Dominik Kubalik was trying his absolute hardest to be humble.
But he knew there was no other way to say it.
“I don’t want to say that I’m fast or something, but I’m just...trying to be fast,” he said after Saturday’s practice, laughing at the absurdity of the sentence. “I’m pretty sure that’s one of my strengths.”
That speed has always been present for Kubalik. Combined with his wicked one-time shot —which Robin Lehner has called the toughest on the team to stop — that speed made him a standout in Europe and a sure-fire NHL target.
Those raw skills also made his transition to the NHL earlier this season smoother than it should’ve been. From the start, Kubalik was producing at a decent rate: he sported a decent-yet-unremarkable six goals and four assists through the team’s first 27 games.
But then things started to click spatially and positionally as well for the 24-year-old Czech wing.
“[It’s] 100 percent different than it was,” he said. “The game is different than Europe so you need to learn really quick, because the games are going so fast. After every game, you’re feeling more and more confident: you know where you’re supposed to be on the ice, where you should, or where not to go, because the rink is so small you don’t have to think too much. If you’re in the right spot, always good things happen.”
Come January, Kubalik’s speed and shot were suddenly complemented by his increasing ability to find his way to the slot and crease, track down rebounds and finish those chances.
He erupted on his soon-to-be-famous scoring run — 10 goals in eight games — between Jan. 5 and 19, and has continued producing since. His 25 goals are six more than any other rookie. His 21 goals at 5-on-5 rank, incredibly, fourth in the NHL overall.
But Kubalik has also developed a well-rounded nature to his game, which has impressed coach Jeremy Colliton — who was strangely hard on Kubalik early on — even more.
“He’s evolved as the year’s gone on,” Colliton said Saturday. “For a long time now, he’s been pretty good, pretty consistently.”
“He’s got the shot, but he’s willing to go to the net, he’s willing to get his nose dirty and find rebounds, and we could use a little more of that. That’s part of why he’s been able to produce as much as he has.”
One area outside of the goal-scoring realm in which Kubalik has excelled is puck retrieval.
Kubalik ranks second on the Hawks in recoveries per minute on offensive zone dump-ins, per analyst Corey Sznajder. Fittingly, frequent linemates Jonathan Toews and Drake Caggiula rank first and third, respectively.
“That line creates different kinds of chances for us, more offensive zone-type attacks and longer attacks,” Colliton said.
Explaining his proficiency with retrieval is what prompted the humble-at-all-costs comment about his speed. Kubalik, despite his success, still talks about himself like he’s a roster bubble player.
Eventually, though, he elaborated.
“For me, it’s all about skating,” he said. “If I skate a lot, then I’m trying to be one step ahead with my skating, to be above the guy or be ready to backcheck or to jump in through the guy in the ‘O’-zone.”
Talking himself up a little bit wouldn’t hurt, considering he’s in the rare position of being a rookie and an impending (restricted) free agent at the same time. Kubalik should fetch a hefty raise on his next contract, although he insisted Saturday it’s not on his mind.
But even though there’s more to Kubalik than goal-scoring, arrogance is not one of those things.