At the 2014 World Junior Championship in Malmö, Sweden, the Czech Republic had a simple goal of reaching the quarterfinals, at the least. That mission was accomplished and it was a successful tournament for the Czechs, even though it looked at times like they could have gone farther.
The Czechs started the tourney against two tough opponents from North America. After losing big to the United States, the team tightened up and pulled off an amazing effort capped off by a great shootout move by Dominik Simon to beat Canada.
Confidence was high and nobody really expected anything but a win against the next opponent, Germany. But the Western neighbors fought hard and blanked the Czechs in a 3-0 game. That meant a loss in the final group-stage game against Slovakia would mean no quarterfinals. The Slovaks had a great tournament, too, but the Czech team was able to almost erase their strong first line and advanced to the playoffs.
There, Finland was thought to be the most acceptable and playable opponent for the Czechs, which proved to be true as the Czech Republic had a big lead in the second period. However, the Finns turned the game around and won, and they would go on to win the gold medal.
Top Forward – Martin Procházka
A bit of a hidden gem, 19-year-old native of Roudnice Martin Procházka hasn't truly cracked the lineup of his Extraliga team, Sparta Prague, yet, but has made an impact at a lower pro level. One level below the Extraliga in the First League, Procházka competes for HC Litoměřice, a minor league affiliation of both Sparta and KHL's Lev Prague. Not in any way related to the former NHL player and gold-medalist from Nagano of the same name, Procházka wasn't expected to be the leader of the team, and he wasn't talked about much before the tournament. However, he managed to accumulate more points than many Extraliga regulars, including future draft prospects Ondřej Kaše and Pavel Zacha. What really made Procházka the Czech's top forward wasn't just the number of points collected; much of the time he was on the ice, there was this feeling that Procházka was a player who could really make things happen, and he often did at this tournament.
Top Defenseman – Michal Plutnar
Michal Plutnar had his last chance to show off what he's got at the World Juniors and he grabbed that chance by the horns, leading the Czech defense and also supporting the offense with two goals in five games. Plutnar plays in the Western Hockey League with this being his third season overseas. This past summer, Plutnar was invited to the Detroit Red Wings rookie camp, but didn't make it farther. In the WHL, he's had a horrible year and his pace indicates he might end up with a negative +/- rating for the first time in his WHL career while only collecting about ten points, which would be his all-time low with the Tri-City Americans. Despite a great effort in Malmö, his future as a potential NHL prospect may be in doubt.
Team MVP – Marek Langhamer
Prior to this WJC, it hadn't been decided whether it would be Marek Langhamer or Daniel Dolejš minding the net for the Czech Republic. As an Extraliga starter, Dolejš was expected to grab the number-one spot mainly by Czech-based experts, while Langhamer was the choice of those in North America. What Langhamer provided that Dolejš couldn't come up with in his only game at the tournament was solid goaltending; he didn't let in any bad goals, and he made a lot of critical saves that could be considered game-savers. In the last game against Finland, it was the entire Czech defense that broke down rather than being Langhamer's fault. Another WHL player, Langhamer needed a good WJC in order to keep alive his hopes of signing with the Phoenix Coyotes, the team that drafted him in 2012.
Unsung player – Petr Šidlík
As a captain of the team, one has many responsibilities. Petr Šidlík is, like all the players in this category, young, but he understood well what was expected from him and took advantage of his experience from the previous World Junior Championship. This time, however, he wouldn't go on to collect five assists like in Ufa, but only scored one goal and, again, had eight penalty minutes. Šidlík, who plays for the QMJHL's Victoriaville Tigres, was a reliable two-way defenseman who didn't let his team down and did all a captain is supposed to do.
2014 prospect to watch – Jakub Vrána
There's a race for the spot at the very top of the 2014 Czech draft class. Swedish-based forwards Jakub Vrána and David Pastrňák are the two contestants, both considered by many to be first round prospects, but there have been roadblocks. While Pastrňák had a great start to the season, he's now slowed down, and Vrána managed to outplay him in Malmö. That wasn't the case at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August, but Vrána has been perfect with Linköping's Under-20 team in the Swedish SuperElit junior league, even though he's failed to make an impact in the SHL so far. A native of Prague, Vrána benefited from his chemistry with linemates Ondřej Kaše and David Kämpf and scored one beautiful goal and added an assist. It will be interesting to see where he gets drafted, but it looks like he's just getting better after a start that was slower than expected.
Undrafted player worthy of a second look – David Kämpf
The linemate of Vrána and Kaše benefited from his chemistry with the latter, with whom he has played on both the Chomutov junior teams and Extraliga team for several years. While Kaše has always been the brains of the tandem, providing his lines with top-notch playmaking, great passes and points, Kämpf was the muscle, throwing his weight around, forechecking hard and making space for Kaše. Kämpf had one goal and one assist in Malmö, but deserves credit for sparking his line while helping to power the entire team. The line turned out to be the most valuable for the Czechs at this event, and Kämpf was a major reason why.
Follow Radoslav Vavrina on Twitter via @Pacific4_Rado_V