Our 2016 NHL Draft prospect profile series continues today with Ondrej Vala. This Czech defensemen boasts a large frame, interesting set of tools, and some untapped potential. Let's take a closer look at his game to see what Vala is all about.
Who is Ondrej Vala?
Ondrej Vala was born on April 13, 1998, making him 18 years old. The left handed defenseman from Kolin, Czech Republic is listed by the WHL website at 6'4, 216 lbs. making him one of the larger players in this year's draft. Vala came up through the youth and junior ranks at HC Pardubice in his native Czech Republic before moving to Canada last year to play major junior with the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL. As you'll see from his EliteProspects stats below, he has represented his country at the U16, U17, and U18 levels.
Vala is a physical, defensive defenseman so point totals don't tell much of the story. We can at least see from the stats above that he's progressed steadily through the junior ranks at HC Pardubice. He even had relatively productive seasons for the U16 and U20 teams in 2013-14 and 2014-15 respectively. This helped him become the 11th overall pick in the 2015 CHL Import Draft by Kamloops. Last season as a rookie in the WHL, he was relied on to play, "big minutes in key situations" according to Marty Hastings of Kamloops This Week. Vala was even partnered with former Devils prospect (assuming he doesn't get an AHL deal) Ryan Rehill at times. Vala finished 3rd among the Blazers defensemen with 21 points in 72 games. That also put him 7th among the rookie defensemen in the WHL last year.
Where is Vala Ranked?
NHL Central Scouting ranked Vala as the 102nd best North American prospect. Steve Kournianos of The Draft Analyst has Vala down at 238th overall. Corey Pronman of ESPN has Vala up at 100th overall in his rankings.
What Others Say About Ondrej Vala
Vala just made Corey Pronman's Top 100. Here's what he had to say about Vala:
At the 100th spot, we have a player that has an intriguing set of skills and tools. Vala is a big defenseman at 6-foot-5, and I think there is some puck-moving upside to his game. Mind you, he's no Erik Karlsson, but Vala has shown the hockey sense to be competent with the puck. And at the under-18 and WHL levels, he has been effective during his time on the power play. He is decent defensively too, using his big frame to clog up lanes and win battles. His skating is poor, with a real awkward stance and stride. He can be turned horizontally a little too easy by quick forwards, which is a major hurdle that he'll need to overcome on his way to potentially becoming a top prospect.
I'm encouraged to read that he has the potential to be a solid puck moving defensemen. Being able to get the puck out your own zone and help the transition is extremely important in today's game. Pronman also mentions that he's been effective on the PP and he'll be able to further improve on that in an even larger role for Kamloops next year since Ryan Rehill will no longer be in the picture for the Blazers. Unfortunately, I'm not surprised to read that his skating is a weak aspect of his game since that's common among bigger players. He won't have to become an incredible skater but he will need to become proficient enough in his own zone with his gap control and angles to prevent offensive players from taking advantage of him.
A few days ago, David Hahn of Hockey's Future had this to say on Vala when he was discussing players that are likely to go late on the second day of the draft:
The physical, defensively strong product of the Czech Republic put together a solid, yet not sensational first year in the WHL. He finished with four goals and 17 assists, and while the numbers appear pedestrian, it is the small things that make Vala a draft-worthy prospect. He gets his stick into passing lanes, is keenly aware of his surroundings, and is among the best positional defenseman in the draft.
Based on Hahn's description, it seems that Vala already thinks the game at a solid level. It seems that he's still adapting to the North American game and growing into his large frame. He definitely comes across a project pick which is no surprise since he's likely a late round selection.
Steve Kournianos of The Draft Analyst had this to say on Vala back in December when he did an early mock draft:
Euro import who had a tough go in the first few weeks of his first WHL season but slowly rounded into form. He has good straight-line speed and solid instincts in the offensive end, and we’ve seen him make an impact when he’s playing with confidence and receiving added responsibility because of it. But issues getting the puck to safety and coverage boo-boo’s make him a real wild card during this early stage of the season.
It's no surprise to read that Vala had some growing pains coming over from Europe but good on him for fighting through them. I find it interesting to read that Vala has "good straight-line speed." After reading some of the other reports, it seems that his skating issues revolve around his first step and horizontal mobility. It will be interesting to see if he can put his offensive instincts to greater use in his second year in the WHL. Hopefully he can round out and improve on some of those defensive issues.
A Little Video
The first video is from November 21, 2015 when Vala put up a goal and an assist against the Edmonton Oil Kings.
At the 0:38 mark of the video we see Vala (#42) join in the offensive play and firing a low, hard shot that would bounce of the boards and to a teammates stick for an tap-in goal. Next at the 2:22 mark, we see Vala get fed the puck at the blueline, control it while traffic develops in front of the net, and then slap the puck past the goaltender for his first WHL goal.
The next video is from a January 6, 2016 game against Prince George. Here we see Vala is not afraid to stick up for his teammates and drop the gloves if necessary. While I wouldn't say he seems like a natural fighter, I can appreciate the effort.
An Opinion of Sorts
Of course any player that we focus on that is projected to be a late round pick is going to have a few holes in their game. Vala is no different. His skating seems to a need a lot of work. His mobility seems limited to a north-south style. It seems that he can be a bit inconsistent in his defending at times. With that said there are a few things to like about Vala. He's a large defenseman that is still going to fill out a bit. He has solid offensive instincts and could have some untapped potential to contribute more on the PP. There also seems to be some hope that he'll become an effective puck moving defensemen. When it comes to his defensive game, it seems he just needs to get his body to catch up with his head. A few more years of development could do a world of good for him. Whichever team drafts Vala will be getting a big defensemen with some tools and decent potential. That odds will be against him but he could make for an interesting project pick. I wouldn't go as far as to say that I hope the Devils get him, but I won't complain if they grab him late in the draft.
What do you make of the large defenseman from the Czech Republic? Would you have any interest in him with a late round pick? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!