Firmly engraved as one of the top six hockey nations on the planet, the Czech Republic is entering the 2016 World Junior Championship with a few question marks.
Of the myriad of goaltending options, who will take the reigns as the ne plus ultra starter?
Will the heavy influence of North America-based players have a decisive impact, especially come playoff time when the USA or Canada could be the first opponent?
Will all of the returnees make the difference?
Surely there are more questions for Head Coach Jakub Petr to answer, but he is entering the tournament as an underdog despite overseeing an extremely impressive, and possibly outstanding, group of players. With everyone expecting the Big Four to consist of Canada, Russia, Sweden, and the USA in addition to a well-stocked hometown advantage Finland, the Czechs have just enough of everything necessary to quietly sneak by a few favorites and enter themselves into medal contention. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that many of these players were winning a U18 silver medal in this very host country.
Three goalies, three NHL draft picks. But Washington Capitals’ 2014 second round pick Vitek Vanecek is the oldest and has spent this season in an almost unorthodox manner, namely in the ECHL playing for the South Carolina Stingrays. There, he has been very strong, putting up a 2.00 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in a pro circuit not known for its defensive acumen. A veteran of WJC play, the starting job could be Vanecek’s to lose.
Still, plenty attests to either Daniel Vladar (BOS) or Ales Stezka (MIN) being the more talented of the goaltending options. The 6’5” Vladar has pro experience and is currently testing his mettle in the USHL where he has put up a 2.12 goals-against average and .925 save percentage in 13 games for the Chicago Steel. Ironically, the 6’4” Stezka was drafted one round later than Vladar and is also in the USHL, where he has not enjoyed the same statistical success as Vladar while playing for the Sioux Falls Stampede.
The goalie ultimately manning the nets may be decided on a day-to-day, game-to-game basis, but each goaltender is large and has proven himself to be internationally capable. All Coach Petr needs is for just one to put on a few medal-worthy performances and few teams in the competition have three such goaltenders to choose from.
We’ll score if we want to
This particular WJC is simply chock full of high-end scoring talent, and the Czechs will be throwing one of the biggest of those names on the ice. The husky Pavel Zacha has all the size, skill, and skating anyone could want in a player. Just how ready he is to put it all on display for the sake of a big-time victory for his nation is still in question.
The New Jersey Devils’ 2015 first rounder currently has 30 points in 23 games for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL and has represented his country many times in recent years, usually in a capacity where he hasn’t been the go-to guy. That changed at last spring’s U18 World Championship, and he simply did not shine after an injury-riddled 2014-15 season. Now he is healthy and has some strong support, but his country will need him to play bigger than other stars if it is to truly have a chance at a medal.
Help will come from one of the best complementary forwards any Czech program has recently been able to throw out there in the Red Deer Rebels’ Michael Spacek, who has 30 points in 30 games after having started off the season with 18 in 12 games. The smart little winger has proven himself to be very adept in international play and has spent this season moving his way up the Winnipeg Jets‘ strong prospect chart. He will be counted on to carry much of the 3-zone responsibility during the tournament, while having all the smarts necessary to get the puck to the bigger names on the team.
Some of those bigger names include recent draft picks Filip Chlapik (OTT) and David Kase (PHI). While the mid-sized Kase has spent most of the season in the Czech Republic splitting time between pro play in the Extraliga and the 2nd league, Chlapik has been struggling a bit this season for the QMJHL’s Charlottetown Islanders. With 23 points and a -9 rating in 26 games, he has just not been able to have the offensive impact he enjoyed last winter when he accumulated 75 points in 64 games. Most noticeable is that, with six goals this season, Chlapik is far off pace his 33-goal season of yesteryear. Nonetheless, both will have to effectively take on big roles if this team is to have a shot at being more than a middle-of-the-road participant.
The yet undrafted overager Tomas Soustal is in the midst of his second season with the Kelowna Rockets, where he has put his 6’3”, 200-pound frame to good use, collecting 22 points and a +11 in 27 games. Roughly the same can be said of the slightly smaller Jiri Smejkal of the Moose Jaw Warriors, who has 18 points in 28 WHL contests in his second season of WHL play. Both will be expected to bring their readiness for rough stuff and understanding of the more North American game into the Czech concept.
Forwards Radek Vesely, Jan Ordos, Dominik Lakatos, Daniel Vozenilek, David Tomasek, and Jiri Cernoch have all been spending this season in one of the Czech Republic’s top two pro leagues. They add a bit of size and moxy, but are for the most part blank pages hoping to make themselves known to the international scouting community. From that group, Lakatos may be counted on to have the biggest impact as he has a total of nine goals and 23 points in 43 games so far this season, having played regularly in both the Extraliga and the 2nd league.
