When Dominik Kubalik arrived in Chicago for Blackhawks training camp in September, he was far from a lock to make the roster.
Kubalik, 24, was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the seventh round in 2013. Every summer, the Kings checked on Kubalik to see how he was doing in Europe. "But we never had any talk about a contract," the Czech-born forward said.
In January 2019, with no path to the NHL in sight, Kubalik's rights were traded to the Blackhawks for a fifth-round pick. He came to Chicago's training camp cautiously optimistic, and he didn't want to think too far down the line on contingency plans.
"My GM in Switzerland said if I didn't make the [Blackhawks], to let him know, and we can talk," Kubalik said. "So I knew I had options. I believed I was NHL-ready, and I hoped I was, but there was some doubt. I think all the guys [who come] from Europe have those thoughts. What's going to happen if you don't make it? Should I stay [in North America] and battle? Should I just go home? If I do, will I ever make it back?"
Not only did Kubalik make the Blackhawks' opening night roster -- and play his first NHL game in Prague as part of the NHL's Global Series -- but he has also shined as one of the few bright spots in Chicago's lineup this season. Kubalik leads all rookies with 29 goals, making him a dark horse Calder Trophy candidate (the award is most likely going to go to Vancouver's Quinn Hughes or Colorado's Cale Makar, two precocious defensemen). Moreover, with 13 games to go, Kubalik is just three goals away from tying Petr Klima's record for a Czech-born rookie, set 34 years ago.
Kubalik is now a key part of the Blackhawks' plans as they retool, and he should be due for a new contract this summer, including a significant raise from the $925,000 he is making this season. Of Kubalik's 29 goals, 25 have come at even strength. "To have that many goals and have so few on the power play, it means you do a lot of good things 5-on-5," Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said.
Kubalik's story is a reminder that there is no linear path to NHL success, and it is all about timing, having a firm belief in self-worth and the ability to seize an opportunity when it is presented.
"I think Dominik was probably ready to make the NHL at [age] 21 or 22," said former NHL forward Martin Straka, who served as Kubalik's coach and GM with HC Plzen. "But I talked to him about it then, and he said he did not want to go there. He was scared they would put him on a farm team, and he would not have success. It was only when he had confidence in [himself] that he was ready to go over."
Kubalik was born in Plzen, which is about an hour from Prague. His parents used to run the restaurant at the local ice arena, so he was always around the rink. Kubalik attended a hockey school that was right beside the rink.
Kubalik's older brother, Tomas, also played hockey. In 2003, the family traveled to Canada to watch Tomas play in the Quebec International pee-wee tournament. Dominik was 13 at the time. "I made the decision then that before my draft year, I wanted to play in North America," Kubalik said. It wasn't an easy choice to make, as Kubalik was already playing professionally in the Czech Republic. But in 2012-13, he made the move to Canada to play for the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL.
Kubalik was drafted by the Kings the following summer, and he transitioned well to the North American game. He put up 17 goals in 67 games his first season in Sudbury and another 13 in his first 36 games of the 2013-14 season. Then he was traded midseason to the Kitchener Rangers, and things fell apart. "I didn't play well, that's for sure," Kubalik said. "That was the most important thing."
After finishing the season with five goals and one assist in 23 games for Kitchener, Kubalik returned to the Czech Republic and figured he might never return to North America.
"I read a recent interview with Martin Straka, and he said, 'When he got back from the OHL, he was brutal.' That's what he said," Kubalik said. "I was like, 'Come on. I wasn't that bad.' But it definitely wasn't good."
Says Straka now: "Before he went to Canada for juniors, he was one of the best players for the young teams here, and that's why he went to juniors in Canada. But when he came back, he was in bad shape. He wasn't playing well. His confidence wasn't good. He was playing for the A team here, and he wasn't good. We had a talk with him after the season, and we said we would give him one more year, and he could show us he is still a good player. But he has to start working out before and after practice. He has to build his confidence."
Kubalik always did workouts with the young guys on the team, but Straka suggested that he could do more.
"He felt with my style of hockey -- lots of skating, lots of battles -- that I had to be stronger than the other guys," Kubalik said. He especially focused on building strength in his legs.
