Jakub Jerabek is rounding the final bend of the long road leading to the NHL.
His story is one of a late bloomer. Never drafted, he signed with a KHL team only when he was 25, after two productive year in the Extraliga. For a while, his play in the Czech hockey league went unnoticed.
But he kept working on his game, and at the end of his first season with HC Vityaz, his name was already among the top five back-end scorers of the KHL. He doubled the point total of the next closest defenceman on his team, being the only offensive spark on a blue-line corp relying mostly on heavy stay-at-home players.
To NHL scouts sent to watch him, he showcased his ability in transitions, both with quick passes in his zone and long stretch plays that could work wonders on the international ice.
His offensive game was clearly his best quality. Never shying away from supporting the attack with HC Vityaz, he often was close behind his forwards on the rush, ready for a drop pass to take the puck to the net or create a scoring chance for a teammate.
On the power play he made full use of the space available to him, stretching the ice while the four forwards took turns circling to the slot. He found them with repeated passes until the puck finished its course in the back of the net.
His play was more than enough to convince the Habs that he could be an asset, especially with the direction the team took this summer, losing some of the few puck movers they possessed.
Transition to the AHL
This season, Jerabek is rapidly answering the questions most people had about his play. He brought his offensive game to this side of the Atlantic, and he now has 11 points in 14 games, tied for third in defencemen scoring in the AHL.
At the origin of some great moments for the Rocket this season, his only goal came off a zone entry he prepared for Niki Petti. After joining his forwards past the offensive blue line, he skated to the crease to redirect the pass of Jeremy Grégoire over Syracuse's goalie.
But most of his points, just as they were in Europe, are the result of his passing ability.
Like this assist in his first game as a Rocket, where instead of shooting upon receiving, like most players would do in front of the net, he slid the puck over to Peter Holland who deflected it for the goal.
Jerabek doesn't shoot very often, even on the power play. It's more likely for him to fire a slap pass to a teammate for a tip-in, than to try for a big windup to beat the goalie.
This play from last Saturday illustrates what he does well in the offensive zone despite not being a primary scoring threat.
He first pinches high and ties up a Springfield player to prevent him from dumping the puck.
Then, a few seconds later, he recovers an inaccurate pass from Tom Parisi one-handed and quickly finds Petti with his backhand before getting hit. Parisi's shot from the blue line then gets deflected for the goal.
When he receives the puck on the point, Jerabek can be quite elusive even if he doesn't possess the skating agility that some other offensive defenceman have. He is still pivoting and protecting the puck, creating plays smoothly due to how comfortable he is using both his backhand and forehand.
Spending the majority of last year playing on his off-side (RD) with HC Vityaz definitely helped him become a more versatile passer.
This assist on Thursday is another great example of what he can bring to the team's offence as he goes deep in the zone, like he's seen doing very often, before feeding the shot of Antoine Waked with a backhand through traffic.
His passing ability is equally impressive in the defensive zone. He times himself well with the forechecking pressure to get the puck to teammates just as he's about to get collapsed on, creating room for his forwards to accelerate into open ice.
He's excellent at saucer passes and not afraid to try those as a breakout solution. As long as he's able to look over his shoulder and find an option, Jerabek consistently gets the puck out.
The problem comes when he faces heavier pressure and doesn't have time to identify options. The usual relief system established by a team is to rim the puck up along the boards to the winger or back to a defence partner, but that doesn't seem to be instinctual for Jerabek yet.
Over in Europe, the forecheck is usually far from being what it is in North America. The larger ice renders a heavy multi-man collapse ineffective. It is quite easy for a defenceman to get the puck into an open area for a teammate to pick up before the forecheckers can adjust. There's less use for a support system and the play is generally looser.
Jerabek has great vision, but he will need time before he can blindly trust the positioning of his teammates and get the puck to them without thinking about it.
He also doesn't really use fakes to his advantage against the pressing forwards. That’s something that would allow him to sell some of his passes and make the quick breakouts he favours more often. This is especially important as he looks for a future in the NHL where players are coming at you even harder.
Jerabek is not a puck-rusher, so it's important for him to find ways to keep using his passing ability as he plays against better competition. He will rarely be able to get the puck up the ice himself as he doesn't have the extraordinary skating ability of most defenceman who make that part of their game.
He would still gain from trying to skate a bit more with the puck when he's in his zone. He sometimes chooses to bring himself to a complete stop while he looks for a play. It forces his forwards to circle back or face a fully formed neutral-zone defence.
Jerabek is capable of quick and hard passes. It's simply the case of breaking this habit he had from the KHL: slowing down the play in the middle of the ice when he has the puck.
That being said, the way he refuses to give away possession is admirable. He can go to great lengths to find someone to give the puck to in his zone and it's overall a great quality. He just needs to better integrate some other elements that will make him a more efficient player.
Jerabek is very aggressive in the neutral zone with his gap, often closing the space between him and an opposing forward before the blueline, forcing the dump in, but also leaving room for that player to accelerate to the back of the zone to retrieve.
His defensive reads are good overall, even if his positioning could still improve. He's a smart player who anticipates and cuts passes both while defending off the rush and in his zone. He is also willing to do his fair share in board battles and can be pretty fierce trying to retrieve the puck.
However, he's currently one of the players with the most penalties on the Rocket, with a staggering seven infractions that were either holding, tripping, or hooking. Some of those were questionable calls, but it's still a trend for him since the start of the season.
Another way of looking at #Rocket penalties is to classify them as either "Physical" penalties (fighting, boarding, slashing, etc...) and "Effort" penalties (tripping, hooking, holding, etc...). You can clearly see that Jerabek is still adjusting to the pace of hockey in the AHL. pic.twitter.com/B4nWNLRnH1— Andrew Zadarnowski (@AZadarski) November 15, 2017
This issue should fix itself as he gets more used to the North American game and stops playing catch-up to some of the faster or more physical guys.
Future with the Habs
Jerabek has an European out clause in his contract. After December 15th, if he has not been called up by Montreal, he can leave for the KHL. But, there's no signs that point to him ever choosing that alternative. He seems determined to play for the Canadiens and enjoying his time learning with the Rocket.
Already a driving force of their offence and holding his own defensively, he is more to the team than what could have reasonably been expected of him, especially coming from a league that doesn't put much emphasis on system play. He's even leading the AHL with a plus/minus score of +13.
There are lots of reasons to be excited about the Czech defenceman. He could fill a crucial role on the Habs back end.
Right now, Habs management seem to perceive Jerabek's development as a process and aren't looking to rush him. Creating new habits, more adapted to a different game, can take time, and being patient might be the best approach. But, if he keeps improving the way he has, there's a good chance we see him making an impact with the Habs soon.