A big part of any aspiring NHL player’s dream is hearing their name called at the NHL draft. Hearing your name called by a manager of one of the league’s 31 teams is a sign that all the 12-hour bus rides and 5 AM game times have finally paid off. The chance to play for the Stanley Cup is finally within reach. The only problem is, of thousands of hopefuls, just over 200 names are called each year.
So what happens if you don’t get picked? Is the dream of playing in the NHL over?
For Patrick Bajkov, it was only the beginning.
Bajkov is a native of Nanaimo, British Columbia, about a two hour ferry ride East of Vancouver. Nanaimo has produced exactly one NHL player to this point: Gene Carr, a forward who played 465 career games between five different teams in the 70’s. Bajkov is starting to look like he has the tools and support to become the second resident to make it.
“A big part of it was my parents,” said Bajkov of his influences in hockey. “Both my mom and dad supported me my whole career, and i had some great coaches over on the island. Zed Malenica who was a coach for me growing up the whole time, he was a big influence on my career as well.”
Zed Malenica runs the hockey academy in Nanaimo and had the chance to see Bajkov play for the majority of his youth.
“I’ve been probably with Patrick since he’s been, what would he be, 6 years old,” said Malenica. “I’ve been coaching him since the beginning pretty much of hockey. He has a God-given talent of finding open ice and seeing the play.”
The Everett Silvertips selected Bajkov in the 6th round of the 2013 WHL draft. He was just 15 years old.
“It was a great feeling,” said Bajkov. “I was obviously a little bit younger. It was pretty surreal at the time. Coming down to Everett, being drafted by such a great organization, it was something I’ll never forget.”
It was a decision that the Silvertips organization will never forget as well. Bajkov spent all five of his WHL seasons in Everett. His point total improved every season with the club and he will leave as the franchise leader in goals, assists, and points, as well as second in games played.
“It’s something I’ll carry a lot of pride in for a long time. Looking at the great players that have come through this organization, it’s something pretty special and I can’t thank my coaches here and teammates and obviously my family and everyone involved with the Everett Silvertips organization enough.”
His hockey IQ is something that’s been on full display in Everett for five years. Watching his highlights though, his hands seem to play just as big of a part in his game:
His first three seasons in Everett were enough to get him ranked 113th in the 2016 NHL Central Scouting report, which would put him somewhere in the fourth round of the NHL draft. But when draft weekend came, Bajkov would not hear his name called.
“We were all surprised,” said Malenica. “He’s put up good numbers every year. I think he deserved to get drafted. To be honest I was shocked because I know he’s a dynamic player.”
Going undrafted isn’t something a player wishes for, but it’s not necessarily a career death sentence either. Hall of Famers Adam Oates and Peter Stastny didn’t get drafted, as well as stars like Martin St. Louis and Cujo himself, Curtis Joseph. And while there’s no commitment of any sort from a team, going undrafted can give a player just the right mindset to push his play to the next level. Bajkov was definitely able to utilize that mindset.
“It just gave me something that I can go out and prove people wrong with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder.”
That chip on his shoulder translated to a career year, putting up 78 points in 2016-17, the 6th highest single season point total in franchise history. Unfortunately his season ended with a second round playoff exit to the eventual WHL champion Seattle Thunderbirds, and the departure of the only coach he’d had in Everett in Kevin Constantine. Bajkov was challenged with an overage year with a new coach and no pro contract.
“It was a pretty big change, having Kevin Constantine my first four years, he taught me so much. I was a young guy, there was a lot for me to learn, he did a great job, I can’t thank him enough for everything he’s done.”
He took on that challenge, with the chip nestled on his shoulder, and made Silvertips history. He became the first player in the franchise to score 100 points in a single season under new head Coach Dennis Williams. Turns out having a new coach with a new style can have some benefits.
“They’re a bit different [Contantine and Williams], so it’s nice to see kind of both sides, from two different perspectives of coaching. I think it just made me learn that much more and it made me that much better of a player.”
In March, all the hard work finally paid off, when the Florida Panthers signed Bajkov to a 3-year entry level contract.
“They met me down in Vancouver after a game and talked to me a bit and then we just were in contact over the week and we were lucky enough to figure something out and get a deal signed,” he said. “There was a couple other teams, but with Florida I think it just felt right. They talked to me quite a bit and I was just lucky enough to be with such a great organization like them now.”
Bajkov’s story is something current Silvertips head coach Dennis Williams is likely to tell his players in years to come, especially the ones that get passed over on draft day.
“Most those guys coming in those last years are pretty nervous, probably wondering what’s going to happen next year, whether I’m heading back to school or what,” Williams said. “They [Bajkov and fellow overage teammate Matt Fonteyne] just came in and they worried about playing hockey. And I always tell our guys, focus on what you can control. He brought that throughout the season and the playoffs and for that he was rewarded. The biggest mindset is not getting too caught up in what stuff you can’t control. Get focused on your energy, your compete day in and day out, your execution, your leadership.”
What’s next for Bajkov? Right now he’s in the middle of one of the deepest runs in Silvertips history, but next year, who knows. The Panthers finished the season just one point shy of a playoff berth this year, playing in one of the more competitive divisions in the league. They also rostered two undrafted players in Michael Haley and Frank Vatrano, who played a combined 91 games for the club. Could he find a spot on that roster in a few years? Malenica is confident he will.
“Because of his hockey IQ I think he could play anything Florida wants him to do. He has great offensive instincts, he’s got great instincts for the game, he can read plays well. I think he could play whatever Florida wants him to play and I do believe he can score at the next level.”
Time will tell if he’s right. Bajkov’s journey to the NHL isn’t going to be an easy one, but his motivation is unwavering, and his work ethic shows in the stat sheet. And when he’s putting up goals like this one, I can’t help but think that the fans in Everett have been treated to five years of a future NHL standout: