In late January, Petr Straka made his NHL debut, replacing an ill Michael Raffl in the Philadelphia Flyers' lineup. It was the culmination of a long road that began in the second round of the 2010 NHL Draft, a road that briefly seemed blocked when the Columbus Blue Jackets chose not to sign Straka to an entry level contract.
But Straka persevered, using a rebound age-20 season in the QMJHL as a springboard back into the good graces of an NHL organization. It was the Flyers who rescued Straka, and after a little over a year of AHL seasoning, he finally had his chance to impress at the highest level of hockey.
Petr Straka's first season as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers organization proved that the skilled winger was a work in progress. Coming off a year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League during which he scored 82 points (41 goals, 41 assists), Straka struggled to replicate his success at the AHL level. He finished with only nine goals and 27 points, a disappointing performance for a forward primarily signed for his offensive skill.
So it was encouraging to see Straka roar out of the gate to start the 2014-15 season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Playing left wing on a line with Nick Cousins and Zack Stortini, Straka tallied eight points in his first 14 games. His play impressed coach Terry Murray, who lauded Straka for his ability and speed while noting that he still had a great deal of work to do in order to make it to the next level, particularly in terms of his two-way play.
Clearly, Straka's improvement caught the attention of the Flyers front office. In January, with the team desperate for a temporary Michael Raffl replacement at left wing (he was dealing with the flu), Straka received the call for a three-game stint.
Philadelphia's organizational weakness at left wing certainly was a factor in Straka's call up - the team didn't have many options to fill in for the skilled Raffl. But Straka deserves credit too, as he took full advantage of the opportunity.
In three games, Straka added two assists while playing primarily with Ryan White and Wayne Simmonds. And while the sample is too small to make any meaningful observations regarding future performance, Straka's 59.2% 5v5 Corsi rating supports the idea that the winger did not look out of place whatsoever during his NHL audition.
Straka passed the eye test, as well. He showcased plus speed and a surprisingly straightforward game, limiting defensive zone mistakes while helping his linemates to constantly push the play up ice with smart passes. Craig Berube seemed very impressed with Straka, even comparing his skating ability to that of Michael Raffl.
"He’s got good wheels and he shoots the puck well. His game is based on speed. Everybody is intrigued by his speed, for sure.
Raffl is more of a grinder – Straka is smoother, a better skater. He’s speed and finesse.’’
So that's the story of Straka's season - a breakout year marked by continued development and a willingness to move to a left wing position that is extremely weak in the Flyers organization right now. His stellar three-game stint impressed his coaches and showed that Straka is nearly ready to establish himself as a full time NHL forward.
But if all of that is true, then why was his overall AHL production so poor?
The elephant in the room is that from a statistical point of view, Straka actually performed worse in his sophomore AHL season than in his unimpressive freshman campaign. While he upped his goal total to 14, his points dropped from 27 points in 60 games (0.45 PPG) in 2013-14 to 24 in 68 games (0.35 PPG) this past season.
Straka did jump out to that great start, but he was unable to keep up his impressive early pace. In fact, he was at his worst offensively following his return to the Phantoms after his week with the big club. Any hope for a confidence boost showing itself in his statistics was extinguished quickly, as Straka scored at his lowest rates of the season in the 29 games following his NHL stint.
|Time Period||Goals||Assists||Points||Points Per Game|
|First 14 Games||4||4||8||0.57|
|Next 25 Games||7||2||9||0.36|
|Final 29 Games||3||4||7||0.24|
There are a few plausible explanations for Straka's poor AHL season that paint his struggles in a better light. Maybe the overall weakness of the Phantoms roster negatively affected his play. Maybe the coaching staff and organization had Straka increasingly focusing on defense as the year progressed, and aren't concerned with his lack of offensive improvement. Or maybe he simply got bored in the AHL, after proving to himself that he was physically ready for a new challenge.
But then there's the alternative - Straka's great three games in Philadelphia were nothing more than a small sample size-induced fluke. If he's good enough to score at the NHL level, why can't he seem to do so regularly in the minors?
After all, if a "scorer" can't even produce at a half point per game level in the AHL, how exactly does he expect to stick in the NHL? What if Straka is just a more skilled Tye McGinn, who seemed to always look better in brief NHL stints than extended AHL stays?
These questions rightfully keep Straka out of Philadelphia's top tier of forward prospects. And while his brief promotion shows that organization does value his skillset, it's difficult to imagine that he'll have a real chance to make the Flyers out of camp. There isn't any room left on the team's top three lines, and his AHL production simply does not warrant special treatment.
And with only one year remaining on his entry level contract, Straka is quickly running out of time to prove himself indispensable to the organization.
So despite Straka briefly impressing on the big stage, he'll enter the 2015 season the same way that he did 2014. He'll be trying to make a positive impression at training camp, knowing that it would take a Herculean effort to break camp in Philadelphia. His goal will be to place himself at the top of the list of potential injury call-ups, so that he can get chance to prove that his successful NHL performance was not merely a fluke.
Who we voted for at No. 15:
|Mark Friedman||Robert Hagg||Oskar Lindblom||Petr Straka||Radel Fazleev||Oskar Lindblom||Taylor Leier||Mark Friedman||Petr Straka||Cooper Marody||Taylor Leier||Nicolas Aube-Kubel|