Will Flyers see breakout year from Voracek?

Posted: September 19, 2011

ON THE surface, that gloomy April day, when the Blue Jackets cleaned out their lockers yet again without a playoff berth for the ninth time in the franchise's 10-season history, seemed no different than any of the other "exit interviews" Jakub Voracek had experienced in Columbus.

Until his coach spoke.

Scott Arniel did not mince words when asked about Voracek, the once-prized first-round pick.

"The biggest thing that is holding him back is his conditioning," Arniel told the Columbus Dispatch that day. "I think this guy can be an elite player in this league if he gets himself in shape."

For a professional athlete, whose body is his livelihood, there are few worse criticisms. Voracek finished the season on an empty tank, with two goals and four assists as the Blue Jackets snoozed to a 3-13-7 finish after March 1.

Arniel's poignant words stuck with Voracek all summer.

Rather than party in Columbus or hit the legendary club scene in his native Czech Republic, Voracek spent 2 1/2 months in Montreal training with Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang and Detroit forward Jiri Hudler under the direction of strength coach Jonathan Chaimberg.

On Saturday, when the Flyers opened training camp, all eyes were on Voracek's countryman, Jaromir Jagr. Hours prior, Voracek took his first step with a fresh start in Philadelphia, as he tries to shake the reputation of an out-of-shape, turnover-prone player.

"I can't say anything bad about Columbus," Voracek said yesterday. "I spent 3 great years there. But I'm very happy to be here. When you get traded, it's obviously a shock. But when you think about it, you find out that, down the road, it can be better for you. I know I can prove to this organization that they made the right decision."

To the Flyers, Voracek, 22, spells untapped potential. General manager Paul Holmgren repeatedly said this summer that he believes "there is more there."

A quick look at the numbers backs up Holmgren's hunch. Through his first three NHL seasons, all played before the age of 21, Voracek has 39 goals and 95 assists for 134 points.

For comparison's sake, Voracek appears poised to break out. He has 30 points more than Vancouver's Henrik Sedin scored in his first three seasons, 37 more than Sedin's twin, Daniel. His 134 points are actually two more than the 132 Jeff Carter - his counterpart in this summer's blockbuster - netted at the same point in his career.

All four players were first-round picks. The other three all had a year or 2 in age over Voracek when they finished their third season. It took the Sedins until after the 2004-05 lockout to blossom in the NHL.

"He put up really good numbers for the first 3 years of his career," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "We're looking to push that with him, see if he can take that next step."

In Carter's fourth season, he posted what is still a career high in goals, assists and points, jumping from 53 points in 2007-08 to 84 in 2008-09. Both Sedin twins have broken the 100-point mark in a single season in their careers. Voracek seems to have the same potential, even if this year's jump is less pronounced.

Unlike in Columbus, Voracek won't have the same immediate pressure to produce. Though he played with talent, in Rick Nash and either Derick Brassard or R.J. Umberger, Voracek was part of the Blue Jackets' only scoring-line threat.

"I've still got a lot to learn," Voracek said. "I'm 22 years old, I've still got to grow. But you need to do it as quickly as you can to make an impact."

With the Flyers, Voracek will not just be limited to the right wing. And he can fit perfectly on any of the top three lines with his speed.

"He'll be able to bump around and try different things," Laviolette said.

This weekend, Voracek was initially skating with Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell - though Laviolette cautioned the lines would change hundreds of times, likely in his own mind, before the season opener on Oct. 6. Voracek has won gold and bronze world championship medals playing alongside Jagr for the Czech Republic. Both players grew up in the same town.

Both Briere and Laviolette mentioned Voracek's happy-go-lucky demeanor in the dressing room, noticing that he is "always smiling" and even singing.

"I didn't even realize he was that young at first," Briere said. "I think it's very promising. There is a reason he was such a high pick, with his skill level and size [6-2, 214]. Hopefully we can help him become the player that everyone is expecting him to be."

Slap shots

Peter Laviolette said tryout Michael Nylander, who did not participate in on-ice activities, had a "maintenance day" yesterday. Nylander, 38, is believed to be nursing a minor injury. Laviolette said he is interested in taking a look at Nylander in a game setting to "see what he is capable of." Nylander is coming off a 4-year, $19.5 million deal with Washington . . . With the preseason slate set to open tomorrow night in Toronto, Laviolette said to expect a lot of players who appear to be on the bubble to make the team.

For more news and analysis,

read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at

www.philly.com/FrequentFlyers. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DNFlyers.


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