Jiricek ready to show off his game yet again at World Juniors

When the Blue Jackets drafted David Jiricek in the first round of the 2022 draft last month, the Czech defenseman gained a new friend.

That friend just happens to be the fourth-leading scorer all-time among NHL players to hail from the Central European country, as well as the active leader among Czech NHLers in games and points.

Jakub Voracek has been one of the top offensive producers in the league for the past decade and just played his 1,000th NHL game this past season with Columbus, making him both a Czech legend and a great resource for a young player from his home country who was suddenly drafted by the organization.

Which is why when Jiricek’s phone buzzed the day after he was selected sixth overall by the Blue Jackets, it was no surprise who was on the other end of the line.

“It was great,” Jiricek said of the call from Voracek. “He’s an idol in the Czech Republic. I started watching in 2010 and Czech Republic won the (World Championships), and he was there. So for me, he’s an idol .”

Video: Media Avail: Jiricek

The two could be teammates sooner rather than later, but in the meantime, Jiricek has plenty of business to take care of. Though he’s had to battle a case of COVID that has kept him away from the team in recent days — he’s expected to return to the squad tomorrow — Jiricek is one of three Blue Jackets draft picks tabbed to join Czechia for the summer edition of the World Junior Championships, which will kick off Tuesday in Edmonton.

Joining defenseman Stanislav Svozil (third round, 2021) and forward Martin Rysavy (seventh round, 2021), Jiricek is expected to be one of the top players on a team that hopes to make a deep run. He’s already played in the highly anticipated tournament twice, notching two points in five games in the winter of 2020-21 and then suffering a knee injury at this past December’s event before it was stopped by a COVID breakout.

Once that’s done, Jiricek will go about the business of getting ready for the upcoming season, which could be an interesting process in and of itself. He’s already played two full seasons in the top Czech league, totaling an 8-12-20 line in 63 games with his hometown HC Plzen, and a move to a top European squad, a North American junior team or perhaps even the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters could be in the cards.

Wherever he ends up, Jiricek is one of the top prospects in the Blue Jackets organization and might not be too far from Columbus given his two-way game that you can’t help but think would perfectly compliment that of Zach Werenski.

“It’s pretty much unprecedented what he’s done at his age in the Czech league,” CBJ general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said at the draft. “Playing at the men’s World Championships (this summer), I was there myself and watched him play, and he was really good. He’s 6-4, has a great frame to him, has a great attitude. We love his character, his compete and his skill level as well.”

Jiricek is listed by The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler as the No. 18-rated drafted prospect in hockey, thanks in part to a combination of size (6-3, 189) and skill at both ends of the ice that has impressed scouts. While many see his imposing figure and sturdy nature and merely focus on Jiricek’s abilities in the defensive zone, he started his career as a forward and has good offensive instincts as a result.

Video: Jiricek kisses the CBJ logo

“He was a former forward, so that helps a lot,” said CBJ scout Milan Tichy, himself a native of Plzen who saw Jiricek play plenty of times over the past few seasons. “I like his confidence. Even in the World Championships, NHL players were there and he said, ‘I was shaking more because I played at the highest level ever,’ but I think he’s a guy who after mistakes, he will figure it out pretty quickly, which is good.”

Offensively, Jiricek showed at the Jackets’ development camp after the draft that he has good hands in tight spaces, while he’s lauded for a shot from the point that he can get to the net and has resulted in a handful of tallies in the leadup to the World Juniors. Defensively, his size and reach make him an imposing presence, but Jiricek knows he has to keep adding strength — a few more kilos, as Tichy said — to be ready for the NHL.

“I will be two-way,” he said of his style of player. “I want to play power play and penalty kill, too. That’s my goal for the next two or three years. I think I need to improve my strength and some plays in the defensive zone. I think hockey sense and shot are my biggest strengths right now. I like physical play, but I need more strength for North America.”

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