by Kyle Kujawa || AHL On The Beat Archive
He’s already done it once before. A slightly younger Jan Mursak skated in three full seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins, hoping to land an NHL job. After two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, he’s back in West Michigan to chase his dream again – although, he expects it will be in a different city.
“It’s not easy,” said Mursak. “I’ve been having a lot of trouble with injuries. When I came back, I didn’t get as many opportunities as I thought I would. I just didn’t fit very good into their future plans.”
Injuries came early and often for the speedy winger up in the NHL. He was all but assured a roster spot prior to the 2011-12 season, but a freak collision in a preseason game with Chicago fractured his ankle and put him on the shelf for months. After a conditioning stint with the Griffins, he played in only 25 games in Hockeytown, struggling to stay in the lineup every night as he worked back into game shape.
This season, the labor dispute cut his dreams at redemption short. He stayed healthy while playing for Olimpija Ljubljana, a team in the top Austrian league that plays out of his native Slovenia, but suffered a shoulder injury on his fifth shift of the Red Wings’ season opener on Jan. 19 at St. Louis after a hit by David Backes.
“I’ve never had big injuries, but now in the last few years there have been a lot of them coming in the beginning of the season,” Mursak said. “It’s been a while since I haven’t been hurt here in North America.”
While frustrating, Mursak certainly saw the writing on the wall and wasn’t totally shocked by the move. The Red Wings already had a glut of forwards heading into the season, and strong performances by the likes of Griffins Tomas Tatar, Joakim Andersson and Gustav Nyquist in NHL stints made the competition for jobs even tougher.
That’s why, after just one game and 8:43 of ice time after recovering from the shoulder injury, Detroit waived Mursak and sent him to Grand Rapids. Perhaps under different circumstances, he would have seen a longer look this season. But in a shortened NHL season that’s already nearing its midway point, there’s not much time to wait for players to get back up to speed.
“It’s time to turn the page,” said Mursak. “Right now, I’m here in Grand Rapids. I always liked it here; it’s a nice city, nice arena and nice group of guys. It’s not the NHL, but I’m positive. I’ll do my best while I’m here.”
While some players would be discouraged with the demotion, it’s the chance to be seen more on the ice that has Mursak excited. He knows he would have likely remained in an energy role with the Red Wings but, with his contract up this summer, hopes he can remind scouts of the offensive abilities that earned him an NHL job in the first place.
“I just need a lot of ice time right now since I missed so much of the last two seasons,” said Mursak, who scored a career-high 24 goals in 2008-09 with Grand Rapids. “I hope I’ll get that here. I don’t think I’m a fourth-line grinder. When you play those minutes, you can’t afford to make any mistakes. They don’t want fourth-line guys to turn the puck over. But here I know I can take guys one-on-one.”
Mursak is hoping to pick up where he left off in Austria. He racked up 48 points (19-29-48) in 30 games with his club -– one that eventually missed the playoffs. He led the league in scoring at the time of his departure and still finished 19th in the circuit at season’s end, despite playing in 20 fewer games than almost all of the players in the top 20.
All things considered, returning to Grand Rapids is a good situation for Mursak. He recognizes many familiar faces, and also has the benefit of having worked with first-year head coach and former Red Wings assistant coach Jeff Blashill while both were with Detroit last season.
“It’s different for him too, though, because he was the assistant in Detroit where [Mike] Babcock does the main work,” said Mursak. “But I know he plays the game a little different. He gives the guys a little more room, I like that.”
Although he knows a return to Detroit is unlikely, his spirits are high for his second chance elsewhere. He doesn’t know entirely what the future holds, but he does know of at least one promising opportunity that’s just around the corner. Slovenia shocked many in the hockey world when it qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, for the first time ever. Being one of just two Slovenians to play in the NHL, it’s safe to say a healthy Mursak stands a good chance at playing a prominent role on the world’s largest stage.
“Everybody’s really excited,” said the Maribor, Slovenia, native. “It was surprising to beat Belarus and Denmark in qualifications. On the other side, I’m not that surprised. We’ve been playing pretty well for the last few years. I really hope I don’t have any injuries that stop me from that. Once I’m there, I know I’ll feel that Olympic game spirit that everyone who’s been there talks about.”