Ruminating on Roman Horak’s smoking-hot start to the season, Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward describes the Czech forward in terms which run entirely counter to his explosive performance on the ice.
“He’s kind of just a bland, vanilla guy,” Ward said of Horak, “and that’s the biggest strength he has as a player.
“He’s a European kid who has very good balance to his personality. If you interview him, you’d never know if he’s happy or sad.
“There will be days when I say, ‘You’re too bland, you need a little bit better heartbeat.’ But as long as he has the ice balance he has and he makes his plays, he’s in pretty good shape. One of his best attributes is, he’s pretty much the same every day.”
It’s as good an explanation as any for Horak’s goal-scoring outburst over the first nine games of the campaign, because the man himself can’t really put his finger on it.
The sophomore pro finds himself atop the AHL goal-scoring list with 10 – one more than his closest pursuer, Drayson Bowman of the Charlotte Checkers.
“It’s tough to say,” the 21-year-old mused. “Obviously I’ve been off to a pretty good start, but I’m just trying to do the same things I’ve always done. I don’t have any secrets. Maybe it’s just being a year older, I don’t know.”
Horak’s gaudy numbers aren’t simply the product of a couple explosive outings, either – he’s mustered at least a point in all but one of the Heat’s games.
That he’s maintained such consistent production while serving the role of Swiss army knife in the Abbotsford lineup casts it in an even more flattering light.
Horak has played on all four lines at various points in the season, and he’s played all three forward spots – left wing, centre and right wing.
“It’s been kind of crazy,” he said with a wry grin. “But I don’t mind it at all. Obviously you’d love to have a (consistent) spot in the lineup, but the players here are very good. I’m just listening to what Troy says, and wherever he puts me, I’m just going to play the position.”
Ward has moved Horak around partly out of necessity, as he’s had to shuffle six veterans into the five-veteran lineup limit. There’s also been a teaching motive.
“I look at that as a really important piece for his development,” Ward said. “It sends a message to anybody looking at him, whether it’s Calgary or any team in the league, that this is a skilled guy who can play any role. That’s pretty handy to have.”
Horak is currently on pace to score 84 goals over the course of a full 76-game AHL season, but anyone expecting him to continue to bury pucks at that clip will surely be disappointed. The beauty of his game is, though, he doesn’t necessarily have to score to be effective.
In 2011-12, he was the surprise of Calgary Flames training camp, cracking the NHL club’s roster and suiting up for 61 games, mustering three goals and eight assists while being used primarily in a defensive-minded role.
He’s a conscientious two-way player and is capable of killing penalties, though the Heat haven’t chosen to use him in that capacity to this point in the season.
“He does not have to score – he’s still going to make an impact and put himself in a position to play in the NHL,” Ward said. “It’s because he’s got good hockey sense and a very good stick.
“He’s a pretty heady guy.”
Ward also believes familiarity is breeding success for Horak. The Fraser Valley has become a second home to him, after spending two seasons (2009-11) with the WHL’s Chilliwack Bruins. He’s also more comfortable in Ward’s system, after suiting up for 22 games (14 regular season, eight playoffs) with the Heat at the tail end of the 2011-12 campaign.
“Something people forget a little bit, I think, is that he grew up in Chilliwack,” Ward said. “His billet family is down the road, his girlfriend’s from Chilliwack . . . It’s kind of all come back together again, and I think that’s been part of his success.
“Horak’s also in his second year with us,” Ward added. “He understands the logic and how we think. I think that’s part of it, too.
“My system takes a lot of time to figure out – all the verbiage and language and how we play certain situations, it does take time. I think our best players on a game-to-game basis are our players from last year.
“(Rookie Sven) Baertschi’s a good player, but he hasn’t been that dynamic. He’s still learning. He hasn’t dominated scoring chances, not like Horak has.”
Horak, a native of Ceske Budejovice in the Czech Republic, said he’s coming off a solid summer of workouts back home.
“We have a training group there with my trainer which includes (former Flames and Heat forward) Ales Kotalik, and sometimes Milan Michalek (Ottawa Senators), Martin Hanzal (Phoenix Coyotes) and those guys,” he said. “It’s great to work out with guys like that.”