup for the last two games because they had seen enough and wanted him fresh for training camp.
“His hands are so quick when he gets the puck and his thinking is good,” Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson said. “He’s put on 20 pounds in a year, so he’s worked hard. He was dominant in junior hockey last year, so this is the next step for him.”
The key for Voracek’s emergence has been the weight gain Howson is talking about. Since finishing last season in Halifax roughly four months ago, Voracek said his weight has ballooned from about 190 to 210. And it’s all muscle.
“I would say I feel a lot stronger on the ice,” Voracek said. “When I started skating this summer I felt the pounds on me, but I’m used to it now and I’m ready to play.”
Voracek, the Jackets’ first-round pick in 2007, was in training camp last year weighing roughly 180 pounds. He played five exhibition games, looked somewhat overwhelmed, and Columbus sent him back to Halifax where he put up 119 points in 68 games, including the playoffs, while gaining five pounds.
“I think Columbus made a good decision (in sending me back to Halifax),” Voracek said. “I needed to get stronger to be more physically ready. That’s what I am right now.”
To gain the weight, Voracek followed Jared Boll’s plan from last year. Boll spent the summer of 2007 in Columbus working with strength and conditioning coach Barry Brennan, who designs a strict workout plan and diet for the players.
Voracek, who knew he needed to get stronger to play his style in the NHL, said Brennan’s plan built muscles in all areas of his body, especially in his legs and torso, important areas for someone that wants to play along the boards.
“We certainly support that decision making,” Howson said of Voracek’s decision to come to Columbus in June. “We had five or six guys do it this year. We think they get better if they’re there working with our strength coach, working out two or three hours a day with him. Jared Boll is the poster child. He did it, and he made our team.”
The Czech-born forward credits his dream of playing in the NHL to Jaromir Jagr.
“We watched him when he played with Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh,” Voracek said. “We watched him on Czech TV. A lot of the playoff games were live on TV, so I would stay up and watch him. When I saw him play, yeah, I knew I wanted to be in the NHL at one time. He was a hero, a legend.”
The transition from European hockey to the North American brand seemed daunting to Voracek when soon as he arrived. It didn’t show in his play, though, as he put up 110 points in 71 games, including the playoffs, to earn the 2006-07 QMJHL Top Offensive Rookie award.
Columbus nabbed him with the seventh pick of the draft.
“When I started watching a couple of games in Halifax my first thought was, ‘I don’t think this is going to be too easy,’ ” Voracek said. “It’s an understatement, I know. I had a good first year and I started to think about it even more, thinking that I could play (in the NHL). I had a good camp last year, but I didn’t make it. It made me focus to make the team this year.”
He’s done it. He’s in Columbus. He’s won the job that always was his to lose.
The next step is playing in a real NHL game. That will happen Friday night in Dallas. The Jackets believe he’s ready.
“We have seen the transformation of a young guy to a mature guy,” Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said. “He’s only 19, but he plays a mature game. He plays very much like a man and if he can do the things that we think he can do than he is going to help us immediately.”
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.