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When he first took over as the team’s sports director in 2018, Radim Vrbata knew that he would need to search far and wide to improve BK Mladá Boleslav’s roster.
“We are not the richest team in Czech so ever since we came in, we had to look at how we put the team together a little differently,” the former Coyote said. “We started looking more for younger guys with potential who were on other teams; guys who we think should be playing in the league but didn’t get a chance, or guys who have potential to play bigger roles.”
“We started looking at who wasn’t playing in Czech in the main league (Extraliga), and then we started looking in the lower league here in Czech where we found Radim Zohorna (now with the Calgary Flames), and then we started looking outside Czech. Slovakia is obviously the first choice and we’ve had some success with guys who were playing in that league.”
One of those guys never got the chance to play for Vrbata. Pavol Regenda was so good for Slovakia at the Olympics and World Championship that he signed with the Anaheim Ducks. He had a goal and two assists in a preseason game on Tuesday.
When Vrbata’s staff examined why the 6-6 Zohorna had flourished in Mladá Boleslav, however, club officials found similar characteristics in a kid who had 19 goals and 38 points in 45 games for HKM Zvolen in the Slovakian league. It was forward Miloš Kelemen, who signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Coyotes in May and was just assigned to the Tucson Roadrunners on Monday.
“He was a big guy who was working hard, who went to the net and we saw some potential,” Vrbata said. “He can skate for a big guy, too. I think he needs to work a little bit more on his puck skills, be better with the puck, but with that work ethic, with his size and the way he plays, I think he could be a really interesting player.”
Brett Stewart, the Coyotes director of European pro scouting and development, first noted Kelemen at the 2021 IIHF World Championship in Riga, Latvia. Kelemen didn’t get a lot of playing time, but Stewart wrote a reminder to check in on Kelemen periodically because he liked his size, work ethic and short-game tools.
NHL scouts often note that the Czech league translates well to the NHL because of its physical play, its sometimes smaller ice surfaces and the ability of its players to compete in hard areas.
Stewart watched Kelemen play with Zvolen, and after he signed in the Czech league, Stewart scouted him at least a dozen times, writing reports every time. He watched him in Mladá Boleslav. He watched him in Prague. He watched him in Kladno, in Brno, and in a tournament in Krefeld, Germany.
“What I really liked about him was his complete work ethic, the way he hounds pucks, the way he was always on the puck,” Stewart said. “He wasn’t chasing, but he always reloaded if the puck was coming back out of the zone and he was on the puck carrier all the time.
“The other thing I noticed is that he doesn’t take a shift off. He’s always working hard. His skill can get better, but he just kept popping out at me every time I went to see him, and there were a lot of times when he didn’t even know that I was in the stands.”
Stewart eventually brought Kelemen to the attention of the Coyotes scouting and management staffs and with more eyes on him, the process moved quickly with Kelemen’s agent, Marcel Sakac, who works closely with well-known agent Pat Brisson.
Kelemen helped his cause by exploding for nine goals in 14 playoff games, helping Mladá Boleslav reached the Czech semifinals where it lost to eventual champ Třinec in seven games.
“He’s a big power forward and I think he’s pretty dialed into who he is,” Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong said. “I don’t think his game changes a lot with how he played over there to how he’ll have to play here. Obviously, he’s got to get used to the ice surface and a little bit of a different style, but his game will be relatively the same. He’s a grinder, he’s got good size, he’s a good skater and he also has a high hockey IQ, which will help him play a system and learn to pick up stuff quickly over here.”
Coming to North America is always an adjustment for European players. Kelemen speaks passable English, but he has more hurdles than that ahead of him.
“Definitely, it’s not easy, but always I was thinking about it when I was a young kid,” Kelemen said. “People always were talking, telling you you have a chance for the NHL but it’s still just talk. I know it is a long way to the NHL but I am so close now. I will do my best.”
Kelemen got some help with his adjustment when his fiancée, Alexandra, arrived in Arizona recently. She will spend the entire season with him, helping ease the homesickness that often accompanies such a major move.
Kelemen is likely to start the season in Tucson, but he could be on the short list of call-ups if the Coyotes experience injuries or a slippage in play by others.
“Sometimes, you’re pushing for a spot but you’re also pushing to leave the coaches with a good taste in their mouth,” Armstrong said. “You never know how it will go with injuries, but if you leave a good taste in the coaches’ mouths, it always works to your benefit because they’re always looking for the first call-up.
“I think there’s still a little bit of figuring out that he has to do like, ‘If I play this way, what’s coming my way?’ The fighting is an aspect that they don’t deal with over there. It’s a smaller rink, too, with different systems and the speed of it. He played in Czech last year, and he played in the Olympics, but now he’s playing in a small rink, it’s a fast game, so he’s got to dial it up. It’ll take a little bit of time for him.”
Stewart imagines Kelemen as a fourth-line NHL player who can kill penalties and could creep up to the third line. Scouts don’t like to put a ceiling on players, but Stewart said that Sakac gave Kelemen a realistic assessment of his opportunity and Kelemen was willing to embrace whatever role is offered.
“I’m very happy I’m here,” Kelemen said. “Dreams come true.”
Top photo of Kelemen courtesy of HK Mladá Boleslav