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by Erin Pollina / Buffalo Sabres
Marek Zagrapan (photo: Brian Wheeler)
For Marek Zagrapan hockey has been a learning process.

First he learned to play juniors in Canada and acclimated to life in North America. Then the Slovakian native discovered the differences in play at the AHL level with the Rochester Americans.

Now Zagrapan is learning exactly what it will take to play for the Buffalo Sabres.

Finishing his first season in 2006-07 in Rochester with 38 points (17+21) in 71 games, Zagrapan is improving and looking for the chance to make his NHL debut.

“I think obviously there has been some good growth,” said Amerks head coach Randy Cunneyworth of Zagrapan's rookie campaign. “I think his size and strength has certainly improved. He’s worked awfully hard over the course of the summer, not only in the weight room but also with regard to his hockey skills. I think it’s proving to be a recipe for success.”

While success didn't come immediately in Rochester, Zagrapan carved his niche in the Amerks lineup by the end of the season, registering 13 points (6+7) in his final 21 games.

Zagrapan said the ingredients for success included his teammates, who helped him progress in the new league, not only on the ice but off as well.

"Pretty much all of the guys on the Amerks are nice," he said. "We had a pretty young team last year and it was a lot of fun there. We had a lot of Czech guys."

Familiarity has been a key factor for Zagrapan. Playing juniors in the QMJHL for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, teammates like Stanislav Lascek, a fellow Slovak, were crucial in Zagrapan’s development.

This was clear in the 2006 World Junior Championships, where Zagrapan played on the same line as Lascek, scoring seven points in six games. In the team’s first game against Latvia, the pair combined for 10 points in a 7-4 win.

Zagrapan also played in that tournament with Sabres prospect Andrej Sekera, who captained the Slovakian squad.

In the QMJHL, Zagrapan tallied 67 goals and 169 points in 118 games with Chicoutimi. He was also fourth in points in 2005-06 and earned the QMJHL Player of the Week in November before making his way to the AHL with the Amerks.

Although successful in juniors, Cunneyworth says there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“It’s just got to be continued learning on his part through video and figuring out how to accomplish getting around, getting up ice, getting through the zones,” Cunneyworth said. “He’s a guy that has to have a certain vision offensively that he can make some plays and see things happening in advance. He’ll learn that as he goes on and gains the experience.”

Now in training camp with the Sabres, Zagrapan said he spent a month home in Slovakia before returning to Buffalo to begin his workout program.

“The league is better obviously and we had a lot of guys last year on the team [Amerks] who are stronger and faster,” Zagrapan said. “You always have to work hard and do your best.”

The Sabres 2005 draft pick, 13th overall, will be looking to put his best foot forward Friday night at HSBC Arena and continue his improvement in the team’s first preseason game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at 7 p.m.

It could be the first of many games that the younger forward will see at the NHL level in the future.

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