DETROIT - When Tomas Jurco arrived in Detroit last December, he was known more as a YouTube sensation for his impressive puck handling skills than the physical NHL player he has become.
The 21-year-old earned the nickname “The Magician” for the abundance of skills he displayed during his three-year career with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs. But after being drafted by the Red Wings in 2011, Jurco quickly realized that he needed to add a physical element to his game in order to be successful at the AHL and NHL levels.
“Yeah that’s the thing I didn’t really need to do it in juniors,” Jurco said. “Since I played in the Quebec league everybody’s really skilled, I liked that. We had a great team and we won every game, almost every game in the season so there wasn’t really a need for me doing it and then I came to AHL and it was a little different. It’s different hockey for sure and it’s better for me if I hit and I finish my checks.”
The Kosice, Slovakia native increased his physicality during Grand Rapids’ run to the Calder Cup championship last year, and continued to improve upon that aspect of his game at the beginning of the Griffins’ 2013-14 season. When he made his NHL debut in mid-December, Jurco knew his ability to hit and finish checks was more important than ever if he wanted to maintain a spot on Detroit’s roster.
“AHL is a little differently, there’s more I would say there’s more hitting and it’s a little different,” Jurco explained. “This is a little smarter here so I think I was building it while I was in Grand Rapids and then when I came up here I knew Babs (Mike Babcock) liked me when I’m physical so it’s a good thing for me and I’m trying to do it. I know if I’m going to do that I know I’m going to get more ice time so it’s a good thing for me.”
Although Jurco only scored two goals through his first 18 games with the Wings, Babcock would much rather utilize the forward’s 6-foot-2, 193-pound frame for its physical prowess rather than a slick set of puck handling skills.
“He’s going to score better eventually but he’s got to be physical,” Babcock said. “He’s got to be hard guy, he’s got to get on the inside, all the dangling stuff, that doesn’t score any goals, I don’t know what all that stuff is for. Entertain your friends in practice, I guess.”
While Jurco continues to focus on being more physical, he ultimately hopes to stay in the NHL long enough to combine that aspect of his game with the remarkable skills that made him an Internet sensation.
“Yeah that’s my next step that’s what I’m trying to do,” Jurco said. “If you put these two together, skills and physical, I think it’s going to show up pretty good so hopefully I can do it and hopefully I can do it quick enough to stay here.”
With the number of injuries Detroit suffered this season, Jurco received an incredible opportunity to gain experience at the NHL level, earning 10 points in 26 games and three goals in the last eight games he appeared in. After missing the club’s last seven games due to a broken rib, Jurco will have a chance to get back on track when he returns to the lineup Thursday night against Montreal.
Although the forward skated on Detroit’s kid line with Sheahan and Tatar before his injury, Babcock moved Jurco to the first line with Dave Legwand and Johan Franzen against the Canadiens.
“It’s a good chance for me, good opportunity for me to get back in the game quick,” Jurco said. “I know obviously the second with Shea (Riley Sheahan) and Tats (Tomas Tatar) and Gus (Gustav Nyquist) were playing good so I understand that coach wants to keep them that way so hopefully I’m going to fit in the first line and we’re going to play good too.”
The 21-year-old has shared time with Legwand on the power play before, but has never skated with Franzen. Babcock believes Jurco’s size, speed and skill level will compliment the veterans well and put the WIngs in the best position to be successful.
“He probably thinks he’s dragging those old guys around,” Babcock said. “I can put Nyquist back there in a heartbeat but Nyquist on that line is flying. He (Jurco) has a skill set, he makes good plays with the puck, can really skate. That line needs more tempo. We’re trying to have more balance, we need to generate on more than just one line.”
Follow Andrea Nelson on Twitter @Nelson_Andrea
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