Richard Panik will once again lead Slovakia at this year's IIHF U20 World Junior Championships in Buffalo and Niagara, New York. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)
While Slovakia's men's team finally had their Olympic breakthrough earlier this year, the small country in the 'heart of Europe' hasn't been faring too hot at the junior level the past few years. What was once a hotbed for offensive talent has dried up, with no Marian Gaborik type talent since, well, Marion Gaborik was drafted 3rd overall in 2000. Last year's team placed a disappointing eight at the World Juniors in Saskatoon, and top player Thomas Tatar ripped the national development program in interviews afterwards. A surprising fourth place finish in 2009 wasn't a lot different than Switzerland's run last year, mainly based on a couple of star forwards (Tatar and Richard Panik) while having the top goaltender in the tournament in Jaroslav Janus. After last year, I had them ranked 7th by the IIHF's rankings system at both the U20 level and the U20+U18 combined ranking (see left sidebar on main page). My pre-tournament U20 ranking, which drops the 2007 results and adjusts the 2008-10 results to what their value will be for the 2011 ranking, puts them ahead of the Czech Republic for 6th.
At the entry draft, since 2005, the Slovaks have had 21 total players drafted, five of whom were in the first two rounds of the draft. Last year, there were two NHL draft picks: Martin Marincin (2nd round) and Adam Janosik (3rd round). Most of Slovakia's top players play in the Canadian Hockey League at some point in their careers. This trend seems to be continuing, despite the fact that Slovakia now has a permanent U20 team that plays in the Slovnaft Extraliga against professional men's teams. That team, HK Orange, doesn't win very often, but it is based on the successful US National Team Development Program, housing the juniors in a small town in rural Slovakia with the goal of producing top end players for their national team. Marincin was the first success story of the program, but even he chose to go to the Prince George Cougars of Canada's WHL upon being drafted 1st overall in the CHL Import Draft. He has been one of the top defensemen (let alone rookies) in the league upon his arrival, with nine goals and thirty-two points in 31 games so far.
The nature of that HK Orange U20 team is a bit complex, however. Players get assigned to the team by their parent club teams, and can be taken away from it mid-season. For example, Peter Ceresnak, a draft eligible defenseman who made the national team, has played sixteen games for HK Orange, seven for HK Dukla Trencin, and two more games for HK Dukla Trencin's U20 team. This differs greatly from the USNTDP model, as those players commit to the program for a full season, and do not join a different NAHL or USHL team during the season.
The issue of players leaving for the CHL is a contentious one in Slovakia, but unlike the Czech Republic and Sweden, they have not made it a policy to withhold players from their national team program as a result of doing so. While that issue remains a hot button one in Slovakia, the country has a lot of fear about potentially slipping out of the championship division for even a season, and really can't afford to politicize the U20 team if they hope to maintain the status quo. They've just avoided relegation twice in the past four years, finishing 8th in 2007 and 2010, and finished 7th in 2008, with that 4th place showing in 2009 masking their struggles a bit.
