|Ales Kotalik (photo: Bill Wippert) |
Ales Kotalik knows better than most that cultivating a physical gift can get you to the elite echelons of your profession. Kotalik knows, because he's living proof.
The Buffalo Sabres 28-year-old winger made a valuable discovery when he was growing up in the Czech Republic and it's paid off in full.
"In juniors between 15 and 18 years old, I figured out - for whatever reason - that somehow had that talent to shoot a little harder than the other kids," said Kotalik. "That's what's followed me and gone with me my entire career. It got me to the NHL level."
And it's what's made him successful in the professional ranks.
But before he came to the United States, before he was drafted by the Sabres in the sixth round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, Kotalik needed to become a more proficient shooter.
He didn't just line up a row of pucks after practice and wail away like he was cutting grass with a sickle. He practiced positionally. Practiced smart.
One timers from bad angles, slapshots from the point, wristshots from the slot, Kotalik honed his shot through repetition and tried training himself to be ready for any situation.
"Everybody who makes the NHL, including every guy in this room, has something special about their game that separates them from the other guys that didn't make it," said Kotalik. "That's why the NHL is the best league in the world."
Fast forward from the rink in Eastern Europe to HSBC Arena during the 2005-06 season.
Buffalo opens that season with a 5-2-0 record but has seen dwindling production from their power play. JP Dumont and Maxim Afinogenov scored a pair of PP goals in the first two contests and then the team fails to find the net in 25 straight chances.
The solution came in the form of Kotalik, who was inserted at the point and produced instantly with six goals on the man-advantage over the Sabres next eight games.
"I have to give credit to Scott Arniel," said Kotalik. "He gave me a chance that year to be a part of the special teams. I try to focus out there with every situation. That's where I feel I can really help the team with the gifted shot I have.
"You can have a guy with the greatest shot on the team and if he's not out there, you're never going to find out what he can do. I'm trying to fit in my role and I'm getting those chances to use that shot here with special teams. So far, it's paying off for us."
The opposition has taken notice.
Kotalik began getting singled out during the 2005-06 season. The attention has never really stopped. Kotalik ended 05-06 with 10 PP goals, was limited to just three the next season, but has returned to form this year by leading the team with six through 29 games.
When he's not shooting, Kotalik's presence stretches a penalty killing unit and opens up the other four players on his power play.
"I'm comfortable with being known as having a great shot," said Kotalik. "When they are comparing me with the top guys that can shoot the puck, it's always a good feeling."
"You have to respect that shot for sure," said veteran goaltender Jocelyn Thibault. "Every time you play against a player like Al - I mean you never know they could pass it off - but you have to realize that it's going to be coming at you and prepare yourself for a hard shot."
A goaltender's philosophy against a hard shooter who loves to one-time the puck like Kotalik is called, "beating the pass."
It's simple enough.
When facing a sniper with a quick release and a heavy shot, the netminder wants to slid laterally faster than the pass. The practice is intended to get the goalie stationary and square to the shooter with his feet firmly set, giving him the best chance to get a piece of the offering.
Of course, like Thibault said, there are times like last Wednesday when a goaltender could go mad.
Midway through the second period with a Sabres advantage and a 3-1 over the New York Islanders, Kotalik received the puck at the left point . The defense reacted as it always does: sticks go in shooting lanes, players slide on the ice or try to puff themselves up to maximum size.
Behind it all was Derek Roy
, who's eyes where screaming what he couldn't, "I'm wide open."
Kotalik fired, but not at the net. He laced a pass through traffic to the right post and put the puck on the tape of Roy's stick.
Buffalo 4, New York 1.
"I was pretty surprised," said Roy. "Al usually lives for those shots and licks his chops when he gets the opportunity like that for a one-timer. He's a great shooter, but he happened to find me there, wide open."
There is where Kotalik can show the most growth. He rode his gift to the NHL by learning when, where and how to shoot the puck better than the other guy.
Now he can become a more complete and dangerous player by learning when not to.