If Barry Trotz had to pick a player on his team that opponents would least like to encounter on the ice, one of his top choices would be Patric Hornqvist.
“He’s a hard guy to play against,” Trotz said. “If you’re playing against him, you’re going to get irritated because he’s going to go and make it hard on you.”
What a change from four years earlier when every other team in the NHL passed on the opportunity to pick the Swedish forward — repeatedly. Hornqvist was the absolute last player selected (230th overall) in the 2005 NHL draft.
At that time, it was hard to know what to expect. He had not even established himself as a regular in the Swedish junior league. In 2003-04 and 2004-05, he played 60 games in that country’s third tier and just 15 (with two different teams) in the junior ranks.
What was notable was the fact that he had 10 goals in those 15 junior contests. Two years later he broke the Swedish Elite League record previously held by Peter Forsberg when he scored 23 goals in a single season.
When he scored twice in the Predators’ 2009-10 home-opener (Oct. 3 against Colorado) he was well on his way to another unique bit of history.
Since 1969, when the NHL adopted its current draft format, only eight of the 41 players taken with the last pick played in even a single NHL game. Three of those eight lasted for at least 50 games and had four goals or more.
Hornqvist’s pair of goals (including the game-winner) matched his total from the previous season and gave him four in 30 career NHL contests. Given the fact that he had a hand in five of Nashville’s six goals in the first four games (two goals, three assists) he looked well on his way to reaching 50 games — and beyond.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve changed that much from last year, but I feel more confident out there,” Hornqvist said. “When you (feel) that, you make so much better plays out there.”
He actually made a strong enough first impression in his initial NHL training camp last season that he made the Predators’ opening-day roster. Before long, though, he was sent to Milwaukee, where he played the majority of that season (49 games) despite being recalled to the NHL twice more.
“The first time I got sent down, I didn’t play that well after that,” he said. “For sure, that was a tough time. Everybody in Milwaukee wants to be here too. I battled through that stuff and came back a couple times and played good down there. It’s fun.”
While he might be difficult to play against, Hornqvist has proved that he is easy to play with. One of the most-used players during the preseason, the 22-year-old forward consistently produced regardless of who played with him, and he was the Predators’ top scorer in exhibition contests.
Less than one game into the regular season when Trotz needed a replacement for the injured J.P. Dumont on his top line, his pick was Hornqvist, who got an assist later that game. Against Colorado, in his first full game with Jason Arnott and Steve Sullivan, he had two goals and an assist.
“He’s a smart player but he goes to the hard areas to track down pucks,” Trotz said. “He’ll also go to the front of the net. He’ll do a lot of the grunt work. He’s smart enough to play with high-skill players like Sully and Arnott. I think they respect the fact that he does those things.
“He was probably our most consistent forward right through training camp, the preseason and (the start of) the season.”
All that remains for him is to produce for a full NHL season. It would be even better if he helps the Predators create a second line that consistently can produce points.
“He’s playing to his skills,” Sullivan said. “We need him to be the best he can be. We don’t need him to be any different. He’s been an offensive player his whole life and he needs to keep doing that.
“He’s still trying to come into his own but I think that will come. I think he has a lot more offensive upside, and I think that’s just a matter of getting the opportunities.”
A little more than four years ago, teams passed on the opportunity to draft him a total of 229 times.
Now, while he is someone players on other teams won’t want to go against, virtually any of Nashville’s players are happy to skate with him.
“He’s the type of player who doesn’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” Sullivan said. “You can see, even in practice, he’s nervous. If he makes a mistake, he’s coming to apologize. …He’s just such a hard worker and it really makes the game a lot easier for the guys playing with him.”