Tomasek, formerly of the Belleville Bulls, will be looked at to lead a lower line and has been having a nice season, having collected eight points with Pardubice in the Extraliga and another five points in four games in the 2nd league. His knowledge of North American play may come in handy come the playoff round.
It should be noted that these forwards made this team ahead of Allsvenskan regular Lukas Vopelka (nine points in 27 games this season), 2015 draft pick Lukas Jasek (VAN), and 2014 draft pick Vaclav Karabacek, who is in his third – and so far worst – season of QMJHL play. That should say a good bit about how deep this year’s forward squad is.
Defense ready to be a difference
Saskatoon’s Libor Hajek, Prince Albert’s Vojtech Budik, and Frolunda’s Frantisek Hrdinka are all draft-eligible Czechs who have made some noise abroad this season. None of them is part of this team’s blueline squad, however.
For the Czech Republic, 2015 first round pick Jakub Zboril is the man looking to lead the defense after having been the go-to blueliner for the past two U18 World Championships. The Boston Bruins prospect has only nine points in 21 QMJHL games, though, and will have the grand opportunity to show that he is up for the competition that will be coming at him during this tournament, where he will enjoy no less than a top-4 role.
Up and comers Filip Pyrochta, undrafted and in his second season of QMJHL hockey, and Dominik Masin, a 2014 Tampa Bay Lightning second rounder playing in his second season for the Peterborough Petes, are names of note to North American fans, and both will be of importance to this defense in no less than a physical capacity. Like Zboril, both can also unload a fairly heavy shot from the point, with Masin currently sporting a +20 rating this season.
After that, the Czechs will be throwing five other defensemen on the ice who have each spent time playing in the Czech Extraliga for no less than this season. The undrafted Jan Scotka is already in his second full season of Extraliga play. The 6’2”, 200-pound rearguard does not score much, but he is not afraid to use his size and brings pro experience that a lot of teams can’t lean on. Like Scotka, Alex Rasner is in his second full season of Extraliga play and, after four points, six penalty minutes, and a -4 in 38 games of a decent rookie year, he has currently racked up one goal, three points, 33 penalty minutes, and a +5 rating in 17 games this season. His experience will also be counted on throughout this WJC.
David Sklenicka and Ondrej Miklis round out the top seven and have each spent all season playing pro hockey, with Sklenicka gathering a +5 rating in 28 Extraliga games, and Miklis totaling 51 penalty minutes in 26 2nd league games.
He’s not there and it hurts
What David Pastrnak (BOS) has done since being drafted is nothing short of phenomenal – and for most, quite unexpected. 27 points in the NHL after having just as many in the AHL in fewer games last season, immediately following his selection at the 2014 draft, left many thinking that he was not only ready to emulate his favorite player, fellow Czech David Krejci, but also ready to perhaps replace him. This season hasn’t quite been the same, however, as some injury time and only four points in 10 games recently saw him sent to the AHL to play with the Providence Bruins. The Czech program would have loved to see the 19-year-old loaned out for the WJC instead.
Keep a close eye on…
A number of as yet undrafted Czechs dot this lineup, and many of them are overagers, but Simon Stransky is looking at his first summer of eligibility in 2016 and is in the midst of his second season of WHL play. After 42 points (including 30 assists) in 72 games of play in his first season with the Prince Albert Raiders, he has already collected 31 points in 30 games this season. Already with a U18 appearance in his pocket, the team will count on Stransky to assume a bigger role than many expect. How he handles it will be of big interest to the scouting community.
Aside from Stransky, a slender Filip Hronek is a draft-eligible offensive defenseman who may only be along for the ride, but he was dominant in 10 games of U20 play and has since played 22 Extraliga and 10 2nd league games, gathering five points to date. A veteran of the U18 tournament, he looks like one of the bright lights for the Czech national team and a kid that co-coach and former NHL defenseman Petr Svoboda will have a lot of fun working with.
Several high-end players excelling with CHL and USHL clubs in North America?
A good handful of physically adept defenseman and forwards playing pro at home?
The type of goaltending that can win a few games on its own?
An obvious role as a tournament favorite?
Not picking up the Czech for that meal, but the games are not played on paper. And, as promising as the other teams in this tournament are, a good bit of confidence and self-assurance on behalf of the Czechs, as well as the type of luck that accompanies confident teams could see this club medaling in a very unexpected manner.
The Czech Republic is a country that rarely gives up without a fight, and its players are almost always up for a good battle. We are thinking a third place finish in their group and quarterfinal participation is likely. Anything after that would be the cherry on top. But it shouldn’t be unexpected. This team has a little bit of everything at each position and is not a team any opponent can afford to take a day off against.
Follow Chapin Landvogt’s coverage of the 2016 World Junior Championship at Hockey’s Future