The adjustment of coming over from Europe and playing a different style of hockey in a different country with a different culture is a hard thing for young hockey players.
If, within their first handful of games, they can find their role and make an impact on and off the score sheet, that can make a huge difference in that adjustment.
We are just six games into the WHL career of 18-year-old Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic, native Filip Koffer, but he already has a three-point game.
Saturday night at the CN Centre in Prince George, Koffer set up two goals to pace his Prince George Cougars to a 2-0 second period lead over the Kelowna Rockets. He then potted his first career WHL goal into the empty Rockets net as they pulled their netminder for an extra attacker.
The win was the Cougars’ first this season, though they have been competitive in every game and lost three straight by one goal each.
Koffer was proud of himself and his team.
“For us, we play like a team. We played a different game. We tried to shoot more pucks, and I think we played like a team and even for me, it was a nice game,” Koffer said.
He has drawn praise from his coaches in the early going. Associate coach Jason Smith likes a lot of Koffer’s game.
“I think his speed and his compete and his tenacity is a very big positive for him. I think from the start of our camp, his ability to skate and create turnovers and be good positionally has really allowed him to make the adjustment. And I think he’s getting more confident in playing the North American-style game, which I think will give him more and more success,” Smith said.
Smith thinks Koffer has been really good at turning defense into offense. That could be key in adding to the score sheet and thus the win column for Prince George this season.
“I think he’s learning to be in the right spot and not over pursuing. He’s in a good position in our D-zone to create a turnover to go to offense. He’s got the ability to find open ice and shoot the puck in the offensive zone,” Smith continued.
For Koffer, a 5-foot-10 and 150-pound forward out of the HC Dynamo Pardubice program, the differences between what he is used to and what he does day-to-day now in P.G. are everywhere.
“It’s something different for me. I’m from Czech, so it’s a different league and different food and different culture. But what I think about the league is it’s absolutely amazing. It’s hard, but I can work hard and be better and better so I like it.”
Koffer was drafted 10th overall in last summer’s CHL Import Draft by the Cougars. Some imports come over with little to no experience playing on the smaller North American rink. Koffer, while playing for the Czech national team, has played in two different tournaments in Canada. So he has more familiarity than a lot of first year Euros.
“I played before at the U17 World Hockey Challenge in Dawson Creek. That was my first time playing on the small rink. The next time was in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in Edmonton and Red Deer. So I have some experience with the small rink.”
Koffer was named a top-three player for his team at the Hlinka tournament in 2018.
“For us, it was a bad tournament because (we) finished in fifth place. So it wasn’t too good. But I think it was a pretty good experience for me to be better, because the Hlinka Gretzky Cup is a good tournament with the good players.”
Also playing for the Czech U18 team at that year’s Hlinka Gretzky Cup were fellow Cougars forward Matej Toman and Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman Simon Kubicek.
Having familiarity with those two and others in the league is helping Koffer get comfortable.
“Matej Toman plays here. So I talked to him like about Prince George as a WHL city and the hockey team. I also have so (many) friends in the WHL, like in Seattle with Kubicek. I have lots of friends here. I talked with guys before coming, and they told me about the league and how it’s hard.”
If Koffer can turn his three-point night Saturday into a regular thing, he will be making the difficult adjustment to the WHL look easy.
Let’s take a look back at the Cougars’ weekend.
Friday, 10/4: Kelowna 2@Prince George 1
The Rockets led 1-0 going into the third period off a Pavel Novak marker, but Josh Maser netted his first for the Cougars this season to tie the game with 3:49 left in regulation.
Novak, though, gave the Rockets the lead for good with only 1:49 left with a power-play marker. Maser had put the Cougars short-handed with a tripping penalty.
Taylor Gauthier turned away 19-of-21 shots for the Cougars who outshot the Rockets 28-21.
“The Friday game, we played a pretty complete game. We had good goaltending, our work ethic was high, and our compete was high. I mean, we gave ourselves a chance to win the game. I think, from where we were earlier on in the year, I think our game is growing, and we need to continue to work at generating good habits and playing a complete game,” Smith said.
Saturday, 10/5/19 Prince George 4 Kelowna 1
The Cougars notched their first win this season, and it came with 16-year-old rookie goalie Tyler Brennan making his first ever WHL start.
P.G. went 2-for-3 on the power play with both of their first two goals coming on the man advantage.
Jack Sander got the first goal of the game and added an assist on the second, which was the first in the WHL for 16-year-old d-man Ethan Samson.
Rhett Rhinehart added an assist to give him a four-game point streak.
Nolan Foote got the Rockets within one in the second period, but the Cougars and Brennan held on with Maser and Koffer adding empty-net goals in the last minute of the game.
Brennan stopped 26-of-27.
“Saturday was even a better example of playing the game from start to finish with detail and structure, and you give yourself a chance to win,” Smith stated.
Smith believes the Cougars have been doing the right things. Saturday was a sign that they can turn around things.
“I think it can be a real positive factor for us from the results we’ve had. At this point, it was really important to get a win. You know, to have Brennan in goal as a 16-year-old get his first win in his first regular season start was special for him. It’s a good sign that our team is starting to do things the right way more consistently. And right from the start of training camp, we really competed and put the right effort forward and (we are) consistently doing that.”
-Signed 2004-born prospect Kyren Gronick was named to Team Saskatchewan for the WHL Cup later this month. Keaton Dowhaniuk, Koehn Zimmer, and Jaren Brinson were already named to Team Alberta for the four team event that runs October 20th-27th.
-Late 2001-born defenseman Rhett Rhinehart was listed as a “C” level skater by NHL Central Scouting on their players to watch list. Smith believes the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder grades as a good pro prospect.
“I think he’s got a great opportunity to continue to grow and become a real good prospect. I think his game has got a lot of the aspects that pro teams are looking for. He has the ability to escape for a big body. His ability to move the puck, see the ice, and shoot is at a very good level, and he’s really working at defending and his positional play. When it all comes together, I think he will be a complete package that will have a great opportunity to move on and play pro.”
-Cole Moberg was listed as being returned to the lineup on the latest Weekly Report. Jackson Leppard is down to day-to-day with his injury, and Ilijah Colina is expected to be back in 1-to-2 weeks. Ethan Browne missed all of training camp and the preseason and came back in time for the start of the regular season. He was scratched from Saturday’s game and is now listed as out day-to-day with a lower body injury.
Smith has been impressed with how the Cougars have played without the likes of Moberg and Leppard, who play in every situation for them.
“I think it’s a credit to your group when you lose players that log big minutes and are guys that are relied upon. You’re still going out and competing and playing as a team and giving yourself a chance to win games. And, you know, with a few bounces here and there, we could have won a few more games with all those guys out of the lineup, and we’d be really happy with where we were at,” Smith said.
Next up for the Cougars are a set of games against Spokane (Friday) and Tri-City (Saturday). Both are on the road.
“I think the biggest thing is, is to continue to the process of playing complete games, playing with good structure, playing disciplined, and doing things as a team. I think that’s the way we have to play is we have to play complete games, competing from start to finish, paying attention to detail,” Smith relayed.