BUFFALO NY - DECEMBER 31: Forward Tomas Jurco #13 of Slovakia carries the puck during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship game between Slovakia and Finland on December 31 2010 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Slovakia has been a mainstay at the elite level of the IIHF World Junior Championship since 1996, just two years after entering their first team and starting at the bottom of the international ladder. However, the team has only twice competed for a medal: the won bronze in 1999 and finished fourth ten years later in 2009. Their most common result has been 8th place, which has been just good enough to keep coming back to the main event. This year, the Slovaks have a bit more protection, as even a slip to 9th place would see them qualify for Russia next winter. That couldn't happen soon enough: in the last year of two team relegation, their U18 team finished 9th for the first time at that event and will compete this next year in Division 1A.
I asked Derek O'Brien of the Czech Hockey Report to do his best to answer some questions on the Slovak roster. His specialty is obviously Czech hockey, and I've asked him questions on the Czechs as well, but he was gracious enough to provide some insight. He'll be writing the previews for both teams up on Hockey's Future.
A lot of effort has been expended by the national association to try and stop the slide. A couple of years ago, Slovakia started up their own national U20 team called HK Orange, which was to assemble the top junior players in the country on one team to play against the professional teams in the Slovak Extraliga. The experiment has not gone to plan. According to O'Brien, "It was hoped to have the same success as the US system, but the problem is it isn't keeping players in Slovakia - the top junior-aged players are still going to North America. So you end up with a team [that] makes up only one third of the actual World Junior squad."
The best players that stay in Slovakia are still being used by the teams in the Extraliga that hold their club rights, which is probably for the best as well, since HK Orange doesn't provide a very rewarding experience from a competitive standpoint. "The team just was not competitive at all in the Slovak Extraliga, and many worried that having top prospects playing in an environment where they are constantly getting blown out is not a healthy one," notes O'Brien. "This season, the team has been dropped to the 1st League, which is the second-tier pro league." Since the move, the team has been able to get a few wins, so at least they are playing at a reasonable competitive level again.
Fortunately, better junior hockey has arrived in Slovakia via the arrival of the Kontinental Hockey League in Poprad. The team fields a combined Czech/Slovak roster and has a team in the U22 farm league, the MHL. Only one player from that expansion program is on the Slovak roster this year (winger Richard Mraz), but the promise of the KHL could help keep better junior players nearby, and available to play with other Slovak juniors in international competitions outside of the IIHF tournament. O'Brien reminds us that the MHL "is not an initiative on the part of the Slovak Ice Hockey Association, although they certainly stand to benefit from it if [it's] successful."
It should be noted here that while Slovakia has been skating with the big boys of the international hockey world for a while, this is still a lower-tiered European Union country and a small one overall. While Finland can remain comeptitive due to its nation's great wealth, Slovakia doesn't have that kind of tradition, so emulating other smaller countries like Latvia isn't a bad option moving forward, especially as their own Extraliga continues to lose talent.
After the jump, we'll look closer at the Slovakian roster:
|Matej Bene||LW||6'1"||176||Apr 11/92||Orange 20 Puchov||SVK-1||Undrafted||none|
|Milos Bubela||C||6'2"||183||Aug 25/92||Orange 20 Puchov||SVK-1||Undrafted||none|
|Matus Chovan||RW||6'3"||198||Feb 14/92||HC Kosice||SVK||Undrafted||none|
|Lukas Cingel||RW||6'1"||194||Jun 10/92||Baie-Comeau Drakkar||QMJHL||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Martin Daloga||C||6'4"||179||Jul 27/92||Orange 20 Puchov||SVK-1||Undrafted||none|
|Marko Dano||C||5'11"||179||Nov 30/94||HK Dukla Trencin||SVK||Elig. 2013||U18 (1)|
|Vladimir Dolink||LW||6'2"||201||Jan 10/93||Everett Silvertips||WHL||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Matej Hindos||LW||6'2"||183||Sept 12/93||Orange 20 Puchov||SVK-1||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Tomas Jurco||RW||6'1"||192||Dec 28/92||Saint John Sea Dogs||QMJHL||Red Wings, (2/35, '11)||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Tomas Matousek||LW||6'3"||198||Jun 15/92||Orange 20 Puchov||SVK-1||Undrafted||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Richard Mraz||RW||6'2"||187||Feb 19/93||Tatranski Vici||MHL||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Michal Toman||C||6'2"||196||May 24/92||Traverse City North Stars||NAHL||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Marek Tvrdon||LW||6'1"||203||Jan 31/93||Vancouver Giants||WHL||Red Wings (4/115, '11)||U18 (1)|
|Filip Vasko||RW||5'11"||170||Dec 10/93||Kelowna Rockets||WHL||Elig. 2012||U18 (1)|
There isn't a lot of depth in this group, but there's also some pretty strong high-end talent here. Both Jurco and Tvrdon are top point producers in major junior, with Tvrdon being a bit under the radar having lost most of his draft year to major knee operation. Tomas Matousek might be the best of the HK Orange crew and sneak into the team's top 6 forwards, but for the most part that group will be on the bottom two lines. Expect the young Marko Dano to centre one of the top two lines. Dano is a rarity amongst Slovakian prospects: an exciting player succeeding at a young age in Slovakia's Extraliga. For an early preview of what to expect from this budding star, here's what O'Brien had to say about him:
"His hockey sense is what impresses everybody. He seems to think at a level that is uncommon for players that age. He's skilled, but nothing that really stands out above other players in that regard. But he has the ability to find open ice and make smart plays. That's what's given him the ability to compete in a pro league at such a young age (17). The reason scouts are excited about him is they figure he will still mature physically and if he can improve the skills he has, he could turn out to be a great player."
