The 2014 World Junior Championship is set to begin Thursday in Malmö, Sweden with the Czech Republic squad looking to surprise some observers. The Czechs performed well last year in Ufa, Russia, beating Latvia, Switzerland and Finland before being eliminated by the United States in the quarterfinals following a 7-0 victory for the Americans. The Czechs ended last year's WJC in fifth place, but may be hard pressed to equal that accomplishment this year.
This year the team is not expected to be as strong as last year, mainly because key skaters from the 2013 WJC – Tomáš Hertl, Dmitrij Jaškin and Martin Frk – are no longer eligible, nor is Patrik Bartošák, who guarded the net for the Czech's last year and ended the 2012-13 season as the CHL's top goaltender. Nevertheless, players and coaches believe in achieving success and cite the quater-finals as the stage where they'd like to progress to, at the least.
That task may not be an easy one for the Czechs, however, given that their preliminary round includes games against the United States and Canada in the first two games. After that, however, they will square off against Germany and Slovakia, two teams where the odds of winning improve considerably.
The situation in the net might have been complicated last year with Bartošák and Matěj Machovský, the current Extraliga starter for Martin Straka's Pilsen club. But this year, the team has three goalies entering the competition with an equal chance of landing the starting position.
If one of the three is expected to be the number one over the others, it's Marek Langhamer, who plays for the Medicine Hat Tigers goaltenders of the WHL. Langhamer is a Phoenix Coyotes prospect and looks to prove himself in Sweden with the hope of impressing the Coyotes' management enough to give him a pro contract at the end of this season.
One of the other two goaltenders, Daniel Dolejš, is a starter for Vítkovice, an Extraliga team from Ostrava. Coming into the top league from the First League at mid-season, Dolejš is also expected by some to be the starting Czech netminder over Langhamer. The third goalie is Dominik Hrachovina, who plays for Tappara's Under-20 team in Finland.
On defense, the Czechs are bringing to Malmö a solid mix of offensive blueliners and big rearguards. Led by team captain Petr Šidlík, the defense has a lot to prove as there are simply no big names on the list and only 18-year-old Jan Košťálek has been drafted. Also, the team will miss one of the top Czech prospects from the 2013 draft, Jan Štencel, who is a permanent member of the Vítkovice team in the Extraliga, but was overlooked at the NHL Draft. Injury will keep him in his homeland at the time of this event.
It's not a certainty who will step up and lead this defense, but Šidlík is one of those who are expected to do so. He played at the 2013 World Juniors in Russia and now is in his third season with the QMJHL's Victoriaville Tigres. This 6-foot, 194-pound native of Jihlava can play a good, solid two-way style of hockey. Another CHL-based blueliner is Michal Plutnar, also supposed to be one of the defensive leaders and also in his third season in North America playing for the WHL's Tri-City Americans. Plutnar has bulked up and is looking to play a two-way game in Malmö following his rookie camp stint with the Detroit Red Wings this past summer.
Of the bigger defensemen, the one that may be the most intimidating is an 18-year-old member of the Saskatoon Blades, David Němeček. After a fairly subpar year in Sarnia, he decided to go west and it's been good for both his offense and defense. At 6' 4'' and 198 pounds, he's the biggest Czech on the roster. Němeček is also feared and willing to play physical hockey, which will be valuable to the Czechs since their offense isn't very intimidating.
The aforementioned Košťálek is supposed to bring his A-game to Sweden after he was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. The native of Prague has already reached his point total set in his QMJHL rookie season last year with 18 in 27 games, so he'll be looking to continue his rise at the World Juniors, as well.
In the forward ranks, the Czech team will be relying on its youngest stars with Ondřej Kaše, David Pastrňák and Jakub Vrána eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft, and Pavel Zacha eligible in 2015. The leader, however, will be Radek Faksa, who was drafted 13th overall in 2012 by the Dallas Stars. The big, 6'3“ winger is in his third season with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL and currently has 25 points in 29 games. He's been to a couple of training camps with the Stars already, meeting, among others, Czech legend Jaromír Jágr, and the Stars also gave him a chance to show what he's got in two AHL games with Texas. But Faksa is about the only big name out of those on this year's Czech roster who have been eligible from previous drafts.
