Jiricek has needed little time to show he’s ready for NHL shot
David Jiricek got to make the call all young hockey players dream of on Wednesday evening.
Upon being recalled to the Blue Jackets from AHL Cleveland, the 18-year-old first-round draft choice called his home in the Plzen region of Czechia to tell his parents, Lenka and Libor, that he was headed to the NHL. It wasn’t a long conversation, though, as you might imagine for someone in the midst of such a whirlwind.
“It was pretty short because I needed to grab all my stuff,” said Jiricek, who reached his mother from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., while on the road with the Monsters. “It was just, ‘You have to catch a flight. You can come with my dad, and see you tomorrow.'”
Should Libor and Lenak have no flight issues, then, they will be in Nationwide Arena tomorrow night as Jiricek is expected to make his NHL debut against Boston. With right-shot defensemen Nick Blankenburg (upper-body injury) and Adam Boqvist (broken foot) out for the time being, Jiricek was summoned and spent Thursday morning’s practice on the team’s second defensive pair with Vladislav Gavrikov and quarterbacking the team’s No. 2 power-play unit.
In fact, the loudest moment of practice might have been when he boomed a shot into the net during power-play work to a spirited reaction from his teammates, but while his rocket of a shot from the blue line is expected to become a weapon as Jiricek gets older, the hope simply is he comes to Columbus and plays a solid defensive game in his debut.
“The way he plays, he’s very assertive, he’s aggressive, he trusts himself,” said head coach Brad Larsen, who welcomed Jiricek to practice Thursday with a handshake. “We probably have to coach that out of him a little bit at times. I even saw it in practice today. He’s a very excitable kid. He wants to go. He trusts his feet, his length and his defending. But I would rather coach on that side than a guy who is going to sit and let the game attack him all night.
“He’s not afraid to attack the game in all three zones. You talk to the guys down there, the scouting report, he had a good first weekend then even better (the second). That’s a good sign. And he’s vocal for a young man. He’s very vocal. He’s a guy that’s excited to play. He loves to compete. That was the one word they said, he’s very, very competitive. I love to hear that.”
Jiricek was taken with the sixth overall pick in this summer’s NHL draft, with just two other players chosen — No. 1 overall choice Juraj Slafkovsky of Montreal and fourth pick Shane Wright of Seattle — seeing NHL action to this point. The 6-foot-3, 189-pound defenseman was one of the last cuts of CBJ training camp, but he impressed more and more as the three-week camp went on while showing off a smart, aggressive two-way game.
“I thought as camp went on, he just went like this,” Larsen said while pointing upward. “In Traverse (City at the NHL Prospects Tournament), he was a little tentative early, and he got a little better, and then he just kept coming. I think his best (exhibition) game was his last game against St. Louis. He really was an eye-opening defenseman back there in the right way. It wasn’t wowing you, but making the right plays — assertive plays, physical when it called for it. There’s a lot to like.”
Columbus had plenty of options entering the season for Jiricek, who spent the past two years playing with HC Plzen in his native country and also has suited up for Czechia in both the World Championships and the World Juniors. Columbus could have returned him to the top pro league in Czechia, had him play junior hockey with Spokane of the WHL, or kept him in the professional ranks here with either the Blue Jackets or Monsters.
He was so close to making the opening night roster that the last option became the preferred one, and Jiricek had four assists and a plus-2 rating in the Monsters’ first five games. That was enough to earn the promotion when the lineup spot opened.
“We don’t just call him up because he was a first-round pick,” Larsen said. “We called him up because he was the best defenseman. That’s how we have to operate.”
For his part, Jiricek — who would be just the second 18-year-old defenseman to see NHL minutes in franchise history, joining Rostislav Klesla — said he felt he was settling in during his time in Cleveland.
“That was my first appearance in North American games,” he said, referencing the smaller ice from his home country. “It was a new experience for me. I think it was a good first five games. It’s a very good organization there, so I am happy.”
Jiricek said he was at the rink in Wilkes-Barre when he first found out the news, and he arrived in Columbus around midnight last night before taking part in practice today. He admitted the quick recall to the big leagues just a few weeks into the season was a bit of a surprise, but he’s excited to see how things go Friday night.
“I need to work hard in this game and enjoy everything,” Jiricek said. “It’s only one game. I need to just play hockey and work hard, that’s it.”