Sometimes they sneak up on you and sometimes they’ve been there all along, just needing a little bit of time before they take the league by storm and fulfill the potential their team (or former teams) always thought they had.
Martin Straka is the case of a guy who just needed to leave town before he could figure it all out.
The 19th overall pick in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, the Plzen, Czechoslovakia native collected a bronze medal at the 1991 World Junior Championships, earning himself praise and his high draft spot.
Making his debut with the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the talented Straka would struggle and see time with Cleveland of the IHL.
Flashing his vast potential, he racked up 30 goals and 64 points in his first full season in 1993-94 but would struggle to just one goal in the playoffs as the defending champions were shockingly eliminated in the first round by the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals.
Getting out to a slow start during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, Straka was suddenly dealt to the upstart Ottawa Senators for Norm Maciver and Troy Murray. He would see just 49 games in a Senators uniform before being dealt to Long Island and just 22 games there before ending up Florida. That’s right – he was traded twice in a 34 game span.
It could be argued that Straka struggled to acclimate himself with all of the changes of scenery and he never really broke out as many thought he would, leading to a return to the Penguins in 1997-98.
After a decent 42 point showing that year, Straka would surprise the hockey world and, probably even moreso, the Penguins by exploding for 35 goals and 83 points in 80 games during the 1998-99 season and making his first All-Star game.
Taking a brief step back during 1999-00, Straka would set career-highs the following season. Using his great speed and finally getting top-line minutes alongside the likes of Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Kovalev, Straka set personal bests for assists (68) and points (95), finishing tied for fourth in the league in scoring with Kovalev and Boston’s Jason Allison.
At 29 years old, Straka was finally emerging into one of the NHL’s best.
Starting the 2001-02 season, the Penguins had so much promise. The returning Mario Lemieux had picked up where he left off as one of the game’s best scorers and, despite the trade of Jagr, Straka and Kovalev helped make the Penguins one of the best scoring teams in the game.
That was until Straka, just 13 games into the season, broke his leg and ended his season. Kovalev would follow in the footsteps of Jagr and end up being dealt out of town as the cash-strapped Penguins would continue selling off expensive parts.
Straka would struggle to turn it around from there. Returning from his leg injury, he was hit in the face by the stick of goaltender Johan Hedberg (his own teammate), suffering facial injuries and missing several weeks. Once he returned, he injured his leg again and followed that up with an off-season weight-lifting accident.
His suddenly tumultuous tenure in Pittsburgh would end when he was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings early in 2003-04 as part of the cost-cutting measures taken by the Penguins who were now in financial peril.
Heading home for the lockout during 2004-05, Straka would return to the NHL as a free agent signee with the New York Rangers. His first season in the Big Apple turned out to be a success as Straka looked to have found his scoring touch again playing with his old friend Jagr, racking up 76 points in his first full season since 2000-01.
Following that up with another 70-point effort, the 35-year-old Straka may have been hitting the back end of his career but his production was as good as it had ever been. He battled injuries once again during 2007-08, sliding back to 41 points before calling it a career in North America, returning home to become Sports Director for his former Czech club, HC Lasselsberger Plzen.
Returning home to the Czech Republic, he’s been there ever since, playing first for HC Lasselsberger Plzen and then HC Plzen 1929.
In the clutch-and-grab, beat-‘em-up 1990s style of hockey, Straka made a name for himself despite his 5-foot-9, 180 pound frame. He managed to last longer than behemoths like Eric Lindros and carved out a name for himself as one of the most prolific Penguins scorers of all-time.
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