Kindl-ing excitement on the blue line

by Randy Rice || AHL On The Beat Archive

From Europe to North America, from juniors to the pros, and finally from the American Hockey League to the National Hockey League. This is often the path taken by talented young hockey players from overseas, with one common theme recurring throughout the journey: transition.

But in Jakub Kindl’s case, that may not be the best word to describe the defenseman’s odyssey from the Czech Republic to the Ontario Hockey League and, this season, to the Grand Rapids Griffins. Since he’s already well-suited for the league in which he now plays, “development” is a more accurate word to apply to Kindl’s nascent career.

Growing and improving – as opposed to changing and altering – has been the story of his journey to the Griffins. A native of Sumperk, Czech Republic, Kindl toiled in the Czech junior leagues from 2002-04 while managing one game in his homeland’s pro ranks. He then ventured to North America to join the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League for the 2004-05 season.

In his first year away from home, Kindl recorded just three goals and 11 assists in 62 regular season contests, then went scoreless in 12 playoff games. One may think, and even Kindl will admit, that his first year away from home did no go so well.

“It was a tough year for me,” said the 20-year-old. “I came over without knowing the language and I had to get used to the different level of hockey.”

Although Kindl may have felt he had a rough start to his North American career, the Detroit Red Wings saw tremendous potential in the blueliner and selected him as their first pick, 19th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

That potential began to manifest itself the following season when Kindl’s point production quadrupled, as he tallied a career-high 58 points, with 12 goals and 46 assists in 60 games. In his breakout year, he led Rangers defensemen and placed third on the team in scoring, becoming one of the OHL’s predominant blue-line threats.

Kindl finished sixth in scoring among OHL defensemen in 2005-06.

“Since I was not a rookie anymore, I had the opportunity to play more that year, which allowed me to put more points up,” said Kindl.

Putting up points is exactly what he continued to do. After notching an assist in his pro debut and appearing in three games with the Griffins at season’s end, he returned to Kitchener in 2006-07 to average more than a point per game and finish runner-up for the OHL’s defenseman of the year award. Kindl totaled 55 points in 54 games for the Rangers, leading the team with 44 assists.

As far as Kindl is concerned, the jump to the pro ranks has come at the right time.

“I am so pumped for this year, playing pro full-time,” said Kindl. “I feel it is time to make the change and I am ready.”

kindl2_200.jpgGriffins fans witnessed Kindl’s readiness during the 2007 Calder Cup Playoffs, as he played in all seven games during Grand Rapids’ loss to Manitoba in the North Division semifinals. He logged significant minutes, contributed a pair of assists and even quarterbacked the first power-play unit.

It sounds obvious for a defenseman, but blueline play is exactly what Kindl will be working on to improve his game this season. He knows that at this level, he needs to take care of his job as a defenseman and let his forwards produce the points.

“Before, I was the guy that could join the rush,” said Kindl. “But right now, I am trying to just focus on defense and maintaining good coverage and positioning.”

Griffins management shares that view but remains confident it has a point-producing defenseman on its hands. After all, while he may be the second-youngest player on Grand Rapids’ current roster, he also is the highest Detroit draft pick to ever wear a Griffins uniform.

“We recognize that he is a player that can bring some offense to the team,” said Griffins general manager Bob McNamara. “But more importantly we want him to be a guy that is very safe in his own zone and who makes a great first pass.”

“Less is more,” first-year Griffins’ head coach Mike Stothers commented. “In Jakub’s case, we are just concentrated on keeping the game simple. We know he can make plays, but we need him to make the right plays at the right time and not be too fancy.”

Growing up in the Czech Republic, Kindl idolized Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, the epitome of two-way defensive ability within a simple game. At training camp, Kindl still finds himself in awe when he is skating alongside the five-time Norris Trophy winner.

“It’s great when you watch this player on TV for so long, then all of a sudden you are skating with him,” Kindl said. “It has been great experience for me and whenever I see him on the ice, I am always watching him and trying to learn what he does.”

Players making the leap from juniors to the pros face a learning curve in in regards to the speed of the game, but McNamara feels getting up to AHL speed will be a small adjustment for Kindl.

“He can play well at this pace, but he needs to recognize that it is always going to be quick. There have been some instances where the pace catches up with him when he tries to slow it down,” McNamara said.

While acknowledging the need for Kindl to make quicker decisions, Stothers has noticed certain strengths that work to the youngster’s advantage.

“So far he has been steady for us,” said Stothers. “He is a very fluent skater and efficient passer, plus he has a heavy shot from the point and a size advantage.”

No stranger to Kindl’s defensive prowess, Stothers often coached against him during his previous stint behind the bench of the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack. In an effort to counter Kindl’s offense, Stothers recalls that “we tried to finish our checks on him and wear him down. We knew he was capable of joining the rush and we wanted to neutralize that.”

Neutralize. If history serves as any indication, that is something that will never happen to Kindl’s development as he strives for the NHL.