The Czech Republic entered the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship looking to shock everyone from a position of anonymity. Not looked at as a favorite, the team nonetheless featured some very solid players who also happened to be NHL-drafted prospects, including New Jersey Devils recent sixth overall selection, Pavel Zacha. The team even got a huge boost when the Boston Bruins allowed last season’s rookie sensation David Pastrnak to join his native country on a sort of reassignment after an injury-plagued first half of the season.
For the Czechs, Pastrnak (now playing for the Bruins again) was just about everything they could have wished for in effectively giving their attack plenty of impulses while scoring at a point-per-game pace. The immensely talented Zacha, on the other hand, was suffering from a knee injury and it showed glaringly. He was only able to contribute one point in three contests and gave the team little to build on.
The tournament started off nicely enough with a 2-1 overtime loss to eventual silver medalist Russia in the tournament’s first game. That was followed by 2-0 and 5-3 wins over Slovakia and Belarus respectively, although the Czechs were unable to put either team away convincingly. All three games were close, but the Czechs managed to gain seven of nine possible points.
The turning point came with a very tight and entertaining 5-4 loss to host Finland in a game in which a third period lead was lost to several Finnish power plays. This had the Czechs pitted against a high-flying U.S. squad, in general an international nemesis for the Czech Republic, for a quarterfinals game they barely participated in. A 7-0 loss was the result and the team headed home with another forgettable tournament finish in its pocket.
Once Pastrnak arrived, he became the team’s biggest stand-out. But he only played three games, of which the team lost two. Instead, linemate Michael Spacek, currently gunning at a point-per-game pace with the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL, led the team with five points in five games and was crucial in the first three games of the tournament. The Winnipeg Jets draft pick continues to show that there is much in his game indicating a nifty role in the NHL in a few year’s time. An honorable mention has to go to overage, undrafted WHL forward Jiri Smejkal, who collected four points and was a more than ample top-six forward.
He wasn’t statistically the best, but Jakub Zboril (BOS) was the go-to guy on the blueline and found himself chewing minutes against the tournament’s best opponents. He contributed little offensively (one assist) but did manage a +2 rating for a team that lost its final two games by a combined score of 12-4.
His statistics were nothing to write home about, and he made no difference in the quarterfinal loss. Still, goalie Vitek Vanecek (WSH), who is currently playing in the ECHL, was of crucial importance to the team in its first four games, particularly in pitching a shutout against Slovakia, keeping Russia to only one goal in regulation, and holding the fort against Belarus, an opponent the Czech skaters seemed to have a very big problem with.
The reasons behind Team Czech Republic’s disappointing tournament
The team had talent and a few real nice names in the lineup, but it was missing firepower and the ability to pull away from their opponents. In the preliminary round, in which the team gained seven points while losing two games by one point, the team lost a lot of energy by not being able to put the nail in the coffin and gain some breathing ground against any opponent.
Thanks to the higher end talent and the number of players currently playing pro in the Czech Republic, there was plenty of skill and a good number of opportunities were created that couldn’t be finished. Ultimately, though, the team’s mediocrity in losing three of five games probably lies mostly in the fact that Pavel Zacha, clearly the team’s highest profile player, was seriously hampered by a knee injury and often looked like more of an anchor for the team when on the ice than an improvement. Could that have weighed heavy in the locker room as well? Hard to say, but his not being an impact player clearly meant that the Czechs couldn’t win against three teams that medaled.
2016 prospect who helped himself
Slender, six-foot and 163-pound defenseman Filip Hronek entered the tournament in relative anonymity, which should no longer be the case. After all, he has already played 26 games in the Czech Extraliga for pro team Hradec Kralove (three assists and +4) as well as 12 games for the second league Litomerice (two goals, four points, 18 penalty minutes) this season while blowing away the Czech U20 league with 13 points in 10 games. In Finland, he managed two assists for the Czechs while going +3, thus statistically outplaying recent first rounder Zboril.
2016 prospect that may have hurt his cause
The team was an older club and if anything, undrafted overage Kelowna Rockets forward Tomas Soustal simply did too little with his one point and -1 rating. With 23 points and a +11 in 30 WHL games, the 6’3” Soustal could have used this tournament to show he is worth drafting at some point this summer, something teammate Smejkal – a player in the same boat – may have done for himself. In addition, overage veteran Extraliga defensemen Alex Rasner (-3) and Jan Scotka (-2) weren’t able to show in any way that their draft snubbing last summer was a mistake.
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