Consider these names: Bobby Holik. Patrik Elias. Petr Sykora. Marek Zidlicky. Jaromir Jagr. It wasn't that long ago that the Czech Republic was producing players such as these men on a seemingly regular basis. And the New Jersey Devils still lean on some of those players to this very day. But that faded in the prior decade. Similarly, the New Jersey Devils found very little drafting success among Czech players since they hit big on Elias way back in the 1990s. There is hope for the nation as young players such as Tomas Hertl (already made a NHL impact), Jakub Vrana, Radek Faksa, Andrej Sustr (also already in the NHL), and David Pastrnak have serious upsides as NHL players. A winger like Ondrej Kase may also be considered part of, for lack of a better term, resurgence. Even if not, NHL teams will almost certainly draft him - will it be New Jersey? Should it be? Let's learn more about him.
Who is Ondrej Kase?
Based on his profile at Elite Prospects, Ondrej Kase stands at 6'0" and 165 pounds. You are not alone if your first thought is "Young Kase, get to a gym!" Anyway, Kase is a product of the KLH Chomutov system. He went up from youth team to junior team and all the way up to the senior team in the Czech Extraliga last season. As one may expect, the 18-year old winger received minimal ice time against men in a professional league. Hence, his numbers aren't eye-popping. Yet, when he was sent down to help the junior Pirates (Pirati is the nickname for Chomutov), he dominated. When not with his club, Kase has been a key part of the Czech team at the youth international level; he made his World Junior Championships debut last Winter. With all of the teams he played for, his stat list at EP is massive:
I did a little more digging into his season with the Chomutov senior team. According to Hokej.cz's stats, Kase's seven points in 37 games was good for eleventh on the team in scoring. In fact, with only one player with more than twenty points, I think it's fair to say that Chomutov was not a good team in 2013-14. Regardless, Kase took 42 shots on net and averaged 8:38 of ice time per game. The coaches figured on limiting him, which may have been the right thing to do since he is a developing player going up against men. Then again, given the lack of scoring, perhaps he would've been better served going down to juniors earlier when it was clear Chomutov had little to play for or get more ice time. Regardless, Kase's play has garnered plenty of attention.
What Others Have Said About Kase
Let's begin with the blurb in his profile at Elite Prospects, which summarizes the player:
Kase is a slick, driven, speedy winger who sees the ice well and understands how to impact the game. A natural playmaker who handles the puck well in tight spaces. Has very acute hockey sense and willingness to go to battle with much larger opponents. Size is only ongoing issue.
I would hope a player as slight as Kase was good at skating and has at least some offensive skills. It is good to read that he doesn't shy away from contact. However, I'd be hesitant on that size - which is an issue - is his only issue.
Kase was on various people's radars even early in the 2013-14 season. Ryan Kennedy noted Kase on his Hot List article in this September 17, 2013 posting at The Hockey News. It wasn't so much a ranking but just a collection of prospects that Kennedy then thought should deserve some notice.
A slippery player who can do a bit of everything, Kase is playing against men back home and has started off strong with two points in two games, despite playing only 12 minutes per night. Confident with the puck, Kase is only 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, but isn’t afraid to go to the net
Knowing that Kase finished the season with seven points and averaged much less than twelve minutes a night leads me to think that his season had more downs than ups. Still, there's only so much one can do on a fourth line with limited minutes even with averaging over a shot per game. This also makes me wonder if Kase grew over the season. Kennedy notes that he was 5'9", but EP has him at 6'0" and Hokej.cz has him at 181 cm which is a bit over 5'11". Of course, it's not his height that's a concern, it's the lack of weight.
In November, Radoslav Vavrina of EuroHockey ranked the top ten Czech prospects for the 2014 draft. As far as I can tell, Vavrina didn't do a new ranking since then. Regardless, at the time, he felt highly of Kase to put him this on his list. This is what he had to say:
Flashy forward from Kadaň is the top Czech-based prospect for the upcoming draft. Born in 1995, he had to undergo the big year last season and had a good Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and the Under-18 World Championships as well. This year is his first in the Extraliga and it's not too bad as he's among the top rookies with 5 points in 19 games. Kaše looks like a solid top-sixty prospect, but he might be drafted in the third round, too. A lot will be decided at the U20 WJC, too.
At the time, I can see why the hype would be brewing. Five points in nearly 20 games isn't much, but for exclusively fourth-line duty and playing against developed players, it's quite an achievement. It also makes me think he really had a slow second half of the season since he would only pick up two more points with the Chomutov senior team. However, that may have also been the result of injury undercutting his season. In this December 7, 2013 article at Future Considerations, Dan Stewart mentions an "undisclosed" injury while talking him up at the WJCs.
Stewart and Vavrina were right that the WJCs would determine quite a bit. While he only scored one goal and earned two assists, his play garnered praise. For example, Kyle Woodlief of Red Line Report named Kase as a "Rising" prospect in this post-WJC USA Today article. It's not a lot, but it gets to the point.
Even before his strong offensive showing in Malmo, our Czech scout had been touting his fine play in league action. All he lacks is size.
When I normally see something like "All he lacks is size," that's a really high mark. One can't control size but if a player can play, then he's going to play. There are plenty of smaller players in the NHL to justify that rationale. However, the lack of production and increase in minutes belies a player who still has plenty to go. Which is fair for an 18-year old player.
Now that experts and amateurs are looking more closely at this year's draft class, Kase is not highly touted by everyone as perhaps he was at the time of the WJCs. Christopher Ralph and Eldon McDonald at The Hockey Writers combined the various draft rankings back in April. They noted Kase as someone who rose considerbly when they did their exercise. Yet, not all that they wrote was glowing:
For: Played against men in the top Czech professional league, playing 37 games with 7 points and a -4. Kase has high-end agility to make him elusive on the rush, excellent in traffic with a nice passing ability. Add vision and a wrister with a quick release and you have the beginnings of a pretty good hockey player.
Against: Size – 6’0, 165 lb.; does not have the elite speed usually associated with successful smaller players. As with most junior players of his age, he did not receive a lot of playing time this year.
Again, being a slight player and not a very fast player is a bad combination. The key word in the "Against" is the speed; the "For" notes very good agility. That tells me that he's able to move around well but he lacks a "top gear" to really get away from other players. Not having that very well could hold him back in terms of what he can do at the next level against faster competition and/or a smaller rink. It may be only one word, but it's an important distinction. I can agree that not getting a lot of playing time hurt his cause, but it begs the question of why the coaches of a not-so-good team didn't let him loose. One may argue the coaches were dumb, but it is also possible that Kase may not be ready for tougher competition for various reasons. Still, the "For" hits on the high points of why he's been touted in one way or another throughout 2013-14.
Now, the speed thing may be something only Ralph and McDonald noted. Terrel H at Arctic Ice Hockey seems to think his speed is just fine. But his summary on Kase in his top 60 players reveals other concerns.
The slick, quick winger is an interesting case (no pun intended). He has shown complete and utter dominance at the junior level and even had great success in limited time in lower pro leagues, but scored just 4 goals and 7 points in 34 games at the Czech league level. However, he seemed to get better as the year went on - including becoming a key player in the relegation series for his team. With his hands, speed, and drive his offensive talent is obvious. He still needs to work on defensive coverage and consistency. Whether he will be able to be effective in the smaller rinks at his size and given his play style is a real question mark. Kase is a real boom or bust prospect.
The beginning of this is in line with what others have said about Kase earlier in the season. Strong in the juniors, earned time at the senior level, he's quick, and he has offensive skills. By the end, well, I don't know about you, but when I read this, I had an ominous feeling. Needing defensive work, questions about whether he can hack it in North America, and his main assets are being quick and good on the puck? That sounds a bit familiar.
For what it's worth, feeding off that boom-or-bust designation, those that like Kase seem to really like him. For example, Central Scouting Services did move him from 16th to 8th in their European skater rankings. I know it's just a number but a big jump like that means somebody thinks well of him compared to his European-based prospect brethren. As the draft gets closer, I'm sure there will be further notes on his defensive work and whether his offense can go to the next level. At a minimum, Kase has the goods to at least get picked.
A Little Video
Kase scored one goal at the WJCs. Here it is. He splits the Slovakian D and beats the goalie stickside in a one-on-one. A very nice looking goal, if I do say so myself:
Kase only scored three goals with the senior Chomutov team in 2013-14. One of them was featured in this highlight video from the team. It appears to be a top six goals of the month; Kase's comes first here:
At the very least, it shows that he does go to the net and he can react quickly. He almost instantaneously roofed that loose puck.
An Opinion of Sorts
As much the Devils lack for skilled forward prospects in the system, I have to say I'm a bit non-plussed by Kase. I fully understand that he had a big 2013-14 for a prospect. He mostly played in the senior league, which is a big deal for an 18-year old prospect even if it is limited competition. At the international level, his play was notable. For a smaller player, he does appear to have the puck skills and at least the skating skills to at least be considered int he first two rounds. At the same time, that so much attention has been put on those assets and events makes me wonder about the rest of his game. Surely, if size was the only issue, then he'd be more touted in a relatively weak draft class, no?
These are all questions one could ask of many prospects in any year. The smaller winger who's quick, has good hands, but doesn't quite make it at a higher level. We've witnessed a similar kind of prospect here in New Jersey over the past few years. He was arguably more talented player as he did play in a stronger European league; but again: praise for his quickness and skill with the puck (hands, shot, etc.), but either not much or concerns about defense and aspects away from the puck. I hope I don't have to tell you who I'm referring to, by the by. It may not be fair to make such a comparison, but that's the impression I got from reading about Kase. I do hope he Kase can prove my doubts wrong and makes it.
That all said, I do think it's likely that Kase will be picked in the first two rounds. If not, then early in the third. If he's available by the third round, then I'd have no issues with the Devils taking a chance on him then. However, I'd pause at Kase being taken early. Maybe the Devils scouts love him and maybe he works out to be the first successful Czech draft pick in a while. But I'm not confident based on what I've read so far.
Perhaps you feel differently, though. What do you think Kase as a prospect? Do you think more highly of him than I do? Or perhaps more lowly? Would you want the Devils to draft him, and if so, where? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Ondrej Kase in the comments. Thank you for reading.