At the 2010 World Junior Championships, Slovakia barely avoided relegation with an eighth-place finish. In 2011, they are competing in a group that includes USA, Finland, Switzerland, and Germany, so hopes are high that they can avoid the relegation round and reach the quarter-finals.
In the group, it is generally thought that the USA is the strongest team and Germany is the weakest, while the other three will battle for the remaining two quarter-final berths. Last year, Slovakia‘s medal-round hopes came down to their last round-robin game against Switzerland, which they lost 4-1. This year, the two teams meet on December 30 and it could again be when the fate of both teams is decided.
For the third-straight year, Slovakia is being coached by Stefan Mikes at the World Junior Championships. His first year included a trip to the semi-finals and a fourth place finish, before dropping to eighth last year. He heads a team in 2011 that includes eight CHL players, one from the Czech Extraliga, with the other 14 playing at various levels of Slovak hockey.
It includes five players returning from last year, including defencemen Peter Hrasko, Henrich Jabornik, Martin Marincin (EDM) and forwards Richard Panik (TB) and Michal Vandas. Only three players have been drafted: Marincin, Panik, and defenseman Adam Janosik (TB).
The past two years, Slovakia was led in goal by Jaroslav Janus (TB), who was largely responsible for the team’s fourth-place finish in 2009. This year, there is a bit more of a question mark.
Calgary Hitmen backup Juraj Holly is joined on the roster by Dominik Riecicky and Tomas Pek, who both play for the Slovakia U20 team that plays in the Slovak Extraliga. Holly and Pek are both 19, while Riecicky is 18. All three have played for Slovakia in World U18 Championships in the past and all three have appeared in pre-tournament action.
Coach Mikes has not indicated yet who will start in the first game against Germany.
If goaltending is an area of concern, a relatively experienced corps of defensemen has been assembled to provide some stability on the back end.
As mentioned, three blueliners are returning from last year and a fourth, Adam Janosik, was one of the last cuts from last year’s team.
The group is rounded out by Peter Ceresnak, Peter Trska, and team captain Lukas Kozak.
As a group, they are likely to play responsible defensively but they also have a few guys who can contribute on offense as well. Marincin is averaging over a point a game in Prince George this season and will probably play the point on the power-play. As well, Janosik and Jabornik can put up decent numbers as well. At 6’3, Jabornik and Ceresnak are the team’s two tallest defensemen. While Ceresnak carries more weight at 209 pounds compared to Jabornik’s 187, Jabornik is perhaps the team’s most physical defenseman.
Up front, Slovakia may not have as much experience as they do on defense, but their player with the most international experience is a forward.
Competing in his third World Junior Championship is right winger Richard Panik, who was recently traded from the Belleville Bulls to the Guelph Storm. At the time he left to go to Slovakia’s U20 camp, Panik had 39 points in 33 OHL games this season and can throw around his 6’2, 203-pound frame. A second-round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Panik even played five games for their AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals last season. Panik is the only player who was a member of the team that finished fourth in 2009, and his experience at both this tournament and in North American-style hockey will be counted on greatly this time around.
After Panik, however, things start to get pretty thin. Andrej Stastny, a member of Slovakia U20 in the Extraliga, is the only other returning forward from last year’s team. Stastny has also represented Slovakia at U17 and U18 World Championships. Marek Hrivik, Andrej Kudrna, Juraj Majdan were all late cuts from last year’s team, and a year older are here this year with something to prove.
17-year-old Tomas Jurco of the St. John’s Sea Dogs is the youngest player on the team and should attract the attention of scouts. Jurco performed well in the 2010 QMJHL playoffs and has been a point-a-game game player so far in the 2010-11 season.
There are a lot of question marks on this Slovak team, but also some reasons for optimism. The crop of defensemen seem relatively stable and along with several skilled forwards, reaching the quarterfinals should be a more than realistic goal. As they found out in 2009, if they can make it that far, anything is possible.
Article was written by Derek O’Brien.