Quick: Name two players in the National Hockey League from Slovenia.
Los Angeles Kings phenom Anze Kopitar is the easy one. But if you’re a hockey maven, you probably would have mentioned the Detroit Red Wings’ 2006 sixth-round pick Jan Mursak.
In fact, those two are the only players to appear in an NHL game from Slovenia. And if you knew that, you may have too much time on your hands.
Knowing that little tidbit is even more impressive if you can pinpoint Slovenia on a map. Officially the Republic of Slovenia, the small Central European nation is sandwiched between Italy, Croatia and Austria.
Slovenia was traditionally a farming nation, but it has recently been involved more in lead and zinc smelting as well as electronics.
But lately, hockey players have been a chief export. With Kopitar firmly establishing himself as a dominant two-way center and the recent decline in the number of players from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the door is open for Slovenia to become a relevant hockey country.
That’s where Mursak comes in. The 22-year-old winger finally has his first NHL opportunity with Detroit due to injuries to forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Danny Cleary.
If he can become a solid NHLer, scouts may look to Slovenia for talent. One good player is a fluke, but two means Slovenia may have something cooking besides lead and zinc.
Mursak’s calling card is his world-class speed coupled with a tenacious work ethic. He plays a style similar to that of Red Wings forward Darren Helm. Mursak has better touch than Helm, however, as shown by his increased offensive output.
The 2006-07 season saw Mursak tally 80 points for the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League. He spent part of the next season with Saginaw before being traded after 26 games to the Belleville Bulls.
He came to Grand Rapids in 2008 with lofty goals and high expectations. But in 51 games, Mursak was less than impressive. He played with very little confidence and scored just two goals while finishing with a measly nine points.
Mursak attributed many of his struggles to the increase in pressure. He had to wipe the slate clean before last season.
With a new attitude and less pressure, Mursak popped in 48 points while leading the Griffins with 24 goals. In 33 games with Grand Rapids this season, he has netted 10 goals and 33 points so far, proving last year was no fluke.
But scoring in the AHL doesn’t necessarily translate to the NHL. Mursak plays first-line minutes in Grand Rapids but won’t have the same opportunity in Detroit. The Red Wings have little trouble scoring, and the team isn’t asking Mursak to fill that role. That will be left to players like Jiri Hudler and Johan Franzen.
Coach Mike Babcock wants the speedy winger to put pressure on defenders and force turnovers. His job is to help the team fight through the injuries and manage until Datsyuk and Cleary return.
Once the Red Wings get healthy in late January, Mursak will likely be sent back down to Grand Rapids. But if he has his way, he’ll stick around much longer than that.