To say there were low expectations when the Edmonton Oilers selected Martin Gernat in last year's Entry Draft would be to suggest there were expectations at all. Hoping for a miracle? Always. But actual expectations of an NHL-calibre player being plucked from such a depth? Unlikely.
"Who's he?" was the question most were scrambling to answer when the off-the-board selection was announced. Immediately, comparisons were cast to Martin Marincin, a highly-touted second rounder from one year previously, with whom Gernat shares a common given name (Martin), heritage (Slovak), towering height (6'5), and musculature (none).
Gernat was also destined to follow Marincin's path in another important way, as he declared his interest to come to North America and thus became a "player of interest" for the CHL's import draft, held the week after the NHL's Entry Draft. While Gernat didn't quite have the chops to go #1 overall in that draft, as Marincin had (to Prince George) one year previous, it quickly became clear that the Oilers had plans for him. Their junior affiliate, the Edmonton Oil Kings, traded up in that import draft, clearing out Marek Hrbas to the Kamloops Blazers for the privilege. It was a very goal-specific deal: not only did Edmonton move up a few spots to improve their odds, they opened up a spot for both another import and another defenceman on their roster. Local observers immediately speculated that the Oil Kings had targeted Gernat, a prediction that played out soon thereafter. Gernat joined Kristians Pelss, another Oilers late-round selection from a hockey nation with a weak development record, as the Oil Kings' two eligible imports. It's a clever strategy that enables the organization to take full advantage of its WHL connections.
Suffice to say our crack prospects panel here at Copper & Blue weren't enamoured with Gernat's outlook last summer, but the Slovak stringbean has soared up the charts since taking to North American ice, managing to clamber into the bottom spot of our latest top 25 under 25. After a promising showing in Oilers' summer and pre-season rookie camps, he blasted out of the gate as if shot out of a cannon, beginning his WHL career with a 6-game scoring streak. By the end of October he was riding high with 6 goals and 18 points from 16 games, a superb opening run that mirrored that of Marincin the year previous.Gernat's scoring rates took a dip thereafter, coupled with reports that Oil Kings coach Derek Laxdal was attempting to convert him from rover to actual defenceman.
Even as his scoring rates flattened out, Gernat continued to post impressive plus/minus numbers: +3 in September, +5 in October, +7 in November, +8 in December in just four games before he went down the QE2 to play for Slovakia in the World Juniors. There he was paired with none other than Marincin, a pair of Slovak stringbeans who were the first choice of coach Ernest Bokros in all situations. Gernat had a modestly successful tourney, 1-1-2, +1 in six games, with the goal coming at a most opportune time during Slovakia's stunning third-period comeback against the Swiss on New Year's Eve that catapulted them into the medal round.
Since returning to the Oil Kings a couple of weeks ago, Gernat has put together another five-game scoring streak and has run his season totals to an impressive 8-25-33, +24 in 36 games. That's exactly half of a standard WHL season, and one wonders whether he'll hit the wall in the second half, as Marincin did last season and many imports have done over the years. No sign of it yet. On a defence corps featuring NHL draft picks Mark Pysyk and Keegan Lowe on its shutdown pairing and 2012 draft stud Griffin Reinhart anchoring the second pair, there is no expectation on Gernat to carry the group as was the case with Marincin in PG; on the other hand he may well be facing a deep playoff run that may tax his stamina.
By eye Gernat appears a confident player who is strong in transition. He's a threat to join in the rush but is not doing so with the reckless abandon he displayed earlier in the season, starting to pick his spots a little more effectively. He loves to shoot the puck, either through traffic from the point or sneaking in the back door. Defensively he's very much a work in progress, slowly ironing out kinks in such critical aspects as positioning, reads, footwork. Ultimately those are the sort of fundamental skills that will make or break his career as a pro, and we don't have the crystal ball that will accurately forecast his development. He is in an ideal spot, however, right here in Edmonton under the watchful eye of Laxdal, Billy Moores, and Steve Serdachny.
As with virtually all players under review, our C&B panel have a range of opinions on Gernat. Among those who ranked him highest at 19th on the list, Jonathan Willis summarized:
A 6'5" defenseman at a near point-per-game scoring pace in his first WHL season? Add to that the fact that he's a solid skater and hasn't even come close to reaching his professional-level bulk yet, and there's a lot to like about this player. I'm sure he's a few years away, but this is a guy that could significantly outperform his draft number.
At the other end of the spectrum, Derek Zona ranked him 33rd, cautioning:
While he had a nice start to his WHL season, he's tailed off. He's a 5th round pick from a country struggling to produce top-end defensive talent.
There is that. Still, in a few short months Martin Gernat has gone from off the board to very much on the radar. Stay tuned.