One of the most hotly debated topics in the draft this year is whether you believe David Jiricek or Simon Nemec is the top defender available. Both are possible, perhaps even likely, top five selections this year. At McKeen’s Hockey, we rated Nemec slightly higher due to his remarkable processing ability and awareness, however it could certainly be argued that Jiricek possesses the higher upside.
After missing a good chunk of the year due to a knee injury suffered at the abruptly canceled World Junior Championships, Jiricek returned at the end of the year to strong results. He managed to make the Czech team at the World Championships, and even though he was in and out of the lineup, he did look good at times, and this helped to paint a more clear picture of his profile and projection.
The physical and athletic tools that Jiricek possesses do give him a relatively safe floor as an NHL defender, especially as someone with a right shot. It seems unlikely that Jiricek will “bust” completely, with a floor likely similar to a player like Dmitri Kulikov. However, if his offensive skills, defensive intensity, and explosiveness continue to improve, he could easily be a long time first pairing defensive anchor for whatever team selects him.
One of the best parts to Jiricek’s game is his strong four-way mobility when you factor in his 6’3 frame. His backwards and lateral movement are excellent. He looks so comfortable using his edges to walk the offensive blueline and this certainly gives him the projection of a future powerplay quarterback when combined with his excellent point shot. Defensively, because of his smooth four-way stride, Jiricek is able to maintain strong gap control in transition and it gives him the mark of someone who is very difficult to beat one on one.
The one area that Jiricek could still improve upon is his linear explosiveness. He can impact the game as a puck mover, however there are times where he is not able to clear forecheckers or create the kind of separation he needs because his first few strides lack power and are a little sluggish. This is especially noticeable out of pivots. Additionally, his transitional agility could stand to improve. There are times where he loses balance or struggles to build speed when transitioning from backwards to forwards stride. This prevents him from getting to retrievals earlier.
However, you also need to factor in the knee injury he suffered and how that limited his development and progression as a skater this year. Jiricek’s power and mechanical deficits are very fixable and he should project as an above average mover at the NHL level, even with his 6’3 frame and an eventual higher playing weight.
An example of those transitional skating deficiencies mentioned. This was at the World Championships. Jiricek had a ton of ground to make up in this occurrence, so it was likely unrealistic for him to be able to catch the Swedish player. But you can see how he struggles to pick up speed when transitioning out of his backwards stride and he gets beat cleanly to the middle of the ice. At the very least, a quality recovery there could have kept the Swedish player to the perimeter and applied some stick pressure.
This clip paints a pretty good picture of Jiricek’s inability to build speed moving North/South with the puck. He just doesn’t build up the speed necessary to truly apply pressure on the defense, even if he successfully gains the offensive zone. He gets angled off to the wall and the backchecker (who kept pace with him) helps force the turnover.
Here we see his strength as a four-way mover. This transitional attack is shut down by Jiricek as he closes off all lanes for the attacking opposing player. Notice how he actually takes a step forward thinking of trying to play him early and aggressively but alters his plan quickly and shifts to a backwards glide without giving up his positional advantage.
Good work by Jiricek here on the powerplay. You can see that he is not the most dynamic skater in the world but that he does have good footwork and good habits when controlling the point. He can quickly move laterally and pivot to escape pressure at the blueline and he does a great job using his feet to get himself in shooting position to be able to use his one timer.
Subtle change of direction at the point gives Jiricek the space he needs to get a shot on net. What I would love to see is for him to be more aggressive in working down low with the puck. He gets clearance there, but then puts a low percentage shot on net. If he held the puck and cycled down low after beating the high defender, he could have caused a breakdown as the defender in the left spot of the diamond would have had to leave his man in the slot to make a play, giving Jiricek a possible passing option in a more dangerous scoring position.
