Patric Hornqvist may have been the last player picked in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, but these day’s he’s one of the first you notice on the ice.
That’s because he’s always in the heart of the action. He’s planting himself in front of the opposing goaltender. He’s digging the puck out from among skates in the corner. He’s getting mauled by ruffled opponents after the whistle. And he keeps coming back for more.
Whenever Predators head coach Barry Trotz talks about Hornqvist, he talks about passion. The 25-year-old Swede embodies the hard-working, determined spirit of the Nashville Predators, charging headfirst into the battle and never giving up.
Hornqvist, who finished the regular season as Nashville’s leader in goals with 27, goes to the places on the ice that coaches call “the hard areas.” They’re hard for a reason: They constitute the few square feet closest to an opponent’s net, and defenders don’t want players like Hornqvist there. To an outsider it seems easy: “Just go stand in front of the net.” But the truth is, few people in the NHL do it.
If the shoves, slashes and cross-checks from defenders aren’t discouraging enough, there are the 100-miles-per-hour slapshots arriving from the other direction. “[Shea Weber] hit me in the hand a couple years ago and I broke my hand but that’s what happens sometimes,” Hornqvist says, almost nonchalantly.
“I think he’s the best in the league at being in around the net, [on the] power play, getting in goalies’ faces,” teammate Mike Fisher says. “He’s fearless and really does an unbelievable job.”
Hornqvist says that his approach to playing in front of the net has changed since his transition to North American hockey in 2008, but his favorite spot on the ice hasn’t.
“When I started to turn pro I always was in front,” Hornqvist says. “I was maybe a little higher, when I played in Sweden, in the slot for one-timers but here it’s not that much room [with smaller rink dimensions]. The ice is so much tighter than back home. So I started to move a little closer to the net and be the screen guy instead. And it worked for me.”
In his first full season with the Predators, he hit the 30-goal mark. He’s gone on to become the first Predators draft pick to post at least 20 goals in three consecutive seasons. His goals are clutch, too: Of his 27 markers this season, eight were scored on the power play and 13 were scored in the third period. His 24 points (15 goals, 9 assists) in his final 21 games are further evidence that Hornqvist personifies a Preds team known for its resiliency.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne, who has considerable experience with players who make their presence known in front of a net, admires what Hornqvist does on a nightly basis.
“He’s really good at tipping pucks and deflecting and finding those rebounds,” Rinne says. “Really good hand-and-eye coordination. And then he’s real brave. He doesn’t back down and he’s always there. It takes a lot of courage. He has that. There are not too many guys like him. He’s a really valuable player for us. I’m sure it’s a nightmare for other goalies.”
On some nights Hornqvist gets treated like a punching bag, drawing the ire of opponents for his constant proximity to sacrosanct goaltenders. But the 6-foot, 188-pound right wing shows remarkable restraint. “Even if I get cross-checked from behind, I can’t just do it back to the D-man,” Hornqvist says. “That’s what the ref’s going to see and that’s what the ref’s going to call too.” He was whistled for only 14 minor penalties (and no majors) in 76 regular season games, and just one minor in 10 post-season games.
“He brings a lot of energy and emotion but he is smart,” Fisher says.
“He doesn’t retaliate,” Rinne says. “It’s just the kind of guy he is. He’s willing to do it for the team and take one punch for the team.”
Although Predators management has a number of contracts to deal with over the course of this off-season, Hornqvist is one key player who is already signed through 2012-13. And when the Preds take the ice once again in September, you’ll know right where to find him.
“It’s part of what I do,” he says. “Every piece of this team [does] different stuff. I like to be in front.”