When the Sudbury Wolves acquired Adam Ruzicka from the Sarnia Sting in mid-January, fans could have been forgiven for reserving judgement on the move.
Sudbury faces Ruzicka’s former team just twice a season, after all, and only once at home, offering few opportunities to view the 19-year-old native of Bratislava, Slovakia. The addition certainly looked good on paper – a power centre with a pro frame at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, who had amassed nearly a point per game in two and a half years as an OHLer, and a fourth-round pick of the NHL’s Calgary Flames, all for a relatively reasonable cost, due to the limited market for imports. But could the trade, even for such a highly-skilled skater, potentially upset the chemistry of a squad whose score-by-committee, win-as-a-group mindset had become so vital to its success?
Not at all, it would seem. Since making his debut on Jan. 10, Ruzicka has been a perfect fit not only in all three zones, but also in the dressing room.
“It was a little surprising,” Ruzicka said, recalling the deadline deal. “I didn’t expect to be in any kind of trade situation, because it’s tough to trade a European player, but when I heard Sudbury was interested in me, I was all in and I thought it was going to be great. Why wouldn’t you want to go to a team that wants you? I was really excited about it and since I came here, I have been putting the work in and putting 100 per cent in every day.”
He’s also putting up points. Heading into a home game against the Windsor Spitfires on Friday night, Ruzicka has scored seven times – twice potting a game-winner – and assisted on three other markers in nine games with Sudbury, pushing his season totals to 18 goals and 29 assists in 44 contests.
A minus-10 with a youthful Sarnia sextet, he has a plus-3 rating with the Wolves, despite playing often against other teams’ top lines.
“We’re excited about what Adam can do,” Wolves head coach Cory Stillman said. “He has helped our power play and he has helped control the game. That’s what you get from a 19-year-old centreman.”
It’s not just Ruzicka’s offensive prowess, but also his defensive acumen, that has impressed coaches. Many a dangerous-looking rush has been broken up because the veteran pivot made an extra effort to get back, then used a quick stick to steal the puck.
“I’m not afraid to put him against any line,” Stillman said. “With him and Bully (Shane Bulitka) together and whoever is playing on the right side, we do have two checking lines, with Darian and Drake Pilon and Macauley Carson on one, then you can put Ruzicka and Bulitka together, to play on the road.”
Defence is an important part of Ruzicka’s game, and one he figures has improved a great deal since his OHL debut.
“My first year, my draft year, was a little tough,” he said. “But every year, I get better in every situation on the ice, including back check and defending, it was my main priority to do so in the last two seasons, and I think that’s what I have improved in. It’s what my NHL team wants me to do, to be aggressive and be consistent.”
Calgary’s fourth-round choice, 109th overall, in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Ruzicka is working to earn his first professional contract. While he enjoyed his time in Sarnia, he believes the move to Sudbury, a team with aspirations of post-season success, will only help his career.
Adjusting to the Northern Ontario weather, he said with a laugh, may have been tougher than anything to do with the team.
“It has been great to play with these guys, to play with the pace they have,” Ruzicka said. “The coaches have helped me a lot to adjust to their systems and have shown a lot of patience with me in these kinds of things, which I really appreciate. I can’t thank them enough. Hopefully, the way things have started, it’s going to keep going and it’s not going to stop until the end of the season.
“The guys have been really amazing since I came. I hopped straight into the game and they helped me with everything, communicated with me on the ice and off the ice, telling me what the coaches want, what they expect. Off the ice, I have hung out with them a lot now and they’re a really great group of guys.”
Stillman has found Ruzicka to be very coachable.
“He wants to learn every day,” Sudbury’s coach said. “We’re putting him in positions that give him the puck and let him be the difference in a hockey game. He’s not afraid, if he doesn’t know something, to come out and ask us a question.”
Stillman, a longtime former NHLer himself, said such eagerness will serve the youngster well as he pursues a pro deal.
“The Calgary Flames are going to want to see how he competes every night,” Stillman said. “If he continues to trend upwards, which he has been doing here, I think the result will be good for him at the end of the season.”
In the meantime, Ruzicka’s goals are decidedly team-oriented.
“I just want to win every possible game we can,” he said. “I want to win the whole league and get to the Memorial Cup.”
Friday’s game against Windsor starts at 7:05 p.m. The Wolves welcome the Sting on Saturday at 7:05 p.m.
A mix of new and familiar faces highlighted the Wolves’ list of monthly award-winners for January.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen captured player of the month honours again after posting a 2.25 goals-against average and .914 save percentage, but had to share the Molson Canadian Three-Star Award with forward Blake Murray, who had six goals and five assists in 12 games.
Carson was named TESC Hardest Working Forward after collecting 14 points in 12 games. Liam Ross captured the equivalent honour for defencemen after the draft-eligible rearguard posted six points, giving him 23 on the season.
Blake McConville was named Wolves United Community Player of the Month, while Isaak Phillips earned Reg Wilkinson Men’s Wear Scholastic Player of the Month honours.