PITTSBURGH — Following an eye-opening performance Sunday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Radim Zohorna expressed both his desperation to make the team and his fear this year is his last chance.
The 27-year-old, 6-foot-6 Czechian forward who towers above everyone also stood head and shoulders above most of his teammates with a driving, energetic performance that created a majority of the offense for his team.
Zohorna used his exceptionally long reach effectively on the forecheck, creating a couple of turnovers, including one that directly led to Alex Nylander’s goal. Zohorna was quick to get on the defensemen and filled the center of the ice in the offensive zone.
Yet, after three seasons in North America, he’s feeling time slip away.
“I hope (I can make the NHL roster). I hope I can challenge for a spot. That’s why I’m here,” said Zohorna. “I think this might be my last year to make a team and play in the NHL. So I’ll do everything for it.”
The big forward pushed for a Penguins’ roster spot last fall, but it didn’t seem to be a terribly difficult decision for coaches or management. Zohorna was lost via waivers to the Calgary Flames, and the Penguins did not reclaim him when given the chance two weeks later.
In fact, no one claimed Zohorna, who reported to the Calgary Wranglers of the AHL until being recalled in December.
Zohorna returned to the Penguins in July, but the Penguins players and coaches weren’t the only familiar faces. As the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, current Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas acquired Zohorna near the NHL trade deadline last season. He played a pair of games for the Maple Leafs, too.
However, Zohorna, who can play wing or center, got only 10 games in the big show split between Calgary (eight) and Toronto (two).
In 51 games between the AHL’s Wranglers and Toronto Marlies, the guy his teammates call “Z” scored 12 goals and tallied 34 points while also an impressive +20.
“I got some experience from last year. It wasn’t easy for me, but yeah, I got some experience,” Zohorna said. “I think I’m a better player than last year.”
Thus far, Zohorna is playing with the drive and determination that desperation brings. Of course, that was the point of the crowded training camp; Dubas packed the Penguins’ roster to create competition and see who would rise to the top.
Zohorna is one of those players rising.
In training camp scrimmages, he’s been playing with Sam Poulin and Alex Nylander, which is a talented but likely WBS Penguins line — not a Pittsburgh Penguins line, though both he and Poulin are working to change that. According to colleague Dave Molinari, Poulin was the best player on the ice in the following preseason game Sunday night, a 4-3 Penguins OT loss in Columbus.
Coaches are noticing Zohorna’s leap forward, not only in camp scrimmages but in conditioning drills, too.
“I actually love his game. I love his conditioning and all of it. The last three days, every time we’ve done the skates, he’s gotten better from the previous two years that he was here,” Penguins assistant coach Mike Vellucci said. “He was scoring in the exhibition game during the scrimmages. And then I just thought (Sunday) he played a sound game defensively, winning faceoffs. I just I just like his overall game, his conditioning, and I know he wants to be here.”
PHN asked Zohorna to clarify. What if he doesn’t make it to the NHL this season? Will he head back to Czechia or elsewhere?
“I don’t think about it,” he replied flatly.