Penguins Counting On Kraft To Meet High Expectations
By Bob Grove
On the surface, at least, the Penguins' newest star-in-waiting appears to have been cut from the same cloth as some of his predecessors.
Center Milan Kraft comes to Pittsburgh with European sensibilities about the game, documented prowess with the puck and a familiar dichotomy of expectations. As the lanky Czech wunderkind hits the training camp ice at Southpointe this month, management will express genuine optimism about his potential while fans debate whether his impact will be felt in one game or one week.
Both parties have been here before. When Swedish left wing Markus Naslund stood the camp crowd on its ear playing beside Mario Lemieux in the fall of 1992, there seemed little doubt that Naslund had been a major steal at 16th overall in the draft. Two No. 1 picks, right wings Aleksey Morozov and Robert Dome, joined the Penguins at camp in 1997 amid hopes they might be counted upon to replace some of the goals that formerly snapped off the stick of No. 66.
Naslund finally reached the National Hockey League in 1993-94, scored four goals in 71 games with a veteran-laden team and was traded two years later in a deal that still haunts GM Craig Patrick. Morozov, who finished plays with unusual frequency as a Russian amateur, scored minutes into the 1997-98 opener but delivered a mere 12 more goals in his next 75 games. That same season, the still-maturing Dome dressed for only 30 games.
Penguins' European scout Mark Kelley believes it would be a mistake to allow these history lessons to set artificial limits on Kraft's rookie potential, because the 6-4 native of Plzen, Czech Republic has some things going for him that the others did not.
"One advantage he has is two years of playing in the Western Hockey League," Kelley said. "As I always say to our staff, if they're coming over here, I'm the first one to say, 'Let's get them to the WHL.' It's a North American style. They play a lot of games, they travel a lot, they're away from home and they're alone, and they have to get serious about the hockey."
The 20-year-old Kraft spent the last two seasons playing with the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL, and he was plenty serious. He scored 40 goals and 86 points in 68 games in 1998-99, leading the team, and he contributed a team-high 34 goals to go with 69 points in 56 games last season.
"In practice and every single game, he comes to play. He brings energy to the rink every day," said Prince Albert GM Rick Valette. "His work ethic is second to none. And he's got tremendous skill. Milan is a special player, and he's got a real commitment to the game."
Midway through last season, Kraft captained the Czech Republic to its first-ever gold medal at the 2000 World Junior Championships in Sweden. He was named the tournament's best forward after scoring five goals and 12 points in seven games. "He won the World Juniors (for the Czechs)," Kelley said. "The guys on his team, after the tournament, said Kraft was a great leader. He put up good numbers, but he was also responsible defensively.
"And the thing that impressed me there was that I asked him after one game, 'How are things going?' And he started talking about his junior team, and he was concerned that the coach (former Penguin Kevin McClelland) was on the bubble. You put him in the world spotlight, and what's he talking about? His team. He's got character. He's a leader, and he's a winner."