Dylan Cozens may be the one who draws the spotlight for the Lethbridge Hurricanes, but Slovakian winger Oliver Okuliar has been silently impressing the hockey team’s brass through his first six games with the club.
“Any time you get a European over, you’re still a little bit unsure,” said Hurricanes head coach Brent Kisio. “But he’s exceeded our expectations.”
The 19-year-old native of Trencin, Slovakia was Lethbridge’s lone selection in the 2019 CHL Import Draft, joining defenceman Danila Palivko as the only European-born players on the roster.
For Kisio, it was Okuliar’s previous experience in Canada that made him an attractive asset.
“He’s played junior hockey — major junior — in the Quebec league last year, which we think really helped him this year coming in,” Kisio said.
“For a guy that we were a little unsure of what we would get, he’s been absolutely outstanding and way exceeded our expectations so far.”
Okuliar played the 2018-2019 season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the Sherbrooke Phoenix, putting up 42 points (14G, 28A) in 62 games. After Sherbrooke decided to release the winger, he headed west to the Western Hockey League.
For the player, there has only been one noticeable difference between the two leagues.
So far, Okuliar has played at a point-per-game pace for the Canes, notching two goals and four assists through six games.
Four of those contests have been played alongside Cozens; the seventh overall pick of the Buffalo Sabres in June’s NHL Entry Draft.
“I think we kind of found some instant chemistry,” said Cozens, who has turned heads with nine points (5G, 4A) in his four games since returning from Sabres training camp.
While Okuliar has relished the opportunity to ride shotgun with the Yukon-born centreman, Cozens said the feeling is mutual.
“He’s just such a good player to play with,” Cozens said.
“He’s super easy to play with, he’s so responsible, he always has his head up and it just seems like he always makes the right play.”
That top line for the Hurricanes has been rounded out by 20-year-old forward D-Jay Jerome. He was acquired via an off-season trade with the Victoria Royals.
Cozens’ nine points in four games puts him on track to improve on his totals from last year (84 points in 68 games), but he thinks the focus should be on continuing to play the game the right way.
“Right now, things are going in for me,” he said. “But I know it’s not always going to be like that. I think there’s going to be times when it’s tougher… but right now, I’m just going out there and doing whatever it takes to help the team win.”
Cozens believes the Hurricanes (3-2-0-1) can be better as they hit the road for a three-game trip through Saskatchewan this weekend.
“I think we’re getting there,” Cozens said. “We’re getting lots of chances and I think that’s the most important thing. But we’ve run into some hot goalies and we’ve just got to find a way to score more of those chances.”