When the Boston Bruins drafted Czech defenseman Jakub Zboril 13th overall in 2015 out of the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, few raised any eyebrows.
After all- the pick made sense at the time for myriad reasons: talent-wise, he was right around where he could and should go. He had posted a 13-goal, 33-point season in just 44 games in his first North American stint. He had the size, skating, puck skills, shot and even some physical nasty to his game to validate being chosen there. Defense was also becoming a major issue for Boston- then-GM Peter Chiarelli had traded veteran two-way machine & fan favorite Johnny Boychuk on the eve of the 2014-15 campaign for futures (well, as we type this Brandon Carlo is certainly thriving in the present) and he subsequently went off, posting a career-best 9 goals and 35 points, while Boston’s defense contributed to the late-season swoon that cost the B’s a playoff appearance for the first time since 2007. In short- Zboril was a typical crowd-pleaser in that not only did he address an obvious organizational need, but no one could screech loudly on Twitter and Internet message boards about his being a “reach” for the team where he was picked.
At the time, most Bruins fans seemed pretty pleased with his potential and why not? He had the size, the sexy draft pedigree and the numbers to justify the optimism. The team’s defense had been hemorrhaging goals especially late in the season, so taking a skilled 2-way threat made all the sense in the world…in June, 2015. Those who had quietly watched and voiced concerns about a player who didn’t always show up and demonstrated some off-putting on- and off-ice body language and attitudes were largely ignored or drowned out in the rush to cast judgment and anger over the “controversial” selections of Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn.
But a funny thing happened in the almost two years since the 2015 draft: Zboril’s stock took a hit after an uninspired 2015-16 QMJHL campaign and though he’s taken some positive steps forward in 2016-17, the recent World Jr. Championship tournament exposed some of the issues with Zboril and what could ultimately prevent him from being the player that the Bruins envisioned when they passed on other higher-profile guys to draft him.
Now, before you proceed, please read the bolded passage carefully:
This post is not designed to blast Zboril or turn people’s sentiments against him- we have to remember that he’s still just 19 and still developing. The final chapter is anything but written on him, and there’s time for him to seriously address the shortcomings in his game and do his part to elevate his status within the organization. He certainly has the NHL talent to do it, but it is our view that the questions about his head and heart are still very much hanging in the New Brunswick air.
This is meant to provide food for thought- the post itself is not supposed to be the final word about Zboril in any way, shape or form. It is supposed to generate a more in-depth and provocative discussion about the one player who is shaping up to be one of the more polarizing players in Boston’s system. This is also just one person’s analysis- it is not designed to build consensus either way, but is borne from time spent breaking down film and talking to various league sources about the Boston prospect. You are all capable of reading and deciding for yourselves whether this post succeeds in providing a tough but balanced evaluation, nothing more. If it doesn’t, then there’s nothing to worry about. But our hope is that you can take some of these observations and in the opportunities you get to watch Zboril play, see for yourselves if any of this is valid. Or not.
In the end- TSP feels that Zboril boils down to clashing elements- he’s the closest thing to the embodiment of the classic good cop and bad cop trope you seen in print, television, and movies.
He’s someone who when engaged and on top of his game looks every bit like the top-15 pick many were high on at the time the selection was made. Unfortunately, when the bad cop shows up, you’re often looking at bad decisions combined with an indifference and lack of attention to detail that is maddening. Where Zboril has trended in a certain direction since his draft zenith, his own fellow Sea Dog Thomas Chabot, taken five spots after his Czech mate, has gone the other way, generating more discussions about whether the real mistake in Boston’s first three 2015 picks was not with the two oft-maligned forwards who are actually showing demonstrable progress, but with the “can’t miss” defenseman who teases in flashes but when you peel the onion back on him, has yet to address the real warts in his game/personal makeup.
With Zboril, it’s all about the tools. He’s got the talent to be an impact two-way NHL defenseman, and we’ll break down what made him the 13th overall selection here.
Though not considered “big” by NHL standards, Zboril is about 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, so he’s above average in size and has a thick build and upper torso, which allows him give and receive body contact, one of the staples in his game.
Since he arrived in North America in 2014, Zboril has lost little time adapting to and embracing the physical style more prevalent in the smaller rinks and ice surfaces here versus his native Brno in the Czech Republic. He opened eyes early on in Saint John when he would not only lower the boom with big, forceful hits in the open ice and along the walls as he finished checks, or would come across the ice and throw his hip into opponents trying to cut against the grain. In this regard, he was an atypical European right out of the gate, and he also showed a willingness to drop the gloves and fight when challenged. He caught some combatants off-guard in his first couple of bouts, displaying some pugilistic skill and creating space for himself as someone not to take lightly.