But enough back story, let's have a look at the current team:
|19||Dalibor Bortnak||C||L||6'4"||201||1991||Presov||Kamloops (WHL)|
|26||Peter Ceresnak||D||R||6'3"||203||1993||???||HK Orange (Svk)|
|1||Juraj Holly||G||L||6'4"||187||1991||Svaty Jur||Calgary (WHL)|
|16||Peter Hrasko||D||L||5'9"||174||1991||Detva||HKM Zvolen (Svk)|
|27||Marek Hrivik||LW||L||6'1"||187||1991||Cadca||Moncton (QMJHL)|
|24||Henrik Jabornik||D||R||6'2"||194||1991||Skalica||HK 36 Skalica (Svk)|
|3||Adam Janosik||D||L||5'10"||176||1992||Spisska Nova Kes||Gatineau (QMJHL)|
|11||Oliver Jokel||C||L||5'11"||187||1991||Kosice||HK Orange (Svk)|
|13||Tomas Jurco||RW||L||6'1"||192||1992||Kosice||Saint John (QMJHL)|
|5||Lukas Kozak (C)||D||L||6'1"||181||1991||Martin||HK Orange (Svk)|
|23||Andrej Kudrna||LW||L||6'3"||198||1991||Nove Zamky||Red Deer (WHL)|
|9||Juraj Majdan||RW||L||5'9"||185||1991||???||HC Litvinov (Cze)|
|21||Martin Marincin||D||L||6'4"||190||1992||Kosice||Prince George (WHL)|
|22||Tomas Matousek||LW||L||6'3"||198||1992||???||HK Orange (Svk)|
|28||Richard Panik||RW||L||6'2"||203||1991||Martin||Guelph (OHL)|
|2||Tomas Pek||G||L||6'3"||159||1991||???||HK Orange (Svk)|
|29||Miroslav Preisinger||C||L||6'0"||187||1991||Bratislava||HK Orange (Svk)|
|30||Dominik Riecicky||G||L||6'1"||187||1992||???||HK Orange (Svk)|
|18||Dominik Simcak||C||L||6'0"||187||1992||Kosice||HK Orange (Svk)|
|8||Peter Sisovsky||RW||L||5'12"||176||1991||???||HK Orange (Svk)|
|17||Andrej Stastny||C||L||6'3"||214||1991||Povazska Bystrica||HK Orange (Svk)|
|7||Peter Trska||D||L||6'0"||203||1992||Dubnica nad Vahom||HC Slovan Bratislava (Svk)|
|20||Michael Vandas||C||L||5'11"||196||1991||Poprad||HK Orange (Svk)|
There are only three NHL draft picks on this roster (Panik, Marincin, Janosik), with two potential 2011 draft picks in Ceresnak and Tomas Jurco. It's not a high quality roster, but there has been some encouraging players on HK Orange that could help provide support to those top players at this level. Michael Vandas and Andrej Stastny are the leading scorers for the team, while team captain Lukas Kozak should help fill out a decent top four on defense with Marincin, Janosik, and maybe Ceresnak, though more likely Peter Hrasko. Stastny was heavily courted by the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL during the summer, but a battle over transfer money priced him out of coming to Canada.
Goaltending is completely up for grabs, as the two 1991 born goaltenders are struggling mightily this year. Juraj Holly came over to North America to replace former Team Canada goalie Martin Jones for the WHL champion Calgary Hitmen, but has posted a .869 SVPCT in eleven games so far. Martin Pek was given the starting job with HK Orange, but his numbers (5.38 GAA, .867 SVPCT, 15 GP) are way worse than his younger backup, Dominik Riecicky (3.97 GAA, .907 SVPCT, 8 GP). The team will likely use their exhibition games to make the team's final roster decision, as they can't carry three goalies into the tournament.
It's a bizarre situation when the team's defensemen are considered the strength of a Slovakian national team at any level, as the country is best known for producing elite wingers. That being said, the team's best player is indeed third time U20 forward Richard Panik, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect with the desired combination of size, speed, and skill. He's producing at a point per game pace in the OHL as a 19 year old, and had six goals and two assists last year in eight games. Against teams like Switzerland and Germany, he could easily be the difference maker. Panik could work well with Dolibor Bortnak as his centre, as Bortnak is a playmaker in the mould of last year's top centre, Marek Viedensky. Whichever line Panik is on will be the go to line, but the team is strong on RW and could get scoring from many places, such as draft eligible forward Jurco and Czech Extraliga winger Juraj Majdan. On LW, the team can throw out Marek Hrivik and Andrej Kudrna, both of whom are at over a point per game pace at the major junior level. It'll be interesting to see what kind of combinations are put together.
While having only three NHL prospects might seem to make this entry a weak one, the top 7 or 8 forwards are pretty decent (plus the defence is good), and the high end players like Marincin and Panik should be of great help in order to try and finish third in their group, which includes the United States, Finland, Switzerland and Germany. The biggest question remains in goal, and based on the numbers he's put up to date, it would be wise if the Slovaks took a chance on Riecicky for one of the two spots. Having two goaltenders with under .870 SVPCT for the year, no matter what they have done for the team in the past, is probably a disaster in the making.
Staff: Roman Strambersky (General Manager), Stefan Mikes (Head Coach), Miroslav Marcinko and Frantisek Kucera (Assistant Coaches).
Prediction: 3rd in Group A, 6th overall