If you’ve been reading along with my draft work the past few years, you’ll likely have noticed that I like looking at prospects who seem like potential ‘steals’. It could be that I think they’ll be ranked lower than they deserve, or be taken later than their rankings, for reasons that commonly happen at the draft. They may be smaller, they may play in a more obscure level, they have have missed a lot of time due to injury, and so on.
But it might also be that they have certain elements that make them likely to have bigger developmental leaps in the future than others. They may have an extremely late birthday, they may have had a very recent growth spurt, or they may be playing on a team/in a pro league where they don’t get a lot of ice time to rack up the points that attracts attention.
In the case of Slovak winger, Adam Sýkora, it’s a several of these things. He’s a bit smaller, he plays in Slovakia’s pro league, and he has a very late birthday. He also gets somewhat forgotten among other high profile Slovak prospects in this year’s draft, which could wind up being their best showing in an NHL draft in their country’s history. Šimon Nemec, Juraj Slafkovský, and Filip Mešár are all likely going to be first round picks — the first two could both wind up going in the top 5.
Adam Sýkora has gone under the radar for most of the season, but started getting a bit of hype from certain sections of the scouting community down the stretch. That hype could put him outside of Toronto’s range in the third round, and he’s not good enough for their first rounder. But if he does fall to Toronto in the third round, or if they acquire a second round pick or two through trades, he would make for an interesting pick.
THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT
Weight: 179 lbs
Birth date: December 19th, 2003
Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:
- Bob McKenzie: Not ranked
- Will Scouch: 37th
- Scott Wheeler: 67th
- Elite Prospects: 44th
- Dobber Prospects: Honourable mention
- Smaht Scouting: 40th/
There are two bits of information regarding Sýkora that makes the rest of his profile more interesting as a result. First, that he was born on September 7th, making him one of the very youngest players in this draft — if he was born just nine days later, he wouldn’t be eligible until the 2023 draft. The second is that, in spite of his youth and smaller size (5’10”), he played his entire season in Slovakia’s top pro league.
You might look at Sýkora’s previous seasons and guess why. As a 14 year old, he put up 63 points in 32 games against U15 competition. As a 15 year old, he had 51 points in 38 games against U18 competition. Last year, as a 16 year old, he played a mix in Slovakia’s first or second tier pro league. He had 14 points in 19 games in the second tier league, and 2 points in 15 games in the top pro league.
This year, Sýkora played 46 games in the top pro league and put up 10 goals and 17 points. For reference, that’s one more point (in more games mind you) than Filip Mešár, who is nine months older and a consensus first round pick in this year’s draft. Sýkora added another 2 goals and 5 points in 19 playoff games. He also made the World Hockey Championships as the youngest player in the tournament for Team Slovakia, and had 2 goals and 3 points in 6 games while averaging 8:45 minutes per game. The longer the tournament went, the more ice time he got.
So you read the above and think, well obviously Sýkora has been playing ahead of his age level so aggressively because he’s a huge offensive force! You’d sort of be right, but that’s likely not the main reason he started Playing Against Men(TM) as a 16 year old and never looked back. The main reason is that, while he does have some offensive skill he has stuck around and been given more of a role because he is already such a reliable, hard working and impactful two-way winger against men in spite of his age or size.
THE GOOD: RELENTLESS TWO-WAY MOTOR
The main way Sýkora has a positive impact as a two-way forward is by just being utterly relentless in his effort at all times. That, combined, with his ability to anticipate play to know where he needs to be, is what brings together his total package as a player. It helps him become a greater sum of his individual skills. And there are three areas of the game where you really notice this in particular while watching him play.
First are Sýkora’s impact on transitions in the neutral zone, both offensive and defense. On defensive transitions he involves himself a lot. He is usually playing higher in the offensive zone, and one of the first forwards back to put pressure on the puck carrier. You can see him have a good anticipation of a transition starting, so he can start skating back as soon as possible. From there, he has that dog on a bone quality where he will skate after and hound a puck carrier immediately and won’t stop until that player turns it over or passes/dumps it away. That cuts down on the other team’s ability to generate dangerous chances off the rush, and helps his own team turn it back into the offensive zone.
Here are two clips of him at the Worlds. He’s #10 in white and the one causing the turnover in both examples. You can see him close on the other team’s puck carrier as they’re trying to get it out. He has good execution causing a turnover in both examples, and it’s something he does a lot. First, he gets a stick on the puck or at least knocks the other player’s stick. This causes him to lose control and prevents him from getting the puck away. Then he follows through and takes the body, knocking the player off balance and making it easier for him or a teammate to pick up the loose puck to regain possession.
These skills also make him very useful on the penalty kill, where he was one of his team’s main PKers in the pro league. He was quite effective at breaking up or deflecting away pass and shot attempts by getting his stick and/or body in the intended lanes. In one game I watched, he was one of the most used players, playing well over 3 total minutes just on the PK — a 5 minute penalty will do that. He had a shift on every penalty they had to kill, where he blocked four shots, and broke up two pass attempts. He was also on the ice to defend a one goal lead with the goalie pulled.
One of the best ways to have a large two-way impact is by being good at both kinds of transitions. By shutting down transitions defensively, you limit shots and scoring chances from ever happening. By driving controlled offensive transitions, you help create more and better shots and scoring chances for your team.
Here are some clips from Sykora’s game against Canada at the World Hockey Championships. Remember, he’s a 17 year old not turning 18 until September. He is playing against NHLers like Adam Lowry, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Dylan Cozens, Damon Severson, and so on. Look at how much chaos he causes, with the puck and without it. He was a menace in Canada’s zone, and was not at all afraid to throw his weight around.