Jiricek’s shot is another standout quality of his game, perhaps the one quality of his game that has a chance to be truly elite. Not only is his one timer hard, but he is so good at using his feet to open himself up for a pass that he can hammer. As a result, he is a tremendous triggerman and would be a very intriguing powerplay option for an NHL team in the future. As for his wrist shot, well that’s more of a work in progress. It’s not nearly as hard or as accurate as his one timer and he essentially uses it to try to generate rebounds or redirections. But he can fire it into shin pads or miss the net completely. Given how well he holds the line, improving his release and the overall quality of his wrist shot would really help him to become a bigger offensive weapon at five on five.
An example of that big Jiricek point shot. Beats the goaltender cleanly with the one timer from the point.
Rinse and repeat. Most of Jiricek’s goals on the year looked like these two. His one timer is a major weapon.
Jiricek is kind of a complicated player as it pertains to his skill and potential as an offensive defender. He is at his best when he can support the rush, working his way up into the play. He receives passes seamlessly without breaking stride and shows an ability to catch defenders flat footed with quick directional changes that help to earn him great looks to use his shot.
When he is the one leading the rush, he can be less effective as some of his power deficiencies limit the kind of separation he can achieve and the kind of speed that he can build up. This was mentioned earlier. Jiricek’s ability to problem solve or create with his hands when pressured at a standstill is extremely inconsistent. There are times where he struggles to coral or control the puck and fails to maintain control through attempts to cut or pivot. There are other times where he keeps things simple and makes a subtle move to beat initial pressure, before using his size to shield the puck to help him make a pass off or get a shot off. This leads me to believe that there is further room for growth in his small area skill.
Another skill of Jiricek’s that is worth mentioning is his breakout pass. Even though there are some issues with his routing and ability to recover dump ins due to flaws in his transitional agility, he manages to usually gain the clearance he needs to effectively start the breakout with a clean exit pass. He has his head up and connects with his target most times, even in the face of pressure. Sometimes that even includes having to make a move to help him protect the puck from forecheckers, forcing him to make that pass on his backhand. At the end of the day, what you have is a 6’3 defender who flashes skill with the puck in a lot of different situations, but whose skill application is wildly inconsistent.
Here we have a play which may show some of the skill limitations that Jiricek has at times. He can often struggle to create with only his hands when boxed in, or when he tries to blend his feet and hands together when he comes out of a pivot or from a standstill. There is a tendency to over handle or overskate the puck just like this.
But then there are instances like this where Jiricek looks the part of a dynamic and skilled attacker. I actually find him to be at his best when he can operate in support of the attack and not as the primary focal point. He picks his spots well to jump up into the rush and he can accept passes in full stride to break in. With his big point shot, he could score his share of goals at the NHL level by jumping up just like this.
Here is a similar kind of play. Jiricek starts the breakout and then supports it. He takes the pass back and makes a charge into the offensive zone, helping the Czech’s establish possession, while nearly creating a scoring chance.
It looks like Jiricek might be in trouble here a few times, but he manages to find his way out of it. The play at the end to protect the puck and make the pass on his backhand is really impressive. Even at a young age, Jiricek can be difficult to pin down in the defensive end.
Ignore that Jiricek misses the mark on the stretch pass at the end. Focus on the skilled and creative play to escape the forecheck with the self-pass. It is plays like this that have scouts excited about his potential as an offensive defender.
The trend continues. There are times and situations where Jiricek looks a step ahead of the competition as a processor. There are other times where he struggles with his decision making with, and without the puck. Personally, I see a player who is still trying to figure out what kind of player he wants to be and one who is working to gain the confidence he needs to be an impact player at both ends.
In the defensive end, Jiricek is a tough player to win battles against. I spent a lot of time trying to find a clip of Jiricek making a real positive play when defending the slot, but I just couldn’t find it. The reason? Opposing teams rarely get to the point of being able to cleanly set up their offense against Jiricek at even strength. He does a great job of winning battles along the wall and starting the breakout, or simply alleviating pressure with a clear. While he may not consistently be the first to a dump in, he seals his man well and closes off passing lanes coming off the wall. When he is first to the puck, he makes quick decisions to help exit the zone, rarely succumbing to the pressure of the forecheck.
