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André Tourigny’s conversations with Karel Vejmelka can feel a bit one-sided.
“He talks as much as your bag,” the Coyotes coach quipped.
That doesn’t mean that Vejmelka is sullen or detached, however. Quite the opposite.
“He’s not low maintenance; he’s zero maintenance,” Tourigny said. “There is no day when he arrives and he’s moody or whatever. Every day is a good day. He is working hard every day. He is smiling every day.”
Vejmelka has good reason to smile these days. While the more traditional stat of save percentage ranks him 21st among NHL goalies with 10 or more games played at .913, the more enlightening stats such as goals saved above expected show him among the league’s top goaltenders.
While the models for these statistics can vary for a variety of reasons including how they gauge different types of shots, Vejmelka is consistently among the best.
It’s all the more impressive when you consider the volume of work that Vejmelka is facing. Last season, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck was the only goalie to play at least half of his team’s games and face more shots per game than Vejmelka.
This season, Vejmelka is facing more shots per game (35) than any regularly playing goalie in the league and the second-most high-danger chances per game (7.78 per naturalstattrick.com) behind Anaheim’s John Gibson.
Those numbers don’t even include the mental focus and physical exertion required for all of the shot attempts that miss the net, are blocked, or the amount of time that the Coyotes spend in the defensive zone as one of the league’s worst possession teams.
“Sometimes it’s tough to stay focused every minute in the game, but when I get a lot of shots and a lot of saves like that it’s so much easier for me because I’m just focusing for my job; not looking around, not talking too much with somebody,” said Vejmelka, who made 43 saves in a 4-3 win against Boston on Friday to end the Bruins’ 19-game winning streak against Arizona.
“Being ready for every game, for every practice and doing everything 100 percent is the best motivation for me when I’m playing in the best league in the world. It’s not complicated. I’m living my dream. Every single day is something special for me and I’m really enjoying every moment here.”
What’s driving Vejmelka’s success?
Vejmelka has a few things that most successful goalies in the modern-day NHL possess. He has size, he has athleticism, he is powerful and he relishes the action.
“He competes and he doesn’t give up on plays; he’s a battler in there,” Coyotes goalie coach Corey Schwab said. “It’s so key in the difficult situation that we went through last year.
“Most games, he’s made a handful of key saves throughout the game. With any goalie who has success in the league, that’s part of what makes them great is they make those key saves, whether it be in the first period or the third period.”
The Coyotes have a long history of successful goalies, from Nikolai Khabibulin to Sean Burke, Ilya Bryzgalov, Mike Smith and Darcy Kuemper. All but Khabibulin were 6 feet 3 or taller.
As for Vejmelka’s other attributes, PHNX’s Steve Peters broke it down in a series of graphics.
“The guys who work with me will laugh, but I always said, ‘With a good goalie, the puck doesn’t go through him and it doesn’t go under him. It goes around him,'” Tourigny said. “With Veggie, the puck doesn’t go through him and it doesn’t go underneath him. You need to beat him around him, so you need to pick the corners, you need to make a hell of a play and he makes a lot of big saves on top of that. That’s why he’s elite.”
That said, Vejmelka is still a work in progress. He has only played 71 career NHL games and the adjustment was monumental from the Czech league to the NHL.
“Last year was my first year here in the US and in the best league in the world so I was a little bit more nervous,” he said. “For sure, it’s faster than the Czech league and every other league and I am learning that I have to be more patient, be more focused for every shift.”
Schwab thinks that Vejmelka’s comfort level — with everything from the language and culture to NHL shooters and his teammates — is the biggest reason for more consistent play, but there is still daily work to do.
“We’re always refining stuff,” Schwab said. “Things change day to day. You might feel good with something one game and not so good with it the next so we work on the simple things to make sure we can try to simplify the game as much as we can so he can feel good about that and will play with a clear mind.”
One area where Tourigny has seen marked improvement is in Vejmelka’s post-to-post play.
“His movement is much better on the side-to-side plays and his reads got better, but we try to eliminate those chances,” Tourigny said. “Don’t get me wrong. I know where we are as a team and we know what we are, but we try to limit the quality of east-west plays we give up.”
The manner in which the Coyotes try to defend caters to Vejmelka’s strengths, even if it doesn’t always pan out as the coaches draw it up. Sometimes, there are defensive breakdowns. Sometimes, there are breakdowns in Vejmelka’s technique.
How Vejmelka got here
When Vejmelka was toiling away as a backup goalie in the Czech Extraliga for Kometa Brno, the Nashville Predators’ 2015 fifth-round pick never stopped dreaming about making his way to North America.
The Predators wanted Vejmelka to leave his homeland immediately after the draft to play in the ECHL, but Vejmelka and his agent didn’t see the sense in that. At age 19, Vejmelka thought he would develop better in the comfort zone of his native land. He also wanted to complete his studies.
By the time the Predators lost his rights and he became a free agent, his dream was still intact but it felt like most NHL scouts had forgotten about him.
“I was still wanting to come,” Vejmelka said. “I did everything for that, but I expected I would have to start playing in the AHL or maybe even the East Coast. I couldn’t imagine going straight from the Czech league to the NHL because it doesn’t happen a lot.”
Teal Fowler, the Coyotes’ central European scout, was watching two other draft-eligible prospects at a Kometa Brno game in the 2020-21 season when he noticed Vejmelka. Once he relayed the information to more members of the Coyotes scouting staff — including then-director of goaltending operations Brian Daccord; goalie scout Clay Adams; Schwab; former goaltending development coach Zac Bierk; European goalie scout Magnus Olsson; and eventually GM Bill Armstrong — they watched him live and on video, and the team decided that he was worth a look.
The original plan was for Vejmelka to platoon with Ivan Prosvetov for the team’s AHL affiliate in Tucson. But Vejmelka outperformed countryman Josef Kořenář in training camp to earn the Coyotes’ backup spot in the first season of Armstrong’s rebuild. When Carter Hutton struggled and then got injured, Vejmelka was thrust into a starter’s role that nobody anticipated.
“We knew he had talent. We knew we had the size. We knew he had the durability, but if anybody tells you that we expected the success he had in his rookie season, I think we would be called liars,” Vejmelka’s agent Ryan Barnes said.
“It’s the most important and also the most difficult position in the sport. Everybody has their own own rate that they develop at. Obviously for Karel, it was a great thing for him to play five or six seasons in the Extraliga and hone his craft.”
As with all of Quartexx Management’s clients, Barnes checks in on Vejmelka regularly, but Vejmelka also has a Czech business manager who lives in Arizona, and he has developed such a liking for his teammates that his need for a support group has lessened.
Tourigny said that after a year of watching him, the team has learned how to manage Vejmelka’s workload with rest and games off where backup Connor Ingram plays, but Tourigny said there may come a point where the Coyotes decide to run with Vejmelka for a long stretch again, both to see how much he has grown and because the staff has faith in him.
It’s an opportunity that Vejmelka is not about the let slip past, given where he was a few short years ago.
“It’s something something crazy for me, big stuff in my career, so I’m just trying to do my best to be here for a couple more weeks, a couple more months, a couple more years,” he said. “This is the main thing: I just want to do my best. I want to stay for a little bit longer.”
Top photo of Karel Vejmelka via Getty Images