Jeff Skinner was 3 years old when Radek Dvorak made his NHL debut, which is interesting because it means that Dvorak has been playing in the league for a literal lifetime – long enough to play alongside his current coach, long enough to lose a Stanley Cup on the same ice he now patrols.
Dvorak was sitting home waiting for a call at the end of the summer, having played nine games for the Anaheim Ducks at the end of last season after coming back to the United States from Europe. He had to play his way into a contract with the Carolina Hurricanes, finally signing only two days before the opener. On a team full of young players full of potential, Dvorak was almost an afterthought.
Two games into the season, the 36-year-old forward Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller just wanted for veteran stability is the team’s leading goal-scorer going into Tuesday night’s game at Pittsburgh.
In the space of a month, Dvorak went from idle to indispensable.
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“When I got that phone call, I was excited,” Dvorak said. “Nothing’s for free these days, you know? Playing in Europe last year, coming back here to finish the season in Anaheim, I was glad for that phone call. It was a challenge. I like challenges in life.”
Muller knew the Czech didn’t have the wheels or the hands he once had, but he really felt the team needed the presence and personality of someone who had been around the block. Dvorak, his former teammate with the Florida Panthers, had all that – not only did Dvorak play for the Edmonton Oilers in 2006, he has played for eight teams and in more than 1,200 games – not to mention the kind of effortless cool that other players gravitate toward. Any scoring he could provide would be a bonus.
“That’s what we got him for,” Muller said. “We’ve got some young forwards out there and he brings a stability and some calmness to that line.”
But Dvorak’s offense, two eye-popping goals in two games, has been more than a bonus, especially with last year’s offensive fulcrum, the top line of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty, looking completely out of sync to start the season.
Dvorak isn’t just scoring. He has helped give the Hurricanes a surprisingly effective third line with Skinner and Riley Nash. With Eric Staal’s line ineffective and Jordan Staal’s line taking on the toughest defensive assignments, Dvorak has helped bring out the best in Skinner and Nash.
“He’s smart,” Skinner said. “You’re never going to find him out of position. He’s an easy guy to read off, because he’s so consistent that way. It’s good to see him get rewarded for it.”
Perhaps more important, there’s so much a player like Skinner can learn just by osmosis from playing next to veteran like Dvorak, whose mere presence already has had a discernible impact on Skinner’s game.
The 21-year-old played miserably in the opener, but playing with the reliable Dvorak only served to highlight the flaws in Skinner’s performance on tape. Skinner responded with one of his best nights in recent memory on Sunday, following Dvorak’s example.
“I just try to go out there and catch up to these guys,” Dvorak said.
He isn’t just chasing them. He’s setting the tone, taking the lead.