A powerful skater, Zboril doesn’t have elite speed in the classic sense, but he does move quickly from a standstill in just a few quick, strong strides. He generates impressive momentum and glide through the neutral zone, where he uses a good command of his edges to elude would-be checkers to maintain possession if he isn’t hitting a teammate in stride with a lead pass to put opposing defenses on their heels. You watch the way Zboril skates and glides with added time and space, and it all looks so effortless- he’s a natural skater who is more efficient and smooth with the footwork than he his fast or energetic.
Zboril has a good feel for the puck and when he’s skating with his head up and involved, he’ll put on-target passes right on stick blades or can spring the breakout with a quick, decisive outlet. He does get helpers off of his heavy, accurate point shot that forwards camped out in front of the net can deflect into the net or pounce on the rebounds his drive generates. A season after playing more of a defensive role in Saint John, Zboril’s offensive acumen is back- he’s on pace to eclipse his first QMJHL year’s production (he missed more than 20 games with a knee injury for added context) and with Chabot being the more dangerous of the duo as far as scoring goes, they provide an important synergy for head coach Danny Flynn’s Sea Dogs, one of the favorites to come out of the ‘Q’ in the chase for the Memorial Cup this year. Zboril’s 6 goals leads all Saint John defenders and his 19 points are second to Chabot’s 20 (but he’s played 9 more games than Chabot has because of the Ottawa Senators stint and Canada’s run to the silver medal at the WJC). Zboril’s penalty minutes are down (which is good) and his plus/minus rating (+13) is up, leading the club’s defensemen.
Positionally speaking, Zboril is capable if not exceptional in his own end- he understands his role and responsibilities. Consistent execution on his part is up for debate, but let’s face it- just about every junior player has that challenge. He’s not an ace shutdown guy who will neutralize every chance, but he’s also capable and willing to go clean a player out or fill the lanes with his body and stick. Where the doubts begin to creep in sometimes is with his natural instincts and ability to read the play as it unfolds.
Beyond the film study, the Boston GM provided some of the team’s perspective on the young defenseman, shining light on the disappointing 2015-16 campaign:
“(Zboril) did take a bit of a step back last year,” Don Sweeney told the Scouting Post in December. “They asked him to play a little bit of a different role. Chabot was running the power play and they had a forward (at the other point position), and I don’t think Jakub handled it very well, to tell you the truth. I know that young players accept or don’t accept things the coach is trying to do from a teamwork position as well, and I think he had a transitional period from that. I think he’s hopefully grown from it, and we’ve asked him to understand that it’s not always just going to be about your own point totals and such.
“Do we still think he has the power play acumen? Yeah, we do. I think he deserves some more of it (power play time), but you know what? It’s not going to hurt him to be a better defensive, 200-foot player and a more complete player. He has all the attributes to move pucks, skate with the puck, shoot the puck…all of those things aren’t going away and there’s other areas in his game…the consistency, for us, which is paramount. He has lapses during the course of a game or game to game where he could be better and play with a higher motor and when he is fully engaged, he’s a hell of a player at that level.”
Sweeney also acknowledged Zboril’s offseason attentiveness to improving his conditioning- something evident at the July development camp and again in September when he returned for rookie and main camps with the B’s, as signs that the soon-to-be 20-year-old is putting some effort into reaching the NHL and becoming a professional.
“He came back with a much, much clearer frame of mind as to what we were expecting of him and clearly what his team was expecting out of him,” Sweeney said. “He’s off to a good start as a result of it. We’re excited to see him playing in the World Juniors and on a much higher stage to see if he can continue.”
When on his game as the “good cop” Zboril has an abundance of the right attributes to be a successful NHL defensemen. We think it’s probably enough for him to reach the NHL at some point. However, how effective he can be and how long and productive a career Zboril will or won’t have at the highest level is going to be influenced and affected by how much the “bad cop” shows up.
So far, everything we’ve laid out speaks to an efficient, capable NHL defenseman. Here is where some of the concerns about Zboril’s viability and long-term future start to manifest themselves- even with the bounce-back season with his scoring totals.
One NHL scout, who performs crossover duties for his organization and has seen a lot of Zboril’s games in the Quebec League and in other international competition, recognizes the solid skills and physical attributes, but has had misgivings about Zboril’s hockey IQ and character going back to his draft season.
If you go back to the Sweeney quote above, the Boston GM alluded to some of the concerns when he talked about impressing upon Zboril that his development isn’t just about his own stats line.
“The thing that stands out with Jakub that Don touched on is that you’ve got a bit of a selfish person there,” the scout told TSP. “He comes across that way on and off the ice. I think he’s a selfish competitor; on the one hand, he’s good with the ‘YouTube hit’ where he’ll step up and hit someone hard and you get excited with that physical element. But, he’ll get caught puck watching and he’ll get burned, and he won’t work hard getting back. You watch some guys who when they make a mistake, they work hard to get back in the play and try to recover, but I think Jakub’s missing that. I really wonder sometimes how much he cares about his teammates or how much he’s invested in his team’s success versus his own.”
