Marek Hrivik in action (photography by Chris Rutsc)
The Hartford Wolf Pack’s Marek Hrivik has not been asked to play goal or defense yet, but as far as forward positions go, Hrivik has done it all this year.
Hrivik originally joined the Wolf Pack, two years ago at this time, as a left-winger, but this season he has spent a significant amount of time at center, and has even played right wing on occasion. The 22-year-old Slovak has proven to the Wolf Pack coaches that he can handle the differing assignments, and the back-and-forth between the middle and the flank has almost become old hat at this point.
“I’ve been doing it for a while, so I guess I’m getting used to it,” Hrivik said Wednesday. “It’s not that different to play wing or center. You just have a little bit more defensive responsibilities as a centerman, but it’s not that big of a difference.”
Although he admits to wanting to be better on faceoffs when playing center, Hrivik is encouraged by the progress he has made this season, after injuries last year limited him to 40 games-played with the Whale in his rookie campaign. His latest assignment has been to center the Wolf Pack’s top line, playing between Ryan Bourque and Jesper Fast, after J.T. Miller, who had been filling that role, was recalled by the parent New York Rangers.
Bourque scored twice in Saturday night’s 4-0 home win over Bridgeport, and Hrivik netted his tenth of the season in Sunday’s 3-0 road blanking of the Sound Tigers, leading Hrivik to the conclusion that the threesome was a good fit.
“I think we were playing good [last] weekend,” he said. “Bourquie’s a guy that skates a lot, and he can skate behind D-men and get the pucks, and Jesper’s a smart guy who can make plays, make passes. We just have to continue doing what we did last weekend and keep scoring goals.”
And what does Hrivik think his role is on that line?
“I’ve just got to be between them, I think, I’ve just got to do a little bit of both,” he said. “I think I’ve just got to make sure I win those draws, and get the pucks out of our defensive zone as quick as possible and get to the offense.”
Which is not to say that Hrivik is always thinking defense when he is skating with players like Bourque and Fast.
“This is a hard league to play in, it’s always, pucks are up and down, and you want to spend the least time that you can in your zone,” Hrivik explained. “As soon as you get out of your zone, you can go for it. But you have to take care of the D-zone first, and then you can go.”
While it’s not like the Swedish Fast and the Slovakian Hrivik grew up around the corner from one another, both cut their hockey teeth on the bigger European ice surfaces, and according to Hrivik, there is a certain shared thought process that comes from that.
“I would say it’s more that he (Fast) was playing in the Swedish League, and he would rather make a play than, let’s say, dump the puck in,” Hrivik elaborated. “That’s the kind of thing you’d expect all the time, that’s he’s going to somehow get the puck to you. So you’ve just got to be ready to receive it, and score, eventually, if he passes to you in the offensive zone.”
When Hrivik first came to the then-Connecticut Whale at the end of March, 2012, signed to a tryout agreement out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he made a good splash offensively, leading the Wolf Pack in postseason goals that spring and tying for the team lead in playoff points. Since then, the offense has not flowed as freely for him, with 26 points in 40 games last season and 10-13-23 in 66 games thus far this season, but Hrivik feels that his all-around game has grown by leaps and bounds.
“Obviously I think I’m a better player than I was when I first came here,” he said. “Sometimes they (goals) go in and sometimes they don’t. The points are not everything that is going on out there, there are a lot of other things that matter. As long as the team is winning and other guys are scoring, it’s not that big of a thing. I’ve just got to make sure that I play good hockey out there and help my teammates.”
Another thing that has factored into Hrivik’s development curve is the battles he has had with injuries. He played barely a half-season last year, and missed significant time his last two Junior campaigns due to injury as well.
“This is probably my first full season for the past three years, I would say.” Hrivik pointed out. “It’s a lot of games here, it’s not easy to go through a season, but everyone out there is tired, it’s not like it’s just me. So you’ve just got to make sure that you battle harder than the other guys.”
What makes that battle even more challenging, Hrivik has found out, as so many other young players have, that the jump from Major Junior to the AHL is a big and demanding one.
“The biggest difference between Junior and the AHL is the strength of the players,” he said. “The guys are stronger, faster. So you’ve got to adjust to that, you’ve got to get stronger during the summers, when you train and stuff. I think I’ve done a good job, I got stronger, I got faster, now it’s just time to cash in.”
The offensive opportunities that Hrivik has cashed in this season have tended to be less of the dazzling, highlight-reel variety and more of the hard-battling, gritty kind. Several of his ten goals, for example, have been scored from nearly impossible angles, from along, or below, the goal line on his off-wing side.
“I have a history of goals like that,” Hrivik laughed. “I don’t know, I just try to throw it in the net. My first AHL goal was from behind the net, in Portland. I have no play, I just try to throw it at the D-man’s skate or something and hope something happens. It’s never a bad play to take a shot.”
Similarly, it’s never a bad thing to be able to play many different roles and help a team in a variety of ways, as has been Hrivik’s calling card this season. That versatility may turn out to be just as good a ticket to the NHL as would be the kind of high-end offensive production that he showed a spark of in his first look at pro hockey.
“It’s the best hockey league in the world,” Hrivik said of the NHL. “If you’re going to get there, you just try and prepare for it the best you can. It’s just a plus if you can play all the positions out there, because you never know what’s going to happen. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I think it’s something that could help me to get there.”