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Sedlacek seeks to silence critics

by Bill Meltzer
Who is the best young goaltender currently playing professional hockey in Europe? Many Czech hockey followers would tell you it's 20-year-old PSG Zlin goaltender Jakub Sedlacek. In his two seasons as a starting goalie in the Czech Extraliga, Sedlacek has dazzled observers with his acrobatic quickness and poise under pressure. It often seems like the more shots Sedlacek faces, the tougher he is to beat.

A product of a development system that, in its heyday, produced the likes of long-time NHL skaters Roman Hamrlik, Radek Bonk and Petr Cajanek, Sedlacek has been the Extraliga club's most valuable player since emerging as its top goaltender. In 2008-09, he led the league with an eye-popping .943 save percentage. This past season, in addition to backstopping the Czech team at the World Junior Championship, he posted a .927 save percentage while lowering his goals-against average to 2.25 from the 2.45 mark he posted his rookie season.


Jakub Sedlacek (Courtesy: PSG Zlin)

If he had come along a few years earlier, there is little doubt some NHL team would have taken Sedlacek in the mid- to late rounds of the NHL Entry Draft. But Sedlacek remains unaffiliated with any NHL club and appears likely to remain so, regardless of his success in the Extraliga. The biggest issue, according to a European scout for an Eastern Conference NHL club, is the player's lack of size.

"The goaltending position has changed, and he's a small goalie (5-foot-9, 170 pounds) competing against bigger athletes. That's the main obstacle for him," said the scout. "There are limited roster places available for goaltenders, and there a lot of good young goaltenders out there, both here in Europe and in the North American junior leagues and college. Also, you have to consider issues like performance in the international tournaments, the quality of opposition and the style the goaltender plays. It's not just about looking at the goalie with the best stats."

Not all that long ago, being small wasn't a major hindrance for a goaltending prospect. Goalies such as Czech legend Dominik Hasek (6-1, 166), John Vanbiesbrouck (5-8, 175), Arturs Irbe (5-8, 190), Curtis Joseph (5-11, 190) and Mike Richter (5-10, 190) enjoyed long, productive NHL careers in the recent past despite ostensibly yielding more of the net to shooters. But nowadays, smaller goalies are going the way of the dinosaur at all levels of hockey.

While any NHL team would overlook the size issue if they had a smaller goaltending prospect that scouts projected being of the same caliber as the aforementioned goalies, the young netminder would have to be leaps and bounds ahead of his peers to earn such a vote of confidence. Even when a goalie has the sort of statistical credentials that Sedlacek has posted in Czech junior hockey and the Extraliga, the NHL scouting bar is set very high.

Another factor working against Sedlacek is that a stellar performance in the Extraliga no longer means as much as it did in years past. Despite the Czech Republic's surprise gold medal at the 2010 IIHF World Championships, the country's hockey program has been in decline in recent years.

For economic reasons, the caliber honor of play in the Czech Extraliga has been in steady decline for the past decade. Few Czech teams can afford to compete for the sort of high-end veterans who populate the KHL, Sweden's Elitserien and the Swiss National League. The quality of Czech junior programs has suffered as well. Most of the best Czech prospects -- and even a large percentage of mid-tier ones -- transfer to Canadian junior teams. The number of players being drafted by NHL clubs from Czech teams has slowed to a trickle.

Sedlacek has yet to play club hockey outside the Czech Republic. For all his regular-season success the last two seasons, his playoff performance has left something to be desired. In his first Extraliga playoff run, he gave up an average 4.05 goals per game as Zlin went down in five games in the first round of the playoffs. This past season, he posted a 3.73 GAA and .887 save percentage as Zlin again exited quickly in the postseason.

At the 2010 World Junior Championships, Sedlacek's Czech team appeared overmatched against the medal contenders and the goalie often was left hung out to dry by the team in front of him. In five starts, he posted an unimpressive-looking 3.71 GAA and .866 save percentage. Nevertheless, the goaltender was often one of the best players on his team, and his play in the relegation round was critical in his team retaining its spot at the top level of international junior hockey.

Even if Sedlacek has yet to win over some of his critics, many in the Czech Republic have hailed him as the best young goalie to emerge in the Extraliga in many years. His Zlin club, which won the Extraliga championship in 2003-04, relied heavily on its young goaltender simply to make the playoffs in 2008-09. The club was improved last season despite its short stay in the postseason.

Not surprisingly, Zlin made a priority of signing Sedlacek to a contract extension at a significantly higher salary. The goaltender accepted the club's offer and signed a new deal last December. If the 20-year-old can build upon the foundation of success he already has established, he will be one of the most sought-after goalies among teams throughout the top European leagues. At some point NHL teams may take increased interest, but even if they don't, Sedlacek remains one of the fastest-rising goalies across the pond.
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