While this might come off as overly harsh, it really isn’t. When scouts and observers talk about a player’s work ethic, this is what it boils down to. Someone who truly works hard and embodies those positive marks given out to those players who do possess a high motor never need have their effort levels questioned, because that manifests itself in their play. To paraphrase New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who echoed the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (thanks to an eagle-eyed reader who pointed out where Belichick’s quote originated) , “It’s like pornography- even if you can’t define it, you know it when you see it.” If you’re just looking at a stats line or are watching a game and impressed with someone’s skating ability, hard shot or ability to deliver a bone-jarring hit, you might be more inclined to gloss over him loafing back after a turnover or be oblivious to the bad body language that Zboril and other players out there exhibit when things aren’t going well.
This gets back to consistency- something that has plagued Zboril since his draft year. But don’t take our word for it, here’s the Boston GM once more:
“We knew there was a drop-off in that draft with the defensemen and that’s not a disparaging comment against Jakub,” Sweeney said. “It’s just that you understand the three players who are all playing (Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski), are the three defensemen who went higher than he did and justifiably so, and it maybe would have taken all three (of Boston’s 1st-round picks to move inside the top-10) and I don’t even know if that would’ve done it. It is what it is, but at 13, we felt good about several players in that grouping, and Jakub was a guy that we wanted. We liked his skill set and the ability to move a puck and the way he plays with an edge…it’s just the consistency and maturity are two things we have to continue to work with him on.”
And if you’re wondering what those two issues boil down to, here’s some perspective from the NHL scout, once again:
“He won’t make you go through him to the net. If he turns the puck over, he doesn’t always work to get it back. If you make him look bad, he’s going to retaliate- he plays his own game within the game sometimes…they’re not always good, hard penalties he’s taking out there. He’s prone to the ‘that guy just took the puck from him, so now he’s going to slash him’ variety of penalty or out of nowhere, he decides he’s going to go and hit someone hard and so he goes out of his way to do it. And if it lands him in the penalty box and puts his team at a disadvantage, he seems okay with that.”
We saw some of this kind of thing in the World Jr. Championship, when Zboril got whistled for several unnecessary penalties, especially against the Swiss.
All of this doesn’t necessarily mean that Zboril lacks the key elements to get it together, but it speaks to an element of his character that may require the team to spend extra time with him and a willingness on the part of the Bruins to live with the inevitable acts of indiscipline that are sure to happen with him. While no one is trying to make perfection the enemy of good enough here, this is a discussion that is worth having rather than simply glossing over it given his skill level or giving said player a pass because he’s young.
“There’s going to be some maintenance at the NHL level and I don’t know- he might rub some of the pros the wrong way with that kind of stuff,” said the scout.
We asked the scout about Jeremy Lauzon, a player out of the same league and who was drafted 39 spots after Zboril, and his view changed instantly when the subject switched to the current captain of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies.
“I had Lauzon ahead of Zboril in 2015 because there’s just more substance to his game and he’s a more effective player,” the scout said. “He oozes character…he’ll block a shot, his 1-on-1 puck compete is excellent; defensively, he makes people go through him to the net. In the corner he’s hard on guys. Every shift, he’s going to the bench gassed and then he goes back out and does it again. Everything that is good for the team, Lauzon is willing to do, whereas I feel like Zboril is sometimes playing to pad his stats. I get the sense that Lauzon could give a **** about his numbers- he just wants to win hockey games.”
It isn’t just about the character, either- the scout feels that Lauzon gets the short shrift in terms of his ability to play the game. While just one opinion, this is why Zboril’s good cop/bad cop routine is cause for a deeper level of scrutiny and circumspection. This is not to say that he can’t or won’t have success in the NHL with the Boston Bruins, but it does get to the heart of why a player like Chabot has surpassed him on his own team and is counted on to do a lot more in his role, despite being drafted a few spots lower.
Hardcore Bruins and Zboril fans might not want to hear this, but with coaches- it often comes down to trust. Talent is a big part of the equation, but it’s not the only thing that impacts a player’s ability to earn and keep a job in the NHL. Coaches need to know their players are on the same page and willing to put the team’s objectives and systems first. Zboril was drafted more on his physical attributes and skills than the rest of his body of work, but as the late, great Herb Brooks used to say- “You’re not talented enough to win on talent alone.”
Few players are.
In the spirit of acknowledging this post is an attempt to be hard, but fair- we’ll close with this: if Zboril can continue mature and make a concerted effort to put this perceived selfishness and lackadaisical attitude at times behind him, he’s capable of going far in professional hockey. Unfortunately, if the bad cop makes more of an impression going forward, it’s going to be difficult for him to ever be as good as his ability tells us he should.
And, in the years after which the open questions about who succeeded and didn’t from the 2015 draft, and fans inevitably complain about who the B’s could have had with picks 13-15, it might not be DeBrusk or Senyshyn they’re railing against, but Zboril.
The jury will be out for quite some time.