Samuel Hlavaj entered the season as an unknown prospect in unfamiliar territory, passed over at last year's NHL draft.
A lot has changed since for the Slovak goaltender, who now has the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Sherbrooke Phoenix looking like Memorial Cup contenders.
Heading into Thursday's action, the 18-year-old was riding a personal eight-game win streak, while the Phoenix sat atop the league standings at 34-7-4.
"I was kind of disappointed not to get drafted but it motivated me for this year," Hlavaj said. "I'm feeling good in the net."
Hlavaj has yet to lose back-to-back starts in 26 games and is 21-2-2 with a league-leading 2.08 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and three shutouts. He's a major reason why the Phoenix are currently ranked No. 3 in the 60-team Canadian Hockey League, which bodes well for him with a second shot at the draft this June in Montreal.
Central Scouting currently has him as the third-best North American goalie.
"I've had a pretty good season so it's good for the draft but I can't be satisfied," Hlavaj said. "There's still work to do."
The six-foot-four, 218-pound Hlavaj was born in Martin, Slovakia, and played in his homeland until the 2019 world junior hockey championship. He represented his country at that year's tournament in Vancouver and Victoria and ended up sticking around North America, joining the United States Hockey League's Lincoln Stars.
He embraced the experience in Nebraska and says it was a great introduction to the game on this side of the ocean with its smaller rinks and different rules. But the 2018-19 season came with little success as he went 3-18-1 with a 4.58 GAA and .862 save percentage in 22 games.
The CHL was where Hlavaj wanted to play. But he didn't think it would be realistic after the numbers he put up in the USHL before going unselected at the NHL draft. However, the Phoenix decided to take a shot at him through the QMJHL's import draft, opening the door to hockey in Canada.
"I was following the CHL for a long time, started when I was 15. I was thinking I want to go there and play there," Hlavaj said.
"When I wasn't drafted in the NHL draft I was told it would be hard to be drafted into QMJHL. It was a good feeling. I wasn't sure if I would be drafted."
Hlavaj's first season in Canada has been a great one, albeit a busy one. On top of emerging as Sherbrooke's No. 1 goalie, he played in his second world juniors in the Czech Republic while also getting an invite to the CHL Top Prospects game, giving him another shot to show scouts what he has to offer.
The Phoenix, who are built by former NHL goalie Jocelyn Thibault and coached by Stephane Julien, are well on their way to their most successful season since joining the league in 2012-13. They own the league's top power play and penalty kill, and lead the QMJHL in goals scored and goals against.
"We work hard, we aren't full of star players like other teams, but we have good attitudes," Hlavaj said.
Hlavaj, who played for a Slovak all-star team at the annual Quebec international Pee Wee tournament in 2013-14, is only the second Slovak-born netminder to suit up in the QMJHL. He joins Jaroslav Halak, who dressed for the now defunct Lewiston Maineiacs in 2004-05. Hlavaj would be just the fifth Slovak goalie to appear in the NHL if he can get to the next level.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published on January 23, 2020
Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press