WILMINGTON — Vladimir Sobotka had to look at this as a make-or-break kind of year for him at Bruins training camp.
The 22-year-old Czech Republic native is looking at his best chance to make the Bruins roster right out of camp, and he has played in three preseason games thus far for Boston. Sobotka hasn’t cracked the score sheet in those three contests, is a minus-2 and has lifted three shots on net during game action. Hockey clearly isn’t a game about numbers, of course, but they indicate what the naked eye has already revealed to the casual observer.
Sobotka was a point-per-game player last season while logging 44 points in 44 games for the AHL Providence Bruins before succumbing to a concussion toward the end of last season. He has proven his tenacity, skill level and confidence at the highest levels of minor league hockey.
But he needs to step up his game in camp and show off the same effective blend of pesky, annoying, in-your-face forechecking and dangerous skill that made him an unmistakable factor in Boston two seasons ago.
Sobotka has yet to make an impression on B’s coach Claude Julien and the coaching staff this preseason, and is perhaps trying a little too hard knowing that a potential roster spot is at stake. After all, he’s heard about it from the media throughout the first few weeks of camp, so how could he possibly forget that a job is on the line.
He got a big taste of the NHL when he played in 2007-08 down the stretch and participated in the playoffs when Claude Julien relegated Phil Kessel to the bench for the first three games of the series against the Canadiens. Sobotka savored that early exposure to the NHL as a 20-year-old, and it’s the reason why he came over from his native Czech Republic to play professional hockey in the United States in the first place. He’s played a grand total of 63 NHL games over the last two seasons but still hasn’t had his breakthrough campaign like fellow Czech David Krejci enjoyed last winter.
“I keep getting the same questions. I always say that I’m going to try to do my best and do what the coaches say,” said Sobotka. “We have some injuries and we have some open spots, but it’s the same answers. I’m going to do my best. This is my important camp. I’m going to play hard, try my best and try to stay here for the whole season.
“I learned a lot last season. It’s not hard to go down [to Providence] and come back and play. I learned a lot last season and I’m trying to stay here [in Boston] this season. I came here to play hockey in the NHL, but if I get sent down [to Providence] I’m not going to be disappointed. I’ll go down to Providence and I’ll play there, you know. But, like I said, I want to stay here, would love to play here and stay in the NHL all season. I just want to do my best.”
Sobotka has perhaps felt the pressure of auditioning for a roster spot, and admitted as much in saying that “this is my important camp.” That, paired with heavy competition from another young Bruins grinder, Brad Marchand, has made things challenging. Marchand has impressed throughout camp and plays with a Chara-sized chip on his shoulder, and he shares many of the same strengths with his European counterpart. It’s been up to Sobotka to match his competitor, and the coaching staff has noticed he’s been pressing a bit in the early going.
“He’s been OK. I talked to him a little bit this morning and it’s more ‘ with Vlad ‘ that somehow he has to find that confidence that he has at the American Hockey League,” Julien said. “He’s got to feel confident about his game. We say it all the time about this guy, he plays like he’s 6-foot-3 and he’s not afraid to go into the corners. He’s got some skill. He’s got a great shot, you know.
“He just has to go out there and play the game, and maybe relax a little bit. I think he put a lot of pressure on himself to crack the lineup this year. Can he be better? Absolutely. I think it’s just a matter of confidence, and we told him we have the utmost confidence in him. He just needs to go out there and play the way he knows that he can.”
Roster spots aren’t won in the first two weeks of training camp, however, and the real competition begins in this final stretch of exhibition games prior to the Oct. 1 start to the NHL regular season. Handicapping a roster prior to the late camp games when the real preseason bullets flying is akin to predicting a final score after a hockey game’s first period. It’s possible, but more oft-times futile.
With four games left in five nights prior to the start of the regular season, the NHL regulars will start commanding more of the ice time, and some early camp wunderkinds will begin to show their age and experience.
It’s not too late for Sobotka if he begins to brandish the same kind of fearless, brash certainty that marked his AHL style of play prior to a concussion that prematurely ended his last season last year. The 2005 B’s fourth-round pick impressed the heck out of Bruins officials during that first go-round in Black and Gold two years ago, and it’s about time for Sobotka to return to his established level of play.
“It almost looks like he might be a little nervous and might be trying to do a little too much,” Julien said. “You’re not playing with the confidence that you normally have, and I’ve seen him play in Providence last year. He went out there and made up his mind he was the best player on the ice, and played like it.”
Sobotka simply needs to show no fear and begin playing like he’s intent on making the most of his Black and Golden opportunity this fall.