Even before the Dallas Stars selected Radek Faksa with their first pick at this past June’s NHL Draft, the young Czech center was a prospect that I was following closely. Why? His story was something out of a movie. He showed a tremendous passion for hockey, even at a very young age. – At 11, Faksa left his home to pursue his dream of playing in the NHL.
Faksa is from Opava, a city of 60,00 people located in a poor region of the Czech Republic, just minutes from Poland’s border. He has two siblings, and with divorced parents, all three lived with their Mom. He was an exceptional hockey player.
Opportunities for a talent like him in a town like that were almost nil. His family was barely scraping by, and all he wanted to do was be a hockey player. If he would leave his home and family and play for a team in Trinec, they would put him up in a hotel and feed him two meals a day. That sounds pretty fair for a young player trying to move on up, there was just one thing. "Young" is a bit of an understatement – he was 11 at the time.
That sort of dedication is common out of 15 and 16 year olds, who routinely leave home to pursue their hockey dreams. But an 11-year-old? Simply incredible. Faksa made good on those who invested resources in him as a youngster. He came over to Canada as a 17-year-old to play for the Kitchener Rangers, and he impressed enough as a rookie to hear his name called when Dallas made their selection at pick 13.
Many in hockey circles believe that Faksa is pretty close to the NHL right now – he may be able to step into the Dallas lineup to start the 2013-14 season, depending on what happens in Dallas and how the rest of his season in Kitchener turns out. To get an idea of how his game has progressed from last season to this one, I consulted Brock Otten, who runs the OHL Prospects blog.
Angus: Will Faksa be ready to turn pro next season?
At this point, I think his offensive game still has to grow a bit. It's too early to say because of the Rangers' struggles this season. If the NHL were to start up right now, I can tell you with confidence that he's not ready this season (unless the Stars want him away from the inconsistent Rangers). Next year, it's too hard to say. He's the type of prospect you don't want to rush because it could limit his overall potential. You move him up to the NHL before his offensive game has fully blossomed, and he'll be out there in a checking line role, killing penalties. Before you know it, his game has stagnated and he's the next Josef Vasicek.
How has his game evolved from last season to this season?
Truthfully, I haven't seen a ton of progression. In the games I've seen of the Rangers, they've looked awful as a team and seem to be lacking some chemistry on their scoring lines (Faksa currently plays with Matt Puempel and Eric Ming). Faksa is still doing the things that he did well last year, and that's protecting the puck, creating offensive chances for his linemates and playing both ends. It's just that he hasn't really become that bluechipper yet, who's able to take over games for his team. But when you've got little support, it's tough.
Where does he rank among OHL forwards? Top 10?
At this point, I don't think I'd put him in my top 10. He's in that next bracket. Those players in that top 10 bracket can all take over games for their teams (Mark Scheifele, Ryan Strome, Vincent Trocheck, Sean Monahan, and so on). While Faksa is a great player, and a complete hockey player, I have yet to really see him be an unstoppable force.
Does he have the talent to be a top line player in the NHL? We hear a lot about his overall game and how polished he is – does that sell his upside short?
A top line player, as in someone who's able to lead his team in scoring? No I don't think he's going to be that type of player. Can he be a top-six forward? Absolutely. But I think you're looking more at a solid secondary scoring option who can do a lot of little things for his team. A consistent 50-point guy who plays in all situations. Expecting him to be your team's franchise center is probably setting the bar a tad high.
Does Faksa compare to Gabriel Landeskog at all? Maybe not just playing style, but how they adjusted to the OHL game?
I don't see any comparison to their games really. Nor to how they adapted to the OHL. Landeskog is a much more physical player and way more tenacious without the puck. He's also got a better shot and is a better goal scorer. As a winger, this is only natural. In his second year in the league (his draft year), Landeskog had the ability to take over games in every facet. This is a point that Faksa has yet to reach. The only ways they compare really are their two-way game (and intelligence), as well as their ability to control the puck off the rush. Faksa is also a better playmaker. In terms of development, Faksa didn't have much of a learning curve really.
He stepped right into this league and was the player he is now after only about a month of action. Landeskog came into the league nearly a full year younger and it showed. He took time to develop his game, and truthfully, didn't really hit his stride until the 2010 Memorial Cup run. He started out as purely an energy type guy who could throw some hits and go hard to the net without the puck, but looked raw in controlling the puck, using his speed and generating offense on his own. As the months went on, he slowly gained confidence in carrying the puck, using his shot and trying to control the boards. He also transformed himself from an energy guy who hit a bit to one of the most physical forwards in the league.
How does Kitchener’s team stack up to last year’s squad?
Despite their struggles right now, with John Gibson in net, they have a chance to win every hockey game. He's the best goalie in the league. But their defense looks soft and they're getting outplayed and outworked in their own end. Gibson can only stop so much. Offensively, the team has been pretty flat and seems to be missing another quality goal scorer up front. Some of the teams more hard working forwards haven't proved they can put the puck in the net and it's putting too much pressure on the big three (Faksa, Puempel, and Rieder) to do all the work. Preseason, this team was considered a favorite in the West. Now? I don't think this team is nearly as good as we thought they'd be. Their younger players just haven't taken that next step. I don't see them competing for the division.
Building off of the last question – has Faksa’s role changed this year at all?
Last year, the Rangers were incredibly deep at center with Mike Catenacci and Andrew Crescenzi in the fold. It allowed them to spread out their wingers and have a very balanced scoring attack. This year, both guys are gone (although there's hope Crescenzi returns soon since the Leafs haven't found a pro spot for him yet), which leaves Faksa on his own down the middle. Marcantuoni, Sterk, Bailey, and Alberga have yet to make much of an impact which means defenses are really focusing in on whatever line Faksa is on. He's seeing the top pairing every game and team's know that if you can shut down his line, you'll have a good shot of shutting down the Rangers 5 on 5. His role has changed to the point where he's the focal point of the offensive attack, as opposed to just another player on a deep team.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Brock.
As Brock shared, there is reason to be excited about Faksa, but he is still very much a work-in-progress. The ideal situation would have him spend another year in the OHL before turning pro in 2014, but that would depend on Dallas filling their vacancies at center (I think they find a way to re-sign Derek Roy, personally).
Faksa isn’t a sure thing, but he has a work ethic and dedication to hockey that is very rare among teenagers, even those with NHL prospects. Because of that, I’m very confident he will find his way in the next couple of years and emerge as a cornerstone forward for the Stars.