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Dvorak Enters Prime Time

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

by John McGourty | - Euro Stars Feature

Big things are expected of Radek Dvorak this season. That's what happens the year after a player has the breakout season people have been awaiting.
Dvorak, 24, has long been regarded as a bright prospect –- he was the Florida Panthers' first pick, 10th overall, in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft -- and he built a reputation as a productive two-way player.

Yet, after averaging 16 goals a year through his first five seasons, it couldn't be said that he was among the NHL's elite forwards. There were good signs: He also averaged plus-4 in those five years, meaning he wasn't a liability on the ice. He was also a consistent assist man, and with the exception of one slight dip in his third season, Dvorak has scored more points each year than before. He's also very durable, missing only 28 games in six seasons, 18 of them to a broken wrist in 1997-98. He's also an accomplished penalty killer.

The bright prospect label has been on Dvorak for a long time, at least since he captained the Czech under-17 national team. He was one of only four members of the 1995 Entry Draft to join the parent club in October and play the whole season. He led Panthers' rookies with 13 goals, 14 assists and 27 points. He tied for 11th in NHL-rookie goal scoring and 13th in points.

Dvorak's strong rookie season, skating on a line with Brian Skrudland, helped the Panthers make the playoffs. He appeared in 16 of the Panthers' 22 post-season games, scoring a goal and adding three assists while going plus-2, in their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Panthers were eliminated in the first round the next year, when he scored 18 goals and added 21 assists in the regular season, and he has missed the playoffs the last four seasons, which he finds very frustrating.

In need of goaltending, the Panthers traded Dvorak to the San Jose Sharks for Mike Vernon. The Sharks turned right around that day and dealt Dvorak to the Rangers in exchange for Todd Harvey.

Dvorak gave the Rangers 33 points, including 11 goals, in 46 games two years ago, then was their brightest light last year when he teamed with Petr Nedved and Jan Hlavac on the "Czechmate" line. The native of Tabor, Czech Republic, had 31 goals and 36 assists in 82 games and finished plus-9. Respect for his game has been increasing across the NHL.

"He's a player that's hard to control," said Darcy Tucker, the tough checker of the Toronto Maple Leafs who often gets the challenge to shut down Dvorak. "He's got a gritty side to him that a lot of people don't see. He skates the puck through the neutral zone very well. He's hard to stop when he gets the confidence going for him. It was tough to stop that Czech line at times last year. Now, this year, they broke that line up and he has to take more of a leadership role, take charge of that team, and I think he's doing that very well."

"He's a very talented player. He's got good hands and he shoots the puck very well," said veteran Bruins defenseman Don Sweeney. "He's learned to compete a lot harder. He plays very well with Nedved but now they're changing that a bit. He's a very dangerous player. You have to be aware of him when he's on the ice, that's for sure. When he gets behind players, you're not going to catch him. He can score in any situation."

Dvorak had the honor of playing on the Czech teams that won the World Championships the past two seasons. With his national team experience and his strong NHL performance, he's hoping to be selected to the defending champion Czech Olympic team. With the improvement of the Rangers, who have missed the playoffs the last four seasons, he's also hoping for a chance to win the Stanley Cup.

"It would be my first Olympic games and it would mean a lot to play for my country. It would be an honor." - Radek Dvorak

None of the 1998 Czech gold medalists played for the Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings that year so the opportunity is there to be the first to win both prizes in the same season.

"I'm one of 37 guys under consideration," Dvorak said. "I'm there now and I'm hoping I'm still there on Dec. 22 when they name the team. It would be my first Olympic games and it would mean a lot to play for my country. It would be an honor. Our Czech teams have had a great five or six years. It would say a lot to be part of the team that's on top."

Dvorak played for national junior teams at ages 16, 17, 18 and 20, missing his 19-year-old season to injury. He successfully combined in the past two World Championships with several players that are likely to make the Czech team.

"I played in Norway with Petr Sykora from New Jersey and Marty Rucinsky from Montreal," he said. "That was a good line. In Germany last year, I played with Robert Reichel from Toronto and Rucinsky again. I play well with Rucinsky. We both have speed and we both have great shots. Reichel is a great center man.

"Rucinsky is an excellent skater and he has great hands," Dvorak said. "He sees the ice very well. I always enjoy playing with him because he can hit me with a pass at any time. Then, if you give it back to him, you're confident he can score because he has such a great shot. He's a very nice guy too. He's a good friend even though he's about six years older than me."

But the Olympics are several months away. Dvorak's task now is to help the Rangers make the playoffs. The team made several important changes this summer, including the trade for Eric Lindros that sent Dvorak's linemate, Hlavac, to Philadelphia.

Coach Ron Low tried Dvorak on a line with Mark Messier but the captain got hurt and Dvorak returned to playing with Nedved. When Messier came back, he recommended to Low that he keep the Czechs united. Dvorak likes playing with both centers.

"Both of those guys are great playmakers," he said. "They see the ice well and make great passes. They also have great speed. They try to find me along the boards and then my job is to go to the net. Those guys give me the puck all the time."

Dvorak is an engaging, thoughtful, well-spoken young man whose demeanor reflects well on his parents, Jaroslav, who owns a construction company, and his mother, Maria. Despite his success, he's determined to accomplish more. He'd like to leave a legacy.

"It means a lot to me to make the NHL because the NHL is the best League in the world. It's the dream of every young player," Dvorak said. "It's an honor and a challenge and I'm just doing my best to try to stay here and prove to everybody I can play this game."

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