Twelve months ago in Sochi, the Czech Republic's U18 squad was at the beginning of what could be a beautiful ride that could see the Czechs finally grabbing a medal at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship. This year's U18 team from this Central European nation has grown and matured since last year's competition, and is now looking more like a medal contender.
Last year in Russia, things weren't going as well for the team as they have this year. After a beatdown of Latvia in the opening game of the tournament, the Czechs went on to lose in all of the remaining games, first blowing a 2-0 lead against the United States, avoiding a huge defeat at the hands of Finland, succumbing to the host country, and finally being eliminated by Canada in the quarterfinals after a 6-0 performance by eventual gold medalists.
But, just four months later, there was a different team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in Břeclav, Czech Republic, with a couple of high-end prospects finally taking over leading roles for that country. Those prospects, combined with defensive help from a top-notch athletic goalie and a couple of big-time young guns at the blueline, allowed the Czechs to defy the odds and earn a bronze medal on home ice.
The two high-end prospects filling in at the very top of the lineup were Swedish-based forwards Jakub Vrána and David Pastrňák. Both played an inspired tournament, and they are set to do it again after great seasons up in Scandinavia. They will get some help from the aforementioned duo of defensemen, 2014 prospect Filip Pyrochta and 2015 prospect Jakub Zbořil. Also, goaltender Vítek Vaněček will be back as the number one and is expected to play in his Ivan Hlinka form. Besides that, a total of six players not yet eligible for the draft have traveled with the team to Finland, including phenom Pavel Zacha.
Vítek Vaněček is the name of the young man that will guard the Czech net in Lappeenranta and Imatra in the coming week. Coming out of nowhere this past summer, he took over the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament with highlight-reel athletic saves en route to the bronze. After that, he would go on to his new club team in Liberec where he backstopped the Under-20 team on the way to the playoffs while also adding one start in the First League and two backup appearances in the Czech Extraliga. His athleticism helped him achieve all that – he's not particularly big at 6'1“, but he is capable of making big stops. The Czechs will rely on him a lot at the U18 but, in case he doesn't deliver, they will turn to Karel Vejmelka, who had a similar season but is two inches taller and his style very much depends on making use of his size.
Filip Pyrochta looks to be a talented blueliner for this Czech squad. A teammate of Vaněček from their club team in Liberec, he led the Ivan Hlinka team's defense back in August and then would go on to spend the whole season among pros in the First League, which helped him with the transition to professional hockey. Pyrochta is capable of big time plays at the blue line and is a top-notch powerplay quarterback who has quite a lot of defensive upside, as well, given the fact that his size is a little bit of an issue.
Also praised by NHL scouts is stay-at-home defenseman Dominik Mašín who plays for Slavia Prague in the Under-20 Extraliga. The 6'2“ rearguard won't do much damage offensively, but is solid in his own zone and is quite good with his stick. Back in August, Mašín was the captain of the medal-winning team and will wear the 'C' once again in Finland.
Pyrochta is a definite talent, but if he is described that way, then the only word that can describe his defensive partner from the Ivan Hlinka, Jakub Zbořil, is 'fantastic'. This big defenseman is as versatile as they come and has the potential to become a star in the National Hockey League. On the blue line, he tends to use his cannon shot often, which creates a lot of good opportunities, but he can pass the puck, as well. In his own zone, Zbořil either uses his body to flatten players to gain control of the puck, or he can accomplish this with his stick. The best thing about him is that he's a 2015 NHL Draft prospect and has more than a year to become a top prospect in his draft year.
Also at defense is Tomáš Havlín, who is looking to finally convince the scouts that his defensive play is exactly what they are looking for. Havlin looks a little like a young Radko Gudas minus the fisticuffs. Alex Rašner will be hoping to have a strong finish to a season that was spoiled due to injuries. Rašner played in the Czech Extraliga a year ago when he was just 17 and did well. If those injuries prevented scouts from viewing him over the course of the season, then now is the right time for Rašner to show his skills.
The leading duo of Swedish-based forwards should be critical for Team Czech Republic. Both are considered borderline top 30 prospects for the upcoming draft.
Starting with David Pastrňák, who had a slightly better season and has been ranked higher ever since the Ivan Hlinka Memorial, is an offensive beast with his speed, skill, and lethal shot. He pretty much resembles Tomáš Hertl, the San Jose Sharks rookie who was eliminated from the Calder Trophy competition after a knee-on-knee collision earlier in the season. Pastrňák, in the meantime, played for his current team of Södertälje in the Swedish Allsvenskan, the second-highest league in Sweden, and led the struggling team in scoring with 8 goals and 24 points in 36 games after a perfect start to the campaign.
The other half of the duo is Jakub Vrána, the forward from Linköping, who had a great season as well. It might not have looked as good as in the case of Pastrňák, but looking back, Vrána managed to crack the lineup of Linköping's SHL team and stay on it until their elimination in the post-season. Tha native of Prague, the Czech capital, has already played in Sweden for three years and will stay there for at least anotehr season. Benefiting mostly from his hard-working attitude, Vrána's shot is no less lethal than that of Pastrňák, and he also seems to play a more physical game. His upside is big, but if he doesn't become a first-line leader in the NHL, he could end up playing a great third-line role similar to that of Vladimír Sobotka of the St. Louis Blues.
Next year, the Czechs should have an ace prepared for the draft, a player that could be the first top-10 Czech to be selected since Jakub Voráček was chosen by the Columbus Blue Jackets back in 2006. Pavel Zacha has spent a whole season in the Czech Extraliga and the captain of his team in Liberec none other than Petr Nedvěd, the long-time NHL forward who has just recently retired. The tall forward Zacha learned a great deal playing with Nedved this past season and has become much stronger on the puck, finally playing with a mean attitude that could turn him into a beast provided he bulks up. He resembles a young Joe Thornton and is expected to be the top Czech product for years to come.
Also expected to play a big role on the team is Václav Karabáček, a workhorse of a forward who spent his year with the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He's not big, but he can play physical and is a great character forward. Somewhat similar to Karabáček is Jiří Černoch, a character player with the ability to throw the big hit, a determination to block shots, and the fearlessness to battle at the doorstep of the opposing team.
As noted earlier, Zacha is not the only player on the team who will not be eligible for the NHL Draft for another year to come. Three forwards, all expected to step up into major roles, still have a year to work on their game. Filip Chlapík is a great concoction of speed, size and scoring instinct. Michael Špaček provides top playmaking, toughness along the boards and leadership. And David Kaše, younger brother of 2014 draft prospect Ondřej Kaše, is smallish, but willing to rough it up on the doorstep and go down to block shots during a penalty kill. All three will be back next year, but getting the opportunity to play at the U18 this year is just huge for their development.
The Czechs have had few recent U18 squads as talented as this one, which should help raise the confidence of this team. Ever since winning the bronze at the Ivan Hlinka, the mindset has been that a medal is a very real target for them. Other nations might have come to Lappeenranta and Imatra with more top talent, but the Czech Republic looks like a true team with a capital 'T'. It's not lacking anything – it has a goalie who's able to hold his team in games; defensemen who are ready to both support the offense and do their job properly in their own zone; top-line forwards with the ability to score; hard-working players who will do what it takes during penalty kill; and leadership. Speed and size are a part of the mix, as well.
The Czechs look scary and a medal would not be a surprise at all. How about gold? It's not unrealistic this time around.
Follow Radoslav Vavrina on Twitter via @Pacific4_Rado_V