In the offensive end, he holds the blueline so well and makes great reads of when to jump up or pinch to keep plays alive. As a passer, he shows poise and patience and is more than just the triggerman we explained above. While his preference is clearly to use his big point shot, he will not force it. The one area of Jiricek’s that I do think needs the most work is his decision making when defending counter attacks in transition. At times he just seems very unsure of what to do. He can be too aggressive when he shouldn’t be. He can be too passive when he needs to be aggressive. I think that this should improve with experience and coaching.
As stated, the one area of his defense that Jiricek does need to work on is his timing and decision making when defending pace. He can get burned when overcommitting too early or picking the wrong time to be aggressive. This is a great example of that as Jiricek charges the oncoming attacker with all of his momentum, making him susceptible to a quick directional change.
The previous example showed how his over aggressiveness can hurt him. This example shows the opposite, his indecisiveness. Jiricek does not identify the streaking opponent taking the middle lane and opts to try to shut down the attack early to the outside. Unfortunately, he also does not play him aggressive enough in order to take away his options as a passer, especially since he has the support of his backchecker taking away a possible cut back to the middle. This causes him to leave his defensive partner out to dry.
But then we have such a positive and aggressive defensive play here. Jiricek makes a great read to jump the breakout pass and the result is a prime scoring opportunity for the Czechs at the World Juniors (before he got hurt from the knee on knee later in that game). The consistency of his decision making must frustrate his coaches and scouts.
Love this play at the offensive blueline by Jiricek. Head up as he holds the line and makes a quick read and pass to get it to a teammate in the slot, who then makes a great pass to set up the (somewhat weak) goal.
This is such a good, but subtle play, that points to Jiricek’s strong awareness. He takes the time to shoulder check to see his options, knowing full well that means that he is going to take the hit to help Czechia escape pressure.
Similar play to the one we showed earlier. Another great read by Jiricek to jump a clearing attempt. He follows that up by making a heck of a pass into the slot. Unfortunately his teammate cannot convert, but the play was terrific.
I have seen some say that Jiricek is among the most physically aggressive defenders in this draft class. That’s not something I can get on board with. I think there is a lot of room for him to develop a bit more snarl, especially when defending the net front area and when trying to deny entry into his zone. Kind of similar to Lian Bichsel, he is not a huge open ice hitter. He will step up on attackers at the blueline, but it is not a consistent part of his game. Additionally, there are times where he makes himself very difficult to play against along the wall and other times where he does not pin his man quickly enough and they escape pressure.
Obviously as Jiricek grows stronger, the expectation is that he will become more physically dominant. I could certainly see that, and I do think that his physical tools grade out above average in all likelihood. However, I also believe that his game is predicated around quick touches and quick decisions to help prevent the opposition from setting up in the offensive end. And that means Jiricek does not have to be a true physical force. If we are expecting Jiricek to be Radko Gudas or Chris Pronger, that is unrealistic.
Earlier we discussed Jiricek’s issues with how to defend in transition. Here is an example of a very positive play. He reads the pass early and moves quickly to take away time and space, identifying that a backchecker has the forward driving the middle. Then he finishes his check and helps force a dump in.
Much like many other parts to his game, Jiricek’s ability to neutralize players along the wall is inconsistent. But, here we see what he is capable of doing on a regular basis. Shows off his mobility to take away space and then pins his man aggressively to take him out of the play. As he gets stronger, he will need to develop the mentality to play this intensely in the defensive end at all times.
A note on the 20-80 scale used above. We look at five attributes (skating, shooting, puck skills, hockey IQ and physicality) for skaters and six for goalies (athleticism/quickness, compete/temperament, vision/play reading, technique/style, rebound control and puck handling). Each individual attribute is graded along the 20-80 scales, which includes half-grades. The idea is that a projection of 50 in a given attribute meant that our observer believed that the player could get to roughly NHL average at that attribute at maturity