- Derek O'Brien on Marko Dano
Again, Dano is not eligible for the NHL draft until 2013 due to his late 1994 birthdate, but he already has eight points in 25 professional games in Slovakia. Only one of his WJC teammates is a regular in a professional league, that being Matus Chovan.
|Michal Cajkovsky||6'4"||198||May 6/92||Ottawa||OHL||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Peter Ceresnak||6'3"||203||Jan 23/93||Peterborough||OHL||Rangers (6/172, '11)||U20 (1), U18 (2)|
|Martin Gernat||6'4"||198||Apr 11/93||Edmonton||WHL||Oilers (5/122, '11)||U18 (1)|
|Adam Janosik||5'10"||176||Sep 7/92||Gatineau||QMJHL||Lightning (3/72, '10)||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Mario Kurali||6'0"||194||Jan 17/92||Orange 20 Puchov||SVK-1||Undrafted||none|
|Martin Marincin||6'4"||194||Feb 18/92||Prince George||WHL||Oilers (2/46, '10)||U20 (2), U18 (2)|
|Petr Traska||6'0"||203||Jun 1/92||Orange 20 Puchov||SVK-1||Undrafted||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
The defence is Slovakia's strength, with five strong players and a lot of returnees. Martin Marincin should be the go-to-guy, and hopefully he represents himself a lot better this year than last, where he got a major suspension that pretty much killed Slovakia's chances of advancing to the quarterfinals. Adam Janosik and Petr Ceresnak have had strong international careers so far, and Martin Gernat seems to be developing quite nicely in the WHL. Petr Traska is probably the best player on the HK Orange squad, and will provide great secondary support.
I asked O'Brien about this changing Slovak mentality, as the nation used to be known for its skillful forwards, and wondered if the current face of Slovak hockey in the NHL might be having an influence on this shift:
It's interesting, because traditionally Slovak teams have had a lot of speed and firepower up front, but have been weak on the back end. Their defence is large, too, though not quite Chara size. I don't think that's a case of trying to develop defencemen in the mould of Chara, but perhaps young Slovak boys who are of good size see him and figure that's their ticket.
|Dominik Riecicky||6'1"||187||Jun 9/92||Orange 20 Puchov||SVK-1||Undrafted||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Richard Sabol||5'11"||176||Jan 31/94||HC Banska Bystrica U20||SVK U20||Elig. 2012||U18 (1)|
|Juraj Simboch||6'0"||196||Jan 30/92||HK Nitra||SVK||Undrafted||none|
Slovakia's reputation for producing goaltenders hasn't been great in its young history, but its been better in the second decade of the country's existence than the first. Dominik Riecicky had good numbers at last year's tridournament but looked real shaky at times, and while he'd normally be projected as the starter as the returning goaltender I don't think that'll be the case. Juraj Simboch has emerged this year as the best goalie of the bunch, putting up better numbers than Riecicky when both were on the HK Orange team and now Simboch is getting some starts with Nitra of the Extraliga. This should be his team from the get go, though obviously the staff will be willing to go with Riecicky if Simboch should falter. Sabol is just here in case of emergency.
All in all, Slovakia's hopes ride on getting top production from a thin offence and making things tough for their opponents to score with their strong group of two-way defenders. Simboch might be good enough of a goalie to make a difference as well, but the team's overall goal has to be to finish ahead of Switzerland and advance to the quarterfinals, which is likely as far as they can get.
|Dec 23||Three Hills||USA
Prediction: 4th in Group A.