Abols catching on
Abols catching on
Latvian forward a late bloomer
He’s eligible this June for a third and final time, but don’t be surprised if his name is finally called. The once small and raw forward has quietly developed into a prospect worth watching.
Two years ago, Abols was skating in the KHL, but last year he decided to make the leap to North America and play for Portland in the Western Hockey League. His choice was difficult but worth it.
“The beginning of the year went well in Portland,” Abols said after Latvia’s game last night, “but it was my first year not living at home, so there were a lot of adjustments. The middle and end of the year was tough. It was a grind. It was tough not being home and seeing my relatives. That’s when my game dropped off a bit.”
But just when he started to struggle, he was invited to play for Latvia at the U20 Championship in Austria, Division 1-A level, and he got back on track. He led his team in goals (four) and points (five), and Latvia finished in first place to earn promotion to the top level for 2017.
“We made it back to the top division, which was great, so I got some confidence when I went back to Portland,” Abols continued.
Still, the grind and intensity of Canadian junior hockey was more than he expected. “The travel was definitely a lot harder than I was expecting it to be,” he confessed. “It was tough on the body. Everyone told me it would be hard, but I thought, ‘I’ve travelled on a bus in Russia for 20 hours, so hard can this be?’ Believe me; it’s tough.”
Abols was invited to attend the rookie camp of the Vancouver Canucks last year. Things went very well, but because he is still draft eligible, the Canucks couldn’t sign him. That leaves their relationship in limbo. The Canucks might be able to acquire him through the draft, but one of the other 29 teams might pick him as well. And if he goes undrafted a third time, the Canucks could also sign him as a free agent.
“We had a chat after the rookie tournament,” Abols explained. “They said what they think, and I said what I think. We haven’t talked since then. A lot of teams don’t approach you during the season, but maybe after the World Championship. We’ll see what happens going into the summer. I’m not too nervous about being drafted. I’ve been passed up two years in a row.”
The most important factor in becoming a better hockey player is understanding where you are today and where you have to get to tomorrow. Abols talks like someone who’s been through that process and come out the other side mentally stronger.
“I’ve developed physically, and my game has developed as well,” he explained. “I feel like I’m in the right place now on the ice, not running all over the place. I’m playing better on both sides of the puck.”
Abols sees senior hockey as more of a team game, where results are achieved through game plan and coaching strategy. In junior, it’s more about showcasing talent to get noticed.
“For me, it’s easier to play senior hockey than junior,” he continued. “All the players are smarter, and they know where they should be, so it’s easier to play with them. In junior, players play more individually, take the puck by themselves. So when you play here against Russia, Sweden, and Czech, you have to be smart and focused.”
Because the past two drafts haven’t been enjoyable, and because he’s close to home while playing here in Moscow, Abols has no plans to attend the NHL draft in Buffalo.
“I’ll stay at home,” he confirmed. “There hasn’t been huge interest so far. So I’ll stay at home, and if something pops up on my phone, I’ll be happy. “
Being more philosophical comes with age and maturity, but also with having a quiet confidence that wasn’t there previously. Abols has come a long way in two years, and he’s playing with a Latvian team that is young and fast. Latvia is not expected to win a medal in Moscow, but the team will almost certainly stay in the top division, and Abols will gain some valuable experience playing up a level.
“I’m more relaxed now, after a year in Portland and now at the World Championship,” he stated. “I know what to expect. Last year I didn’t, and it was much tougher. I think I’ve developed a lot in the last year.”
Let’s see if NHL scouts and general managers agree.
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