How one night with Mike Cherry ended up choosing this 19-year-old NHL prospect

Petr Mrázek entered the Toronto Maple Leafs roster in the second round of the 2016 NHL entry draft after a whirlwind few months in which he played for Team Europe in the World Junior Championships and moved to the Toronto area to play for the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs. With the move came a bit of anxiety.

“You are thinking is it going to be harder for me to get ice time than maybe for him? Does it put me in a little bit of trouble with my lifestyle, taking a train instead of driving to practice?” Mrázek said. “There were a few of those things. But as it turned out, for the most part, everything went really smooth.”

So smooth, in fact, that Toronto thought Mrázek, a 6-foot-1 defenseman who comes from Slovakia, had all the right stuff to turn pro right out of high school.

“It just seemed like he was ready from the jump,” Leafs assistant general managers Scott Salmond and Marc Crawford said Friday. “He picked up things very fast and he was strong on his skates.”

Still, when the decision came down to picking, Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello felt Mrázek might have been a better fit elsewhere.

The organization’s analytics department, however, wanted Mrázek to join the team, and the organization’s main decision-maker, Don Cherry, couldn’t decide between Mrázek and Sergei Plotnikov, a defenseman the Leafs chose with the 48th pick in 2015.

When the other side of Cherry decides, the team follows, and then Cherry said to Lamoriello, “Petr Mrázek, right?”

Lamoriello said no and Cherry went on to say that Plotnikov “has some time, I’m good.”

“Looooove them both,” Cherry said on the show he created on Sportsnet. “Both want to play in the NHL.”

Then Cherry said, “It’s a great pick, because he’s not going to get the contract that Sergei [Plotnikov] is going to get. A while back, we said if this kid is going to make our team, be patient. He’s going to get a long-term deal.”

Said Crawford: “We would have regretted losing Petr at that time. But then you consider whether Sergei is better for us? We went to Steve Simmons’s scouting report on Petr, and he’s a junior hockey player and it says he’s got great potential. When you see that as you’re seeing him today, with the experience he’s had, he’s got a lot of good things to work with.”

In 40 games for Niagara, Mrázek had 10 goals and 10 assists for 19 points.

Mrázek plays for Detroit in the Ontario junior championship in Oshawa, Ontario, through Sunday, an exhibition before the major-junior season starts in September. He is also playing for Austria’s under-18 team.

His first season in North America was interrupted early by summer school and, when he was not on a recruiting trip, by university classes.

“I had a couple tough weeks where I didn’t want to work out, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take it so much and school and all that,” Mrázek said. “When I finally got a little bit back to full speed, it got going and it was a lot of fun. I was learning.”

For starters, he learned about the demands of the NHL.

“The language and the playing time, it’s going to be a learning curve,” Mrázek said. “It’s not going to be like it is in Europe. But I’m excited about the challenge.”

Still, the prospect of making the big leagues turned out, on the whole, a bit too seamless for his comfort level.

“It was a long year,” Mrázek said. “It was probably harder than I thought it would be.”

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