After two years in the relegation round, the Czech Republic is looking for a return to the quarterfinals. Playing four games in five days in a tough group, they have their work cut out for them.
For the third year in a row, the Czech Republic will play in what is often called a "group of death". In 2010 and 2011, they played in groups that included at least three of hockey’s traditional powers and failed to qualify for the quarterfinals. In 2012, they play in a group in Edmonton that includes Canada, the United States, and Finland. Czech hockey fans might wonder if history will repeat itself and they will once again find themselves in the relegation round, or if they will buck the trend and play for a medal after the new year.
In the 2011 tournament in Buffalo, the Czechs faced an uphill climb from the start. Not only were they in a group that included Canada, Russia, and Sweden, but they were without four of their best players. Top goaltender Petr Mrazek (DET) and top defenseman Adam Polasek (TB) were declared ineligible by the Czech Ice Hockey Association, while their two top prospects for the 2011 NHL Entry draft, defenseman David Musil (EDM) and forward Dmitrij Jaskin (STL), were both injured.
In 2012, their roster situation is better. Three of the four players they had to do without last year are with the team. The protest by HC Vitkovice over the eligibility of Mrazek has been ironed out and he will play, though Polasek is now too old. Musil and Jaskin are both healthy and ready to go. Unfortunately, they won’t have Martin Frk, who has been mentioned as a potential first-round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Frk, who plays for the QMJHL‘s Halifax Mooseheads, suffered a concussion during the preseason and hasn’t played since. In 2011, a barely-17 Frk was the Czechs’ top-scoring forward with six points in six games.
Petr Mrazek was expected to be the starting goaltender for the Czechs in 2011, and his absence left a hole. This year, he is expected to carry the load. The Detroit Red Wings draft pick from 2009 is the starting goaltender for the run-and-gun Ottawa 67′s, who are the leaders of the OHL‘s Eastern Conference. At 16-7-5, Mrazek’s record is solid, although his goal-against average is 3.01.
Mrazek will be backed up by Libor Kasik and Tomas Kral. Kasik has split this year between Olomouc of the Czech First League, which is the country’s second-tier professional league, and Zlin of the Junior Extraliga, while Tomas Kral plays for Oulu in the Finnish junior league. Because the Czechs will play four games in five days, it’s possible that one of them might see some action.
If anything, the Czech Republic’s defense may be more inexperienced in 2012 than it was in 2011. They have only one returnee, 19-year-old Bohumil Jank. Jank, who was used sparingly in 2011, split the 2010-11 season between the Victoriaville Tigres of the QMJHL and HC Ceske Budejovice of the Czech Extraliga. This year, he has split time between the KHL’s Lev Poprad and their junior-league affiliate, Tatranski Vlci.
The 6’2, 192-pound Jank should be a top-four defenseman on this team, but he won’t be the quarterback. That honor will go to David Musil, who would have played in 2011 if not for a bone bruise he suffered weeks before. Musil, who plays for the WHL‘s Vancouver Giants, is the son of former NHLer Frantisek Musil and was born in Edmonton. He was also drafted by the Edmonton Oilers, which should make him the focus of interest from the fans in attendance. On a blue line lacking in experience, 18-year-old Musil, who is both responsible defensively as well as able to contribute offensively, is expected to carry the load on the power play and the penalty kill.
Another hometown boy of sorts is 18-year-old Marek Hrbas, who was a late cut from the 2011 squad. Though now a member of the WHL‘s Kamloops Blazers, he played last season for the Edmonton Oil Kings. In April 2011, Hrbas was the captain of the Czech team at the U18 World Championships in Germany, and was paired with Musil on the team’s top power-play unit. Rounding out the top four could be 19-year-old Petr Zamorsky, who is a regular in the Extraliga with PSG Zlin.
Rounding out the roster of defensemen is a trio of Junior Extraliga players: Daniel Krejci, Vojtek Mozik and Jiri Riha. Mozik has played 12 games with Mlada Boleslav of the Extraliga, while Riha has seen some action with Benatky of the First League.
With the injury to Martin Frk, the Czechs are without the player who was considered their biggest offensive weapon. However, they still have three other returning forwards: Jakub Culek (OTT) and Petr Straka (CLB) from Rimouski of the QMJHL and Petr Holik of PSG Zlin. Culek and Straka will likely play together on the top line, as well as the top power-play unit.
Though he’s not a returning player, Dmitrij Jaskin is another that the Czechs are expecting production from. The second-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues missed the 2011 tournament with a knee injury. So far, his 2011-12 campaign has been dreadful, with his Slavia Prague club even sending him down to the Junior Extraliga for some time. However, Jaskin is a big player who thrives in physical situations, and it will be interesting to see how he plays against Canada and the US.
Nineteen-year-old Jiri Sekac is another player to watch, as he has come from relative obscurity to become a KHL regular this season with Lev Poprad.
Without Frk, the top undrafted prospect might be Jaskin’s Slavia teammate, 17-year-old Tomas Hertl, who is the leading junior-aged scorer in the Extraliga. Other Extraliga regulars include Daniel Pribyl of Sparta Prague and team captain Tomas Nosek of Pardubice, while Michal Svihalek has 29 points in 23 games for Ceske Budejovice of the Junior Extraliga. The forward unit is rounded out by CHL players: Tomas Filippi, Tomas Hyka, Lukas Sedlak and Radek Faksa.
Though they lack a home-run hitter, they do possess a fair bit of offensive talent, and therefore the Czech Republic hopes to benefit from a balanced attack.
With Canada and the United States considered the top two teams in the group, the Czech fortunes could be decided in their New Year’s Eve encounter with Finland. It will be their fourth game in five days, which is one of the rewards of entering the tournament as the group’s fourth or fifth seed. If they get the goaltending from Mrazek they are hoping for, their top defensemen are able to carry the load, and they get production from their forwards, they have a decent shot of advancing. If they don’t, they will once again be forced to defend their position in the top division in the relegation round, which could mean another "group of death" in 2013.