2016 U18 World Championship Preview: Czechs hoping for return to medal round

By Chapin Landvogt
Libor Hajak - Team Orr - 2016 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game

Photo: Saskatoon Blades defenseman Libor Hajak competed for Team Orr at the 2016 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, picking up an assist in his team’s 3-2 win over Team Cherry (courtesy of Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

 

 

After a big silver medal win in Finland at the 2014 U18 IIHF World Championship, where players such as David Pastrnak and Jakub Vrana had the scouting community licking their chops, last spring’s Czech Republic squad proved to be competitive but bland despite featuring players such as Pavel Zacha and Jakub Zboril, both of whom ended up being first round draft picks. Despite making the playoffs rather handily, the team was stopped dead in its tracks by eventual gold medalist Team USA, getting spanked by a 7-2 score.

The team will now be showing up with quite a new look in management, with Czech legend Jiri Lala serving as GM and former NHL forward Robert Reichel assuming the head coaching duties. His assistant will be Patrick Augusta, a former hot-shot scorer in the AHL who enjoyed a long, prosperous international career before entering the world of coaching. Ironically, Reichel’s son Kristian Reichel and Augusta’s nephew Ondrej Najman are both expected to take on prominent roles for the Czechs in this tournament.

What will definitely help this club in its medal bid is the fact that six players, including four defensemen, spent this season playing in either the OHL, QMJHL, or WHL. This should come in handy for the Czechs when playing Canada in their second game of the tournament. It naturally could come in real handy if having to face Team USA in a possible playoff game. The Czechs started things off against Finland, a 4-3 overtime loss that pitted the past two silver medalists against each other. Somewhat fortunate for the Czech Republic will be the fact that they will face Denmark and then Slovakia to conclude the preliminary round, although Denmark could be entering their match against the Czechs with a do-or-die mentality after dropping their opener against Slovakia.

Here’s a look at the team the Czechs will be presenting in Grand Forks.

The names aren’t as big, but the pedigree just may be

Almost every year, the Czechs bring a goaltender or two to this tournament who are expected to be drafted in the summer. That will be the case this season, too, as Josef Korenar is currently ranked fourth amongst European goalies by NHL Central Scouting. Although his stats for Dukla Jihlava have been average at the U20 level (3.15 goals-against average and .913 save percentage in 27 games), where he has spent most of the season, his domination at the U18 level the past two seasons has made it clear that he must play with older competition. He should be the clear-cut starter for the Czechs. His backup, Dominik Groh, is no slouch and also spent the year playing U20 league hockey, getting 33 starts for Mlada Boleslav.

The 6’2” Tomas Vomacka has been great at everything he’s done at the U18 level, be it with his club Hradec Kralove or the national team. It has been a different story when he has played for the U20 squad. That is no problem, though, as he is currently only 16 years old and with that, a man for the future.

A top 5 to rely on, and more

The Czechs will sport a fairly deep defensive group and have a number of good options to rely on. The leader of the group is undoubtedly Libor Hajek, a 6’2”, 194-pound all-arounder who is expected to be a top-40 pick in this summer’s draft. He played for a poor Saskatoon Blades club, but got plenty of ice time and put up 26 points in 69 games. The blueline’s true bruiser will be Ondrej Vala, who just completed a strong rookie season for the Kamloops Blazers where he put up 21 points and a +1 rating in 72 contests. In light of the league and his 6’4”, 216-pound frame, he is no stranger to the rough stuff. These two should man the ship.

Also gaining CHL experience were 6’1” Vojtech Budik of the Prince Albert Raiders (16 points in 70 games) and Ondrej Kachyna of the Hamilton Bulldogs (13 points in 52 games). Both are ranked by CSS amongst the top 102 North American prospects and proved very durable in their first seasons in North America. This group of top four will get optimal support from small two-way defender Lukas Doudera, who played for five different teams in five different leagues this past winter, but was most impressive in 31 games with Trinec in the Czech Extraliga (two assists and a -1 rating). He is entering the tournament with a good bit of pro experience.

David Krasnicka, Jakub Sirota, and Daniel Novak are all mid-sized defensemen who, as 17-year-olds, spent the bulk of the season playing for their club’s respective U20 teams, each taking a regular shift. Krasnicka even got into four games with Plzen of the Extraliga.

We don’t think scoring is as fun as defending

Fortunately for the Czechs, the group of forwards should be every bit as promising as the guys on the backend. The most recognizable names for fans of North American juniors are the 6-foot Matous Belohorsky of the Rimouski Oceanic, and 6’3” Matyas Kantner of the Flint Firebirds. Names aside, neither player was able to hit the 10-point mark this past season, so their biggest value to the team will be their knowledge of the North American rink. Both had been big scorers in the Czech U18 circuit the season before, however.

For fans of the NHL, there is no denying that 6-foot Kristian Reichel is the guy they want to see. For a number of years, his father Robert put up a good batch of points in the NHL, but Kristian doesn’t look to be that kind of player. He had 30 points in 30 junior games and also collected four points in 15 points for Litvinov, but he is pegged as a second- or third-line, two-way forward who is still trying to find his game. Interestingly, his cousin Thomas is busy collecting points for Germany at the D1 U18 WC in Minsk, Belarus.

The true stars up front in a scoring capacity will likely be the aforementioned Najman, Daniel Kurovsky, and Jiri Karafiat. Najman had 46 points in 41 U20 games for Dukla Jihlava while Karafiat managed 31 in 39 games for Zlin. Both players feature good size and are capable of handling the rough stuff. They will need to make some music, especially on the power play, if the Czechs are going to contend for a medal. Kurovsky is the real gem the scouts will be watching, though, as he has put his 6’3”, 200-pound frame to good use this winter, putting up 42 points in 35 games for Vitkovice’s U20 program. He is a left wing who loves to create danger and bring the puck to the net from the sideboards. These three will surely be asked to play a big role for this Czech squad.

Two-way pro experience will come from the undersized Radovan Pavlik, who spent 18 games with Hradec Kralove this season. Despite making some steps he was kept off the scoreboard and only had seven points in 16 U20 games. He will be at the U18 to try and shut down some of the big guns that a few of the opponents will be rolling out.

Several lightweight players to keep a good eye on will be Pavel Kousal and Petr Kodytek. Neither weighs even 150 pounds, but both were big scorers at the U20 level this winter. Kousal put up 45 points for Dukla Jihlava while Kodytek chipped in 40 points in just 26 games for Plzen. Kodytek also pumped in 47 points in 21 games with the program’s U18 team. Combined, he went +49 this winter. If it weren’t for his 5’6” height and 146 pounds, he would certainly not be competing in North Dakota with such anonymity. Both are eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft, so there is plenty of time for them to grow

Another interesting player could end up being Marek Zachar, a little fellow who had a nice Ivan Hlinka tournament and showed some strong offensive ability. He did get in three games for Liberec in the Extraliga (going scoreless) this season and played a decent but not overwhelmingly strong season for the club’s U20 team. There is some definite talent there, but just how much he can do against bigger teams will continue to be in question until proven otherwise.

Martin Havelka and Filip Zadina complete the forward group.

Keep an eye on

He is just 16 and already 6’1” and 187 pounds. He has played two games of Extraliga hockey and is currently considered a top-15 prospect for the 2018 draft. His name is Filip Zadina and he is looking to arrive on the scene big-time in Grand Forks. He had 10 goals in six U18 league games and then got a full-time gig on Pardubice’s U20 squad, scoring 10 goals and 17 points in 19 games. Write down his name. Watch him. Enjoy.

Outlook

The Czechs are bringing a team to the tournament that should be amongst the five best. The goaltending is solid or better, and the defense should be able to mix things up with the best of them. The forward group is lacking anything that can be considered a star and is hoping to achieve things by committee. In fact the highest ranked forward from a drafting standpoint is Kurovsky, who is only listed at 29th among Europeans. This group also lacks size and will have to hope that it isn’t consistently forced to play on the perimeter against some of the bigger teams. Nonetheless, the Czechs shouldn’t technically have to fear anything from the Danes while being well-suited to face Canada, Finland, and Slovakia, even if the latter will have that extra bit of emotion due to the rivalry.

Once the playoffs start, however, the Czechs will have to hope that they have