Adam Sýkora sa proti Kanade uviedol fantastickým debutom na MS, súperovi jeho aktívne napádanie robilo problémy a bol blízko aj k tomu, aby zabodoval.— Peter Vretenička (@vretenicka) May 18, 2022
Dnes som ešte dodatočne zostrihal:
- jeho 2 najlepšie striedania
- hit na Lowryho
- šuperšanca v 3. tretine
🎥:RTVS #2022NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/aXbaIYluIV
On offensive transitions, Sýkora shows very strong tracking data, where he succeeded in entering the offensive zone with control in 87% of his attempts, per Will Scouch. He manages this by attacking aggressively, but also keeping it simple. He is an effective skater, and strong in spite of his size. That helps him find the easier lanes into the offensive zone and attack it before a defender can close on him. If they do, he has a Zach Hyman-esque forechecking quality to him as far as successfully retrieving dump ins. What also helps his offensive transitions is how he generates them from his successes stopping transitions from the other team. When he steals the puck or causes a turnover, he is quick at passing or carrying it back the other way in an immediate counter attack.
Otherwise, his offense is about creating chaos. He wants to attack the net, or dish it off to a teammate in a better position. He may be smaller, but he is very capable at protecting the puck and working the cycle. When he has the puck he will take it to the net when he sees an opportunity, or pass it to another teammate in a better position. He won’t necessarily break defenses down with a deke or a pass, but has more of a ruthless efficiency to his game. A good chunk of his goals that I’ve seen are him being around the net, or going to the net. He’s shown he has a good stick for deflecting passes and shots.
He scored a goal against Finland in the semi-finals of the Worlds by doing just that, and almost had a two goal game against Italy off a real nifty deflection in traffic.
The one caveat to everything I said in this section is to keep in mind I am talking a lot about his projection. In the Slovak pro league, I am talking mostly about how Sýkora makes the right decisions and tries the right things. If he doesn’t succeed or do well, it looks more like it’s down to a lack of execution rather than not doing anything, or not trying to do the right thing. The better execution will come with time, as he adds strength, experience, more refined skills, and more tricks.
THE FLAWS: HIGHER END OFFENSIVE SKILLS
If there is a knock on Sýkora, it is that his offensive skills do not seem to project at a high level. He has a good shot, he is a good skater, he can handle the puck well, he is a good passer, and he has good instincts. But what I said above holds true here: his value as a player is how much his effort and “hockey IQ” help his total combination of skills have a “greater than the sum of the parts” outcome.
Sýkora doesn’t have a ton of flash or dynamic skill to his game, at least not that I’ve seen yet. When he generates goals and points, it is more by sheer effort and being in the right place at the right time than because he broke the game open with his skill. He goes to the dirty areas, he fights for the puck and positioning in front, he executes on the simple but effective plays.
It’s not a bad thing to be that kind of player. Having a hard forechecking, chaos creating winger is a skillset that can be very useful at the pro level — just look at Zach Hyman and others like him. The concern is that Sýkora’s offensive skills may not develop to the point that it will succeed well at the NHL level. His skating for certain can stand to be better, to add better speed especially.
The other issue is that it’s tough to succeed like that when you’re also a smaller. Usually, smaller players succeed in the NHL by being quick, nimble, fast, and shifty. Larger players can’t shut them down when they can’t catch them or square them up for a hit. But Sýkora is often the one actively engaging physically as part of his playstyle, and against bigger, stronger and better competition in the NHL it won’t be as effective as it is without him making some improvements.
Otherwise, plays on his stick will die even if he tries the simple play. He won’t be able to get to the net for a deflection when defenders can so easily shove him out of the way. Even his forechecking and puck hounding play in transition and on defense won’t work as well when better skating opponents can pull away from him, or protect the puck from him better than he’s used to now.
All of that said about his weaknesses, that’s just why Sýkora makes sense as a potential third round pick. Maybe even a second if you think there’s enough there that you can project him as a middle six winger who can play a supporting role, with enough offensive skill that can be refined and developed.
Because if Sýkora had the effort and the smarts AND higher end offensive skills, he’d be a lock for the first round. His current profile, to me, projects well to at least be a useful role player in the bottom six. Someone who you can rely on in all situations and play a supporting role. The best possible outcome is that he still has a big developmental leap in him, especially considering his age, where you can help him develop more of his skills to be more high end. Maybe right now he focuses more on the simple but effective plays because its what his coaches want him to do at the pro level as a 16/17 year old. Maybe there is more offense there to unlock.
If you check his previous statistics when he played against his peers, or closer to his age group, he’s done well. He’s never really been used in a top offensive role — that went to the likes of Martin Chromiak, Juraj Slafkovský, Filip Mešár, Dalibor Dvorsky, and others. But in 33 career games for Slovakia at various tournaments, he’s put up 11 goals and 5 assists. Not bad for a bottom six guy, usually against older competition as well.
Whether Sýkora is available in the third round will be the question. He was not included at all in Bob McKenzie’s mid-season rankings, which included a top 80 ranking and 16 honourable mentions. After turning some heads on a big international stage at the Worlds, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make an appearance in Bob’s final rankings. The question is how high?
I can see the combination of his smaller height, more obscure league and lower offensive ceiling lead to him falling into the third round. But there are a few teams, including those with a lot of picks in the first few rounds, who are pretty smart drafters and heavily scout Europeans. One of them could easily swing on him before he falls to Toronto at 78th overall.
I’ll be crossing my fingers he does fall to Toronto. I think he could offer great value in the third round, and considering his age and the level of competition he plays against, I can see him having a bigger breakout.
Would you draft Adam Sýkora in the third round?
|Oh hell yes, without a second thought
|Depends on who else is available
|No, I want someone with more upside