The Czechs are expecting a strong draft class in 2014 with Pastrňák and Vrána both having a chance to be selected in the first round. Both of these stellar juniors are based in Sweden, with both playing in the Under-20 SuperElit league as well as among professionals. Pastrňák, however, spends much more time among pros as his team is based in the Allsvenskan, which is the second-highest Swedish league. Over in Södertälje, he's only recently lost the team lead in points with 15 in 25 games, but is looking to carry over his strong start into the WJC. At 6-foot and 168 pounds, he's not the biggest player on the ice, but he plays flashy hockey and doesn't shy away from physical contact. A natural playmaker, Pastrňák jumped over Vrána in many rankings early this season.
Vrána, however, says he doesn't focus on the draft and instead keeps on getting better in all areas of the game. Struggling to make the next step to the Swedish Hockey League with his Linköping team, he's split time between the pros and juniors. The 17-year-old native of Prague is in his third season up north and has 21 points in 19 SuperElit games, but has also been kept pointless in 13 SHL games. Also 6 feet and 181 pounds, Vrána's style is similar to that of Pastrňák, but includes much more physical play and speed as he's been a good forechecker who can also take advantage of his weapons in front of the net.
The third 2014 draft-eligible player on the team is Ondřej Kaše, a prospect on the Extraliga team in Chomutov where he's got five points in 21 games. Ranked by many in the first three rounds of the upcoming draft, Kaše does not play much differently than Vrána or Pastrňák except for lacking the physical playing style employed by his draft classmates. Playing fourth line on an Extraliga team helped him improve his forechecking abilities, and the chemistry he's got with his long-time linemate, David Kämpf, has also helped his game at that level. Kaše and Kämpf are supposed to play on one line with Vrána at this WJC as it has worked out for them in the past.
The sole 2015 NHL Draft prospect on the team is Pavel Zacha, another full-time Extraliga player who plays for Liberec with Petr Nedvěd and Marek Schwarz, among others. Also a fourth-liner, Zacha has been able to accumulate seven points in 39 games for the White Tigers and also has three points in six First League games and four points in two games in the Czech Under-20 Extraliga. This 16-year-old makes a big-time impact in the Under-20 category and that's chiefly thanks to his size – 6'3“ and 203 pounds makes him stand out among juniors. That helps him be the keeper of the puck as he can carry it anywhere and rarely can the opposition take it off of his stick, even in the Extraliga. Many rank him for the first round of the 2015 draft and some even say he could be the top European player available for that draft.
The rest of the Czech forwards is mainly a mix of players who went overseas to the CHL and those who play in the Extraliga, too, but haven't been as productive as Kaše or Zacha. Kämpf could be a key player profiting from his chemistry with Kaše and Vrána. Also, Dominik Simon has been able to contribute in the Extraliga playing for the Sparta team that is at the top of the standings. Other full-time Extraliga players are Patrik Machač and Pavel Sedláček, while Dominik Volek is another Czech Republic-born player of note coming out of the CHL.
It's not going to be easy for this team to get past the group stage, let alone the quarter-finals. Expected to be suffering from the inexperience of its key players, the Czechs are supposed to lose their first two games with the two North American strongholds and then fight for their place in the quarter-finals against the Germans and Slovaks. It will be interesting to see if they can beat their two Central European rivals and if they do, some good luck could even get them past the quarter-finals, although it's not easy to imagine them beating the Finns, Swedes or Russians. Considering the inexperience of this team, though, another fifth-place showing would have to be considered a strong showing by this Czech squad.
Follow Radoslav Vavrina on Twitter via @Pacific4_Rado_V