Penguins prospect Dominik Uher makes adjustments after tough season
September 9, 2013 8:00 AM
Penguins prospect Dominik Uher.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
LONDON, Ontario -- Dominik Uher spent three winters playing junior hockey in Spokane, Wash.
A year ago, he relocated to Wilkes-Barre.
Those towns are more than 2,000 miles apart, but Uher discovered that the difference between playing in the American Hockey League and the Western Hockey League might be even greater.
The players he faced while playing for the Penguins' AHL affiliate were bigger than the ones he had gone against in the Western Hockey League. Stronger. Faster. More skilled.
And even though Uher realized that he would be stepping up in class -- it's no secret that competition in the AHL is a level, or maybe several, above what is found in major-junior hockey -- there were times when he struggled with the adjustment.
"The pro league is much harder," he said. "You play against actual men, not just junior kids. The speed and the physicality in that league was really different.
"I had some hard times, but I'm glad that season is behind me and now I know what I'm going to be in, and I'm really looking forward to the season."
Uher, 20, played for the Penguins in the prospects tournament in London that ended with a 3-2 loss Sunday to Chicago at Budweiser Gardens.
He was the Penguins' fifth-round draft choice in 2011, and made only occasional appearances on the scoresheet in his first season as a pro.
He had four goals and three assists (along with 61 penalty minutes) in 54 games with the Baby Penguins, and one assist in three appearances with the Penguins' East Coast Hockey League affiliate in Wheeling.
Although his offensive output might go up somewhat -- after all, Uher contributed 33 goals and 35 assists in 63 games in his final season at Spokane -- he projects as a third- or fourth-liner in the NHL.
"He's never going to be a player who's going to produce a ton of points, I don't believe, at the National Hockey League level," Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill said. "But he has the ability to get in on the forecheck, go to the front of the net, create disturbances out there."
Uher did a lot of that in the Penguins' prospects 4-3 shootout loss to Toronto Saturday night.
He was a presence around the net and looked quite comfortable in what was a very physical game, at one point dropping Maple Leafs center Danny Hobbs with a shoulder to the chest.
That is precisely the kind of game the Penguins are seeking from Uher, and it's what he gave Wilkes-Barre in his first season.
"I know how I have to play, but last year I didn't bring it every game," he said. "I just want to be more consistent this year. I want to bring my physicality every game."
That he didn't do that all the time in 2012-13, Botterill suggested, might have been rooted, at least in part, in Uher's youth and lack of experience.
"Dom being so young last year, it was an adjustment to the American Hockey League, for sure," he said.
"At times, he had difficulty with that. Just the strength of the games, the speed of the game. But what we really liked was, when Wilkes-Barre went on a playoff run, he was ready to step up.
"It goes to his character. When he played world juniors for the Czech Republic, he was a guy who showed a lot of emotion, played with a lot of intensity."
In addition to Uher's desire to compete, Botterill said the Penguins like his "smarts with the puck" and effectiveness playing a blue-collar style.
"When he's playing well, he's making good decisions with the puck, getting in on the forecheck, being willing to finish his checks," Botterill said. "And if there is a turnover, he's not looking for a fancy play in the high slot. He's going right to the front of the net to create some traffic."
He added that Uher "can really give an edge to your game in that bottom-six role," and it's conceivable that Uher might turn up in the NHL at some point during the 2013-14 season if the Penguins have injuries on their bottom two lines.
A few more established forwards likely are ahead of him on that list, but it would be folly to rule out Uher just yet.
"I put in a good summer this year and I feel really good on the ice," Uher said. "I'll do my best to get there."
NOTES -- The Penguins finished the tournament with a record of 0-2-1. They also failed to win a game at the 2011 event. There was no tournament last year because of the NHL lockout. ... Jean-Sebastien Dea and Tom Kuhnhackl scored against the Blackhawks.