Seems like déjá vu for Slovak junior hockey. In 1999, the Slovak team won the bronze medal. The team was led by strong goaltending from Jan Lasak, solid defense and some offensive talents like Ladislav Nagy and 17-year-old Marian Gaborik. The next year, the expectations were even higher. Gaborik returned to the team, as did several other top players. Out of this squad, 12 players have made it later to NHL, but what was the result of the team? They finished ninth out of 10 teams.
A very similar situation just happened. After last year’s fourth place finish when team was led by all-star goaltender Jaroslav Janus and offensive trio Tomas Tatar–Marek Viedensky–Richard Panik, expectations were high. The top scoring line stayed unchanged, expected to dominate this year’s tournament. Top defenseman Martin Stajnoch was there as well and the team had more depth. Questions were asked after the roster was finalized as the coach cut players like Adam Janosik (Gatineau), Andrej Kudrna (Red Deer), Marek Hrivik (Moncton) and Czech Extraleague player Juraj Majdan, who played several games on a line with Robert Reichel in HC Litvinov. Instead, he relied heavily on players from the U20 project team which plays in the top pro league in Slovakia.
The start of the tournament was as expected, losing 7-3 to eventual champions USA. This game showed some offensive potential, but also pointed out the lack of speed and skill in the Slovak defense. The next game against Latvia was an easy one and Slovak top line dominated. On the other hand, this game also showed that team is very inconsistent and cannot play 60 minutes. After leading 7-0 in the 33rd minute, they quit the high tempo and the game ended up 8-3. This inconsistency was visible in all three games including following game against Canada. When trailing by five goals, the Slovaks showed some positive moments, got scoring chances and threw nice hits. But they took some stupid penalties and got back to mediocre play.
All three games did not mean that much as it was basically one-game tournament for Slovakia. The game against Switzerland was the determinant between success and fail. The first half was under Slovak control, but the Swiss defense and stellar goalie Benjamin Conz did not allow a goal. In the second half, "El Nino" Niederreiter scored two goals. Panik finally capitalized one of his scoring chances and put Slovaks back to the game. But Tatar took a bad penalty, the Swiss team scored an insurance goal and the game was lost. Slovakia moved to the relegation group and faced Austria. As one of the players wrote about this game: "We suffered win 3-2." In the next game, they lost to Czechs 5-2 in an unimportant game as both teams already avoided relegation.
After the return to Slovakia, both coach Stefan Mikes and team captain Jakub Gasparovic said there was bad chemistry in the team. "Individual interests predominated the team’s effort," said Mikes. Gasparovic added that some of the players did rely too much on top line. It is obvious that team did not work well, but let us recap some individual performances.
After last year’s excellent goaltending from Janus, goalies were the biggest question mark before the tournament. Both Marek Ciliak and David Halasz showed they are far behind Janus. While he was signing rookie contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team was fighting in relegation round. The goalies cannot be blamed, but neither brought some great saves when team needed.
Defense definitely lacked skill and speed. Slovak’s top defenseman Martin Stajnoch suffered an injury at the beginning of first game and even if he was back in lineup against Switzerland, he wasn’t able to play his top game. The team found solid replacement in Peter Hrasko, a smallish defenseman who can throw some big hits. Hrasko was an excellent quarterback of Slovak power plays using his great shot. If he bulks up a bit and aim his shots on the target he might grow up to excellent defenseman. His size definitely scares a lot of NHL scouts but even if he doesn’t make it to NHL, he can still play in top European leagues. He is eligible for 2010 NHL draft.
The top 2010 NHL draft eligible Slovak player is another defenseman Martin Marincin. Unlike Hrasko, Marincin does not have a size problem being 6’4" and 187 lbs. Even if it is always good sign when such young guy makes it to WJC team, his performance was not overly positive. He showed some talent, he can pass, throw some hits, but his lack of effort and inconsistency were a big concern. It is not the matter of age, he was just not working 100 percent every shift in every game situation. He lost many pucks, many battles along the boards. He is still growing and he needs to adapt his play to his bigger frame.
There were high expectations on the Slovak top scoring line Tatar-Viedensky-Panik after great last year’s performance. Tatar was drafted by Detroit in second round and signed a contract in the summer. He was sent to Grand Rapids in AHL where he later put up some solid numbers. Expected to be one of the scoring leaders of the tournament again, Tatar only scored 3 goals adding 2 assists compared to his 7 goals and 4 assists in 2009. Tatar was big disappointment in this tournament, playing very selfishly and it seems like his mind was still in Grand Rapids fighting for call up to Red Wings. His bad penalties in the games against Switzerland and Austria almost caused the relegation.
Viedensky fulfilled his role in this tournament. The San Jose Sharks draftee demonstrates his playmaking skills in offensive zone and used his size and defensive awareness at the other end. He improves his play year by year and can develop into solid NHL player.
Panik was team’s leading scorer. Before the tournament he struggled a bit on a strong Windsor team playing on the third line and adapting to life in Canada. At this tournament he showed his great potential and assured that he is more skilled than Tatar even if there was much more hype around Tatar in Slovakia. Panik ended up with six goals and two assists improving his 2009 individual stats. He and Viedensky were consistent during whole tournament but Panik showed many selfish moments trying to carry the puck too much. Panik will be in NHL pretty soon, but Slovak coach Stefan Mikes was correct that Panik can still play much better and help the team even more. Right after WJC, Panik was traded to Belleville where he should get more ice time and demonstrate his skills. He is expected to sign a rookie deal with Tampa Bay this summer.
The fourth drafted forward in Slovak team, Radoslav Illo, also showed both sides of his play. As well as Panik and Tatar, he showed a little bit of selfishness but also demonstrated his individual skills. He is like a poor man’s Peter Bondra. He is fast skater, natural sniper who can shoot and find the right places around the net. Player of Tri City, USHL said he would like to pursue his career in the NCAA. The Anaheim prospect is a strong-minded guy and can make it to the big show someday.
Much more was also expected from undrafted players Jakub Gasparovic and Libor Hudacek. Both were offensive leaders in U20 project in Slovak Extraliga, but weren’t able to transfer it to WJC. Especially Hudacek totally disappeared and had only two assists in six games which is not enough for skilled forwads with soft hands. Gasparovic was able to partially compensate this lack of productivity by hard work and play at both ends.
Hard workers like Martin Bakos, Andrej Stastny and Samuel Mlynarovic satisfied coach Mikes as they were reliable at both ends, but their level of individual skill is definitely not that high. It seemed like the players in fourth line did not accept their role in the team. They all tried to demonstrate their skills to make in to better line and get more ice time, but forgot to play defensively and finished with no scored and six received goals.
It is obvious that this team lacked chemistry, which led to a bad result. On the other hand, it shouldn’t have a big impact on top prospects’ development. At the end, it will be only two weeks in their long careers.