Injuries are one of the great unknowns in sport. They do not discriminate. They do not come in advance. They do happen. And players who have had a number of them get the dreaded phrase: "concerns about his health," rightly or wrongly. For a prospect, an injury can be enough to derail hopes of getting drafted. It means not being able to play, not being able to showcase your skills, and not being able to get the minutes to work on and improve those skills. It's a reason why Richard Nejezchleb of the Brandon Wheat Kings remains available after being passed over in 2013.
Who is Richard Nejezchleb?
According to Elite Prospects, Richard Nejezchleb is a 6'2", 207 pound winger from the Czech Republic. His birthday is May 5, 1994, so he is now 20 years old. In fact, this means he was passed over twice in the NHL Draft. After growing up in the HC Slavia Praha system and spending a significant time in 2011-12 injured, he made the move to North America for the 2012-13 season. His rights were taken by the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League, so that's where he ended up. He was only able to play a little over half of the team's season due to injuries. In 2013-14, though, the then-19 year old winger blossomed and had a productive season without those pesky injuries. Here are his stats from EP:
Regarding what happened in 2012-13, this March 2, 2013 article by Rob Henderson at the Wheat Kings' official website has the details.In the beginning of that season, he missed time due to a shoulder injury. Later, it was a hand injury from an accident involving a teammate's skate on the bench. Brandon was pretty bad so by the time Nejezchleb returned, all the team had left to play for was pride. However, the team improved in the following season, Nejezchleb didn't get injured, and so Nejezchleb got some postseason action after his first full season in juniors. His 32 goals are particularly notable as he led Brandon in that category in the 2013-14 season. From an international standpoint, Nejezchleb did represent the Czech Republic at the U-18 level when he was with Slavia Praha. That ended when he jumped to the WHL, which is a bit curious, but no matter now.
What Others Have Said About Nejezchleb
There wasn't much about Nejezchleb that I could find back when he was first initially draft eligible back in 2012. In June of that year, Derek O'Brien rated the top ten Czech prospects for that draft. He had Nejezchleb eighth with this summary:
A highly-touted player heading into the 2011-12 season, Richard Nejezchleb was injured for about half of this past season which undoubtedly hurt his ranking. Nonetheless, Nejezchleb still managed 23 points in 24 Junior Extraliga games. It was the combination of size, toughness and scoring that alerted scouts to Nejezchleb early on, but despite his numbers he seemed a bit more timid this past season. He will hope for a big return to form next year, in which he should see some time in the Extraliga.
Of course, Nejezchleb did not go to the Extraliga - he went to Brandon and missed about half of the following season. However, he did get noticed by the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was invited to play for them in their developmental camp and rookie tournament. In this September 7, 2013 article by Dave Molinari in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, assistant general manager Jason Botterill had this to say about the Czech winger:
"He has great size and a pretty good skating stride. There's just a little bit of an unknown. Last year was his first in North America. He came over from the Czech Republic and got injured. He looked good in the development camp, so we'll see how he produces here in a game setting."
The size was obvious. That he could skate with that size is quite good to read. Per this September 8, 2013 article at the Penguins' official website, Nejezchleb played on a third line with Penguins draft pick Matia Marcantuoni and Bobby Farham. His time was short, but it's a big deal for an undrafted prospect to get NHL notice. Since he did well enough to get into the rookie tournament, I would think the Penguins liked him at least a little.
I'm sure they and many others liked what he did this season with Brandon. Don't be surprised if you see some opinions like this one from Terrel H at Arctic Ice Hockey, who ranked Nejezchleb 60th in his draft rankings:
Yet another twice passed over player, perhaps speaking the relative weakness of this draft. However, the Czech Wheat Kings winger has a very intriguing package. Big rangy winger has a really good shot and fantastic offensive hockey sense. He knows where to be to score goals, though he does not have great feet though in both agility and speed. He struggles with consistency as well. A huge project, but has good upside after his breakout year with 32 goals in 66 games this year.
OK, maybe Botterill's opinion on his skating isn't the end-all, be-all. Still, knowing that he has a good shot helps the fact that his 32 goals weren't just a function of circumstance. Regarding his ranking, Terrel isn't alone. Central Scouting Services really liked what he did this season as he jumped from 114th at the mid term to 50th in their final North American rankings. That does speak both very well of the player and poorly of this year's prospects as a 19-year old prospect rated that high in their eyes.
A Little Video
Surprisingly, there isn't any video of Nejezchleb doing his thing for Brandon. There is this video of a guy named CJ discussing him as a prospect, so here's that:
An Opinion of Sorts
In a way, I'm glad to see that after two draft eligible seasons undercut by injury, he finally was able to play through a whole season. It's almost heartwarming that he was given a shot by a NHL team, went on to have a very good year with Brandon, and appears to be very likely to be drafted by someone in Philadelphia in June. I can certainly understand why. He wasn't just a producer on a strong team; he was a reason why Brandon made it to the postseason. He's not just big, but apparently moves fairly well with his size. He's got a notable shot and offensive talents. He even has a mean streak; though that's not really a plus. In fact he will have to serve a two game WHL suspension should he return to juniors next season. Still, it's a desirable mix for a prospect forward.
Of course, the big question is his age. What is his ceiling? Like Myles Bell, he should be eligible for another year in junior but what would that really prove? Being extremely productive and dominant at that level at age 20 is expected for a player with a future, it wouldn't be a sign of great things to come. Yet, he hasn't demonstrated dominance to a point where he should go professional, due to missing large chunks of two of his last three seasons with injuries. It's an odd spot to be in. Combined that he's not going to have as much potential as an 18-year old prospect would, and I don't think there will be a high demand for him. He may be ranked high enough for a second or third round pick, but I think it'll mean he'll be around past that. Possibly the fourth or fifth round, really.
It'll be really interesting to see whether Pittsburgh picks him or not. Again, they invited him to their development camp and rookie tournament. They would know more about him than anyone else in this draft. Chicago, Toronto, and Ottawa would have some idea as they were in that same rookie tournament; so I'm curious if they would take a flyer on him from the fourth round and beyond. I wouldn't mind the Devils considering him later in the draft either. He'd fill an organizational need (prospect forward, winger), it wouldn't be so long before he could jump to the pro level, and I think there's enough talent to warrant a look. At a minimum, I'm feeling confident that he'll get his name called at the Wells Fargo Center in June. And if not, then perhaps the Pens can sign him as a free agent in the summer. Not a bad deal, really.
Now that you've read all this, what's your opinion of Nejezchleb as a prospect? Weren't you glad to read that he finally had a injury-free season? Would you want the Devils to draft him if he's available late in the draft? Do you think any team will draft him this year? Have you been able to see him play with Brandon? If so, what did you think? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Richard Nejezchleb in the comments. Thank you for reading.