"He was in bad shape, and he didn't want to work out, but then he changed his mind and changed his thinking," Straka said. "His work ethic was just unbelievable since then. He always knew he had a scoring touch. He can always find the spots to score a goal. But once he changed the work ethic, he became a great player. Before he was just a scoring guy, but now he can hit, he can back check, he can do everything else."
As Kubalik was adjusting to his new career in Europe, so was Tomas, a fifth-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2005. Tomas played 12 games for the Blue Jackets from 2010 to '12 but played mostly in the AHL. Tomas returned to Europe in 2013 and bounced around leagues in Russia, Finland, Germany and the Czech Republic. After Tomas was unable to crack an NHL roster, it spooked Dominik.
"My brother probably went way too early," Dominik said. "He signed an NHL contract, went to the AHL, tried to work, but it didn't work out, and he never got a chance to go back. And so I was the opposite. I went to restart my professional career in Czech before I go over, then kept taking another step and another step while I was still in Europe before I was really ready to go over."
After scoring more than 50 goals between 2015-16 and 2016-17 for HC Plzen and getting called up to the senior Czech national team, Kubalik went to the Swiss League, where he won the scoring title last season. All the while, he was catching the attention of Mats Hallin, the Blackhawks' director of European scouting.
"Mats didn't know why Dominik hadn't signed with Los Angeles yet," Bowman said. "But he said, 'This is a player we like, so if you're ever in discussion with L.A, maybe just ask about him.'"
Bowman asked Kings GM Rob Blake about Kubalik. "On first approach, Rob said, 'I don't think we want to trade him. We might try to sign him ourselves,'" Bowman said.
Bowman said fine but checked back again. And again.
"Rob finally said, 'I don't think it's going to work out, so we'll at least consider it,'" Bowman said. "And then the haggling goes on for a draft pick. There's a fair number of players who are good in Europe that don't translate, so it's not automatic. Obviously, it looks good now, but there's a large incidence of guys who come over to the NHL and can't find success. So it's hard to value, what is that player worth?"
Bowman did his own recon on Kubalik, checking with those who knew him in the OHL to find out why things didn't work out for him. "You ask questions like, 'Are they upbeat? Can they fight through adversity?'" Bowman said. "If you talk to Dominik, you learn he smiles a lot. He's a happy guy. And that that was the feedback we had from the time when he was in Sudbury. He probably just wasn't quite ready for North America. He was 16, learning a new language. There were a lot of factors why it didn't work out at first."
When Kubalik was traded to Chicago, he was excited. He knew the Blackhawks had signed a lot of European players in recent years, including Artemi Panarin, Erik Gustafsson, Dominik Kahun, Jan Rutta and Michal Kempny. Kubalik reached out to a few of them, and each said something along the lines of: "It's a good organization, and you'll get a fair chance."
Kubalik knew David Kampf well, and it isn't a coincidence that the Blackhawks paired the two countrymen together to start the season.
"They were friends off the ice, and I think David helped Dominik get acclimated to the NHL," Bowman said. "Any time you can get a player to feel more comfortable, you can get him to acclimate quicker. So they played together the first five, six weeks of the year but in a different role. Not in offensive situations, not on the power play."
Kubalik was adjusting to the speed and skill of NHL players. "First few games, a couple situations, I thought I'd have more time, but somebody lifted my stick," Kubalik said. "And I was like, 'Oh, that's never happened before. I was always the guy doing that.'"
Back home in the Czech Republic, Straka was following Kubalik's season. "I was actually surprised he was on the checking line," Straka said. "I know what type of player he is -- he is a scorer -- and I thought they should give him that role right away. But I know how it is in the NHL. You have to earn it."
Kubalik started to score goals in late December and early January -- including 13 in one 15-game stretch -- and Bowman and the Blackhawks' coaching staff realized they needed to adjust his role. They put him in first-line situations, and since then, he has mostly played with Jonathan Toews on the Blackhawks' top line.
As Kubalik wraps up his first season, he's confident that he can stick in the NHL.
"There are so many guys that can play," Kubalik said. "You've got to be ready, you've got to be in your best shape, but you've got to be lucky, too. Without luck, you are not able to do it."