It's been a tough run for the once powerful Czechs. 10 years ago, the team were the reigning back-to-back gold medalists in this tournament. Now, they're back-to-back seventh placers. The team has been passed the past couple years by Switzerland, although the unfortunate aspect of the tournament setup for the Czechs has been that they have not been able to play against the Swiss once, as they consistently get placed in a separate pool from them. So while the Czechs may be a step behind the likes of Sweden and the Americans, they have been able to assert a level of dominance in the relegation round that suggests the nation is really not facing their true equals too often in this tournament. They're perennially stuck in the middle.
They have had some tough draws the past couple of years, but they got into that problem in the first place by having some poor tournaments. This year they're in tough again, in a group with Canada, USA, and Finland. Obviously, they're looking at the game against Finland on December 31 as the big one; unfortunately, it'll be their fourth game in five days. Again, that's the result of poor previous tournaments. Due to scheduling a 5-team group (over six days), two teams have to play four in five, and it's always the fourth and fifth seeds in the group.
This year's team actually offered a bit more promise than previous Czech rosters, but a big chunk of that promise couldn't make the tournament. Potential 2012 first round draft pick Martin Frk withdrew from the tournament as he continues to recover from a concussion suffered in the pre-season. He did return for some club games, although without much results, and he will be taking time off over Christmas to return to the Czech Republic. While Frk is a big loss, O'Brien says it has to be kept in perspective to where the team was at a year ago: "Last year they lost forward Dmitrij Jaskin, who ended up being a 2nd round pick, arguably their top two defensemen in Adam Polasek and David Musil, and top goaltender Petr Mrazek (due to a legal battle that has since been settled)." Jaskin, Musil, and Mrazek are all on this year's team (Polasek is too old), and aside from Frk, no other notable player is injured or otherwise unavailable.
There is no room for error for the Czechs at all with this setup. And unfortunately for them, Finland looks as good as they've ever been on paper. After the jump, we'll look at how the Czech roster looks on paper:
|Jakub Culek||LW||6'4"||187||Sep 7/92||Rimouski||QMJHL||Senators (3/76, '10)||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Radek Faksa||F||6'3"||203||Jan 9/94||Kitchener||OHL||Elig. 2012||U18 (1)|
|Tomas Filippi||C||6'1"||187||May 4/92||Baie-Comeau||QMJHL||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Thomas Hertl||C||6'0"||187||Nov 12/93||Slavia Prague||CEL||Elig. 2012||U18 (1)|
|Petr Holik||C||5'7"||154||Mar 3/92||HC Zlin||CEL||Undrafted||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Tomas Hyka||RW||5'11"||165||Mar 23/93||Gatineau||QMJHL||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Dmitrij Jaskin||RW||6'3"||198||Mar 23/93||Slavia Prague||CEL||Blues (2/41, '11)||U18 (1)|
|Tomas Nosek||LW||6'2"||185||Sep 1/92||HC Pardubice||CEL||Undrafted||none|
|Daniel Pribyl||C||6'3"||194||Dec 18/92||Sparta Prague||CEL||Canadiens (6/168, '11)||none|
|Lukas Sedlak||C||6'0"||207||Feb 25/93||Chicoutimi||QMJHL||Blue Jackets (6/158, '11)||U18 (1)|
|Jiri Sekac||C/RW||6'2"||172||Jun 10/92||Lev Poprad||KHL||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Petr Straka||RW||6'0"||194||Jun 15/92||Rimouski||QMJHL||Blue Jackets (2/55, '10)||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Michal Svihalek||LW||5'11"||181||Apr 29/93||HC Ceske Budejovice||Cze-U20||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Dominik Uher||C||6'0"||194||Dec 31/92||Spokane||WHL||Penguins (5/144, '11)||U18 (1)|
It's a group of forwards that is pretty good, but definitely lacking in the high end skill department. And while Martin Frk's withdrawl is a bummer to scouts, the Czechs possess two very good forwards that should be drafted this spring: Thomas Hertl and Radek Faksa. Hertl has stepped into the Czech Extraliga and been quite effective, putting up 9 goals and 15 points in 23 games as a recently turned 18 year old in a men's league. O'Brien has nothing but praise for Hertl's season to date:
"(Hertl)'s on the same team as (Dmitrij) Jaskin, and he's been much better than him, who's been very disappointing so far. He's very good with the puck, sees the ice well, makes smart plays, and doesn't shy away from the physical play, which I suppose is why he's had success playing with men. Good on the powerplay, and I'm sure we'll see him there on this Czech team. He's not the fastest guy, but he's not slow either."
