Marián Gáborik (right) is "the real thing", says the NHL's Peter Bondra
Marián Gáborik is not a typical teenager. Two weeks shy of his 18th birthday, he is a star for Dukla Trenčín after having scored 16 points in the team's first 19 games. He has a potent offensive game that has NHL teams drooling, and has won the respect of NHL scouts and players alike.
"He is 6' 2", 180 pounds and still growing," writes the North American hockey publication The Hockey Voice. "He has good speed and puckhandling, but it is his pure scoring ability that makes him lethal. Mix all this with his size and you get the probable number one overall pick in the 2000 draft."
"Gáborik has shown flashes of being an impact player," wrote hockey scout Glen Gawronski for Hockey's Future. "At this point, he is definitely the top prospect."
Even seasoned NHL veterans agree that Gáborik is for real. "I saw him in an exhibition game last summer," said Slovak Peter Bondra, a ten-year veteran for the Washington Capitals. In an interview with The Slovak Spectator on January 26, Bondra explained that Gáborik's skating and puckhandling skills stood out on the ice. "Just seeing him play a few shifts I can tell he's the real thing," he said.
High praise for a man so young - but Gáborik takes it all in stride and has continued to put up impressive numbers for his home-town team in the Extraliga. "If I play good, I can be the number one pick," he said on January 26. "I want to play in the NHL as soon as possible."
Ready for the NHL?
While Gáborik's skills are unquestioned, his ability to make an immediate impact in the NHL is not certain. Zdeno Ciger, a former Edmonton Oiler who spurned a promising NHL career to return to Slovan Bratislava, said that while the tools are there, Gáborik has a way to go before he can compete in the NHL.
"He is a very good player but I don't think he's ready yet to play in the NHL," Ciger said. "He is still young and he has to get stronger physically. But he's got a good head and good hands, he's doing good."
Gáborik agreed with Ciger that his slight frame must fill out before he can handle the bruising style of the NHL, but added confidently that bulking up would be no problem.
"Yeah, I need to get bigger, but I'm still young and in the next year I'll be getting some muscles," he said with a laugh.
Gáborik will have to adjust to other aspects of the NHL as well, Ciger said. "The game is different in the NHL than it is in Trenčín, it's more physical and defensive skills are important" - a facet that Gáborik admits is the weak spot of his game.
"Everything is different in the NHL; the game, style, the people," Ciger continued. "The NHL is just on a different level than here."
For a Slovak, playing in the NHL not only means adjusting to a different style of hockey, it also presents a completely different social experience, from the food to the language to the people. Jozef Štümpel, a tough centre for the Los Angeles Kings who was born in Nitra, said that cultural adjustments were tougher for him to make than hockey changes.
"The hockey was not so tough," Štümpel told The Slovak Spectator in San Jose on December 22.
"You just play how you always played - that's why they ask you to the NHL in the first place, because they like how you play."
On the other hand, cultural adjustments such as "the language, finding some friends... just being away from home and your family," were more difficult transitions for Štümpel to make.
Gáborik maintained he was not too concerned about the changes sure to soon affect his life, although he did admit that he would prefer to be drafted by a team with a Slovak or two on its roster.
Gáborik also put a positive spin on the one main drawback to being the first draft pick - the likelihood of beginning his NHL career for a poor team.
"I'm not worried about that," he said. "I just want to play and with the worst team I'll probably get a better chance. I think I'll get more ice time."