22-year-old Tomas Jurco flashing skills for Red Wings
Detroit — In Tomas Jurco's first game against the Maple Leafs last week, a loosely played puck suddenly came around a corner in the Toronto zone along the boards up to the half wall and he and Joffrey Lupul moved forcefully to retrieve it.
Using his considerable skating ability, Jurco beat Lupul there, won the battle for the puck, used his body to help shield it and then poked it to a defenseman.
Two passes later, the puck was back to Jurco and on to Gustav Nyquist, who put it past Leafs goalie James Reimer.
In one play, many of the 22-year-old's skills were on display: responsible positioning, expansive vision of the ice, a 6-foot-1, 203-pound frame that is more powerful than it may appear, terrific skating, good hands.
"His skill level is second to none," said Gerard Gallant, who played for the Red Wings long before becoming coach of the Panthers this season.
For three years in St. John, New Brunswick, Gallant coached Jurco in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).
"Right now, he really works hard and competes and he can play on any line on this hockey team, and I think he's going to be a hell of a hockey player," Gallant said.
Jurco has two goals and nine assists in 28 games, as the Wings got off to a better start than expected.
His coach says the young forward from Slovakia is a vital piece of the developing puzzle, and he currently plays on a line with Henrik Zetterberg and Nyquist, the top assists and goals men, respectively.
"He gives Z. and Nyquist pace, and so he's an important player for us," Mike Babcock said.
"He's scoring on a regular basis. He's real good defensively.
"He's kind of evolving. His role is different. He's used to being kind of a skilled guy, and he's still a skilled guy. But you've got to find your role at the next level.
"He has to be a physical skater, who gives lines pace, who's at the net."
For Jurco, it is yet another stage in his development.
"The more I'm here, the more I think offense," he said. "But in the game, right now, I play really solid, strong hockey defensively — so I can play more, and then create some offense.
"But I'm an offensive player, and the longer I am here, the more offense I will be able to create."
Sister got him started
They play a lot of hockey in Slovakia.
When he was 5 or perhaps a little younger, Jurco said, his sister Petra wanted to play. Their parents, Peter and Slavka, went to a rink in search of an opportunity.
Tomas was in tow.
As is too often the case in sport, there was no girls' team.
"But they said I could come tomorrow and try it," Jurco said. "And so, I tried it and stuck with it."
Things would eventually work out for Jurco's older sister. Petra Jurčová is a veteran of the Slovakia national women's ice hockey team and played in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Jurco joined a club, HC Košice, named for his home town. He said his game developed, especially under two coaches who proved important, Miroslav Kozarik and Anton Bartanus.
In 2009, Jurco came to North America.
"Well, the young kid came over, he was 17 years old and he couldn't speak a word of English," Gallant said. "And when he came over, we had a lot of good hockey players. But I think we developed him.
"He had a great skill level. But he needed to find work ethic, he needed to find out how to play the Canadian game.
"He was a great player for us to have, and a treat to have. And he's a great all-around kid.
"From the first day I met Tomas Jurco, I liked him. And I knew he would be the hockey player he is today."
Jurco, whose soft-spoken English is considerably improved five years later, said that with Gallant and an assistant, Mike Kelly, who has joined Gallant in Florida, his game improved.
"The first big adjustment was in juniors," he said. "The first half of the year, I was struggling. It was different hockey than in Europe.
"After that, then, in December, I started adjusting more and more, and I started scoring. And I ended up with a really good season. I scored a lot of goals."
He certainly impressed the Wings, who made him their first choice, 35th overall, in the 2011 NHL entry draft.
"And then, when I came to Grand Rapids, it was to make another step, to make another adjustment, to adjust to men's hockey, because it is much different," he said. "And that took me a few months, too.
"Then, I mean, it was great. My first year, we won the league. It was an amazing year. I learned a lot.
"It was a great experience. I love Grand Rapids, the people there and the city. I have only good memories."
The second half of his second season with the Griffins, 2013-14 season, the Wings called him up. In 36 games, he had eight goals and seven assists for 15 points, and his solid defense helped keep him in the lineup.
He also tasted his first bit of NHL playoff experience in three games against the Bruins.
Now, in the third year of a three-year entry-level contract, he has jumped from some play on the fourth line, to providing speed for two of the top Red Wings scorers, as well as garnering some power-play time.
"He's definitely an offensive player; the sky's the limit for him," said Stephen Weiss, who has been around the NHL and AHL long enough to have seen lots of players developing.
"Like every young player, it's just a matter of being consistent and getting better every day and every year, and finding out what's going to make you the best player in this league and what you've got to do to stick around."
Jurco spends his offseasons back home, including the extensive workouts required of NHL players in the summer months.
It is a hockey country, and Slovakians know he scored a goal in Sochi in February, and that he wears the winged-wheel crest in the United States.
"Not many games are televised," he said, "but the results are always on the Internet, It's pretty big in Slovakia.
"I mean, I'm not a big star, or anything. But they know I'm with the Red Wings."