After a big year for Slovakian junior hockey in which the World Junior Championship team beat Sweden to take bronze, followed by the U18 club defeating Sweden 3-1 to kick off the 2015 U18 World Championship before slipping out of the tournament in the first round of the playoffs, there were naturally several players of interest to NHL teams at the 2015 NHL Draft.
In total, five Slovaks were selected at the draft. But, interestingly enough, only two of them competed in Slovakia, namely defenseman Erik Cernak and forward Radovan Bondra. Both players ended the season playing for champion HC Kosice, contributing nicely to the nation’s best team. Unfortunately, Cernak was injured along the way and his playoffs ended after just seven games, in which he had collected a +6 rating. Bondra played all 15 playoff games and collected a goal and three points as primarily the team’s 10th forward. He first joined Kosice permanently after the WJC.
Taken 43rd overall by the Los Angeles Kings, Cernak has been playing internationally for Slovakia for several years now at both the U18 and U20 levels. A big boy with a variety of tools, Cernak is a guy who likes to use his body to keep players honest and knock opponents off the puck. Three springs ago when he represented Slovakia at the U18 in Sochi, it was felt that he might be a top 10 pick by the time this draft swung around. But a number of questions about his decision-making have been generated along the way and, despite all the tools he possesses, his toolbox has been questioned. Then again, he has almost always played with older players and more than held his own, not only physically, but also in generally making good first passes and reading the overall play well. This is something that Los Angeles likely saw as a strength that speaks for his in-game intelligence.
In our Hockey’s Future preview, we felt that Cernak was a player who was better and more cherished by scouts than a number of agencies had credited him for in their publications, expecting Cernak to go between spots 45-80. Los Angeles clearly has a solid opinion of Cernak and his prospects as a pro in North America, taking him in the second round, believing he wouldn’t be there by the time their third round pick (#74 overall, used to select Russian Alexander Dergachyov) rolled around.
For Bondra, who was taken 151st overall by the Chicago Blackhawks, there was little doubt that the 6’5”, 218-pound defensive winger who represented his country at both the WJC and U18 was going to be taken at some juncture. He skates very well for his size and has had little problem filling in a lineup very adequately when playing with older players. His work at the WJC was solid and his 15 games with Kosice in the Slovakian Extraliga saw him put up two goals, four points, and a +6 rating, very good numbers for a kid just breaking into pro hockey.
What Bondra will now need to prove is whether his on-ice intelligence and ability to stay out of the penalty box at inopportune times can be remedied over the long run. While playing with the nation’s U18 program this winter, he collected 47 penalty minutes in just 17 games (along with six goals and 12 points). He’s become a highly effective penalty killer up to now who uses his size and reach well, already priding himself in being more than competent in his own zone. Despite Slovakia’s mediocre performance at the U18, he did score a goal and four points and managed a +1 rating.
The next question is where Bondra will spend next season, as he was recently drafted by the Vancouver Giants of the WHL; the Blackhawks would likely love see him test his mettle in a league full of big-bodied players. Heading into the draft, Hockey’s Future felt it’d be hard to think that a team wouldn’t grab him before or as of the fifth round, expecting him to go between spots 100-180.
The other three drafted Slovaks consisted of two goalies and a defenseman. Matej Tomek, who will be attending the University of North Dakota in the fall after a season manning the net for the Topeka RoadRunners in the NAHL, was taken 90th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers, an organization traditionally thin in the goaltending prospect department.
Going 139th overall to the Ottawa Senators, defenseman Christian Jaros is a good-sized 6’3” and 205 pounds and has spent two seasons in the Lulea organization in Sweden. This past season, the right-shooting rearguard had an assist and -3 rating in 35 SHL games. His maturity could not be overlooked, though, as he was one of the top four defensemen for Slovakia at the WJC, where he collected an assist and +2 rating in gaining bronze. He’ll likely spend next season in Sweden taking a regular shift with Lulea, but a move to North America for the 2016-17 season would be the logical step.
Adam Huska, another goalie who manned the Slovakia nets for five games at the U18 WC after a six-game North American debut for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL, is another big boy at 6’3” and 190 pounds. He was taken in the seventh round, 184th overall, by the New York Rangers, who are banking on him seeing a lot of pucks over the next two years and likely some WJC action. Should he not return to North America next season, he’ll likely assume one of the goaltending positions for a pro club in Slovakia.
Overage goaltender Denis Godla was ranked seventh amongst European goalies by ISS Hockey and was a true fan favorite on the bronze medal-winning WJC club. He didn’t hear his named called on draft weekend, despite the fact that a number of non-ranked goalies ended up being taken – right out of Europe, no less.
Should a team like what they’ve seen in Godla, they now have the chance to sign him to an ELC. His omission was somewhat surprising to the scouting community in light of his strong winter and inspiring WJC performance.
Although not a terrible surprise, Trencin defenseman Andrej Hatala was one of the top-ranked Slovakians heading into the draft and did not hear his name called, but will remain a name to watch out for in the future. An average-sized player at 5’11” and 187 pounds, this right-shooting defenseman plays a very intelligent game and has leadership abilities.
Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin