Adam Ruzicka makes the most of his first line audition
In life, opportunities come in many forms and often when you expect them to appear. For Calgary Flames forward Adam Ruzicka, an opportunity for the most plum assignment he’s ever been offered in the National Hockey League came when the team was mired in a losing streak and one of the team’s best players was suddenly unavailable, in part because of a blocked shot that swollen foot.
But four games into this opportunity, Ruzicka is making the most of his first line audition.
What you need to know about Ruzicka is that he has never played the wing for a long time in high level hockey. He came up in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and was used as a center because of his size and scoring ability. When he came over to the Ontario Hockey League, ditto. Playing in the American Hockey League the past few seasons, again, his size made him a natural center, and because he hadn’t played much wing, it made it tougher and tougher to try him out. (And since Stockton wasn’t super-stacked in the middle, it made it easy to keep him in the center and not experiment too much.)
Flash forward to this season, and Ruzicka enters Flames camp with no waivers left and four established NHL pivots ahead of him: Elias Lindholm, Nazem Kadri, Mikael Backlund and Kevin Rooney. Suddenly there was an urgency to see if he could hack it on the wing.
He played one game on the left side during the pre-season and that was on September 29th, next to Connor Zary (in his first NHL camp) and Sonny Milano (in camp on a PTO). All due respect to his linemates, but it wasn’t exactly a recipe for success, and Ruzicka was adequate but not impressive in the role. Flames head coach Darryl Sutter commented on Ruzicka’s lack of effectiveness in the role.
In the regular season, Ruzicka played one game at center, on the fourth line on November 1 in place of an underperforming Rooney. He was not impressive.
But since joining Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli in place of an injured Jonathan Huberdeau on Nov. 8, Ruzicka has played some of his best pro hockey. In four games, he has two goals and two assists, and has been an occasional catalyst for nice plays by his linemates (and a finisher on plays by them as well).
“Well, that one line was good tonight, for sure,” assistant coach Ryan Huska said after Calgary’s win over Los Angeles on Monday night. “I thought they moved the puck around well, the three of them together. Adam did a great job of using his size tonight and going to the net. And you can see that for me, over the last couple of games, certain guys have stepped up and we needed to find a way to win games and Elias has been one of them and so has Tyler. So it was a good line for us tonight, for sure.”
“He’s a very good player,” linemate Tyler Toffoli said of Ruzicka and his adjustment to the top line. “Obviously he was in and out of the lineup a little bit, and last year as well, but I played with him last year, so I kind of know what he brings. And I think he’s playing very confident hockey right now and just playing very good.”
In four games on the wing with Ruzicka on the ice at five-on-five, the puck is definitely moving in the right direction for the Flames. They have outshot opponents 36-13, outscored them 30-12, outscored them 14-5 and outscored them 4-1. They have also scored two power play goals with him on the ice.
“He’s got a pretty good opportunity in front of him, so I think he recognizes that as well,” Huska said. “I think he wants to be a full-time NHL player and be able to contribute night in and night out, so I think that’s a real challenge for him is he maintains what he’s been able to do. It’s up to him. So if he keeps pushing and working the way he’s been doing lately, he’s going to keep getting that opportunity.”
The Flames are back in action Thursday night in Tampa Bay when they visit the Lightning.