Greg Gilbert has been around long enough to recognize talent. The Worcester IceCats coach believes he's found one in Augusta Lynx defenseman Jaroslav Obsut.
But Gilbert didn't enjoy a 15-year career in the National Hockey League on raw ability alone, and he hopes to drive that point home with the 22-year-old rising star.
"Jaroslav has all the things to make a really strong base for a defenseman," said Gilbert, who will share Obsut's services with Lynx coach Dan Wiebe for the rest of this season after the IceCats signed Obsut last week. "He's got a head start on a lot of players. He's just got to start doing the little things better and build on that."
Obsut is in the midst of a breakout year in just his second full season as a professional. He leads the Lynx and is tied for fifth in the ECHL with a plus-23 rating and his 11 goals and 36 points with Augusta both rank fifth on the club.
His emergence earned him a spot in the ECHL All-Star Game, where he earned high praise for his performance in the game and for winning the hardest shot competition with a blast that registered more than 99 miles per hour.
Now, the Slovakian is on the verge of realizing a dream. He signed a two-way ECHL-AHL deal with the IceCats for the remainder of this season, and his contract rolls over to a two-way AHL-NHL deal the next two seasons with Worcester and the St. Louis Blues.
"My goal this season was to get a contract and I'm very happy," Obsut said. "This is what I've been working for my whole life and it's a great opportunity to get my foot in the door."
But his success has been bittersweet for Wiebe. Although the second-year coach gave Obsut full support in his quest to sign an NHL contract, Wiebe also knows the Lynx aren't nearly as strong on the blueline without him.
It's something Wiebe must deal with again beginning tonight, when the Lynx kick off another stretch of three games in consecutive nights at the Civic Center vs. the Birmingham Bulls. After the Lynx worked out Wednesday morning, Wiebe got a call from Gilbert requesting that Obsut join the IceCats for the weekend. He left Wednesday evening and will be in uniform tonight when Worcester takes on Hartford and Philadelphia at home Saturday and Sunday.
"When you coach at this level, your job is to help players to get to the point where they're ready to move on," Wiebe said. "It's the opportunity he's wanted since he came to the ECHL and it shows what can happen to someone who sticks with it. He worked hard over the summer to get himself in great shape and he has become a quality player in this league."
But Gilbert says the hard work must continue if Obsut is to become a quality player at the next level.
"He's a big, strong kid who's not afraid to finish his checks and does a lot of things well and has really good natural talents," said Gilbert, who played most of his career with the New York Islanders and Chicago Blackhawks. "But there are several things he must improve on to play well at this level and, perhaps one day, in the NHL."
Gilbert cited foot speed, agility and an ability to better read plays as the primary deficiencies, and Obsut agrees.
"I know that I need quicker feet out there because they're skating much faster in the AHL than they are down here," Obsut said. "The rest, I know, will come with experience. I know I can play at that level and I'm excited about going to training camp next season in St. Louis and showing them what I can do."
For now, Lynx fans will still get plenty of chances to see Obsut in action. The IceCats have assured Wiebe they will summon Obsut only when the club is shorthanded due to injuries or call-ups to St. Louis. Wiebe hopes that translates into having Obsut for most of the remaining 24 remaining games and, more importantly, for the ECHL playoffs.
"It's great for him, but it also works out good for us," Wiebe said. "There's no telling how much we'll have him; it all depends on injuries and call-ups up (in Worcester). But they're more than willing to work with us, and if they're not using him up there, they've agreed to send him back down
Rob Mueller covers hockey for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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