Despite this quote, he sees this tournament as a great opporutnity for Jaskin to step forward as the offensive leader for the team. "He's had a terrible year so far, but maybe the spotlight will wake him up. He's a different type of Czech player in that he's more of a power forward and if he can play to his physical potential it would be invaluable for this team. It seems the more physical the game is, the better he plays, so I think the conditions are right for (Jaskin) to play well."
Other key contributors for the Czechs will be returning forwards Jakub Culek, Petr Straka, and Petr Holik, while the team's leadership group of Thomas Nosek (captain), Daniel Pribyl and Dominik Uher (assistants) will also be counted on for their two-way ability. It's a group without an obvious star, but plenty of potential breakout candidates. All in all, it's a much stronger group than a year ago, Frk or no Frk.
|Marek Hrabas||5'11"||187||Mar 4/93||Kelowna||WHL||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Bohumil Jank||6'2"||192||Jul 6/92||Tatranski Vici||MHL||Undrafted||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Daniel Krejci||6'2"||205||Apr 27/92||HC Most||Cze2||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Vojtech Mozik||6'3"||192||Dec 26/92||BK Mlada Boleslav||CEL||Undrafted||none|
|David Musil||6'4"||203||Apr 9/93||Vancouver||WHL||Oilers (2/31, '11)||U18 (2)|
|Jiri Rihi||5'11"||185||Sep 18/92||HC Benatky nad Jizerou||Cze2||Undrafted||none|
|Petr Zamorsky||6'0"||185||Aug 3/92||HC Zlin||CEL||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
This is by no means an elite group, but it isn't completely terrible, either. Musil is the standout here, and it's an unique showcase for him. O'Brien notes that he's an Oilers prospect playing in Edmonton, and he's also a rarity here: he was actually born in Edmonton, the son of longtime NHLer Frantisek Musil (it should be noted that only two members of Team Canada are from the Edmonton area). He'll log a lot of minutes for the Czechs, so there will be plenty of opportunity for the Oilers fans to get a good look at him, and O'Brien sees him as the team's powerplay quarterback as well. The Edmonton connection isn't limited to Musil: Marek Hrabas played for the Edmonton Oil Kings last year before being traded, so fans of Edmonton's junior hockey club will get a chance to see a former player on the biggest stage junior hockey has to offer.
Beyond those two, look for Bohumil Jank to play a big role, as he's already played in eight games in the KHL this year, while Petr Zamorsky and Vojtech Mozik are also playing regularly in the Czech Extraliga.
|Libor Kasik||6'0"||172||Mar 31/92||HC Olomouc||Cze2||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Tomas Kral||5'10"||163||Dec 29/92||Kärpät Oulu U20||Jr. A SML||Undrafted||none|
|Petr Mrazek||6'2"||185||Feb 14/92||Ottawa||OHL||Red Wings (5/141, '10)||U18 (1)|
As stated earlier, Mrazek should have been the Czech's starting goaltender last year, and this year he's an even more obvious choice. He's an OHL veteran of 123 games, and he's consistently been near the top of the goaltending class in that time span in that league. He's already signed a professional contract with Detroit, so this tournament is really just about playing for his country at this point. Libor Kasik should be the backup, and he's having an insane season so far in the Czech Republic's second professional league, with a .954 SV% in 18 games so far. Their emergency backup is an odd case: Tomas Kral is currently playing junior hockey in Finland, but last year was playing junior hockey in Lillehammer, Norway. I don't know the circumstances that have seen him choose such a strange hockey oddessey, going from the Czech Republic at 16 to Norway at 17/18 before catching on in Finland, but I figured the path was worth noting.
This Czech team is a better one than they've had before, but unfortunately for them, their group is the tougher than any of the groups they've been in the past two years, and both of those years they've also been part of the 'Group of Death'. I have faith this team can beat one of the top three teams (Canada, USA, Finland), but I'm not sure the points will fall their way in the end. Here's a look at their tournament schedule:
Prediction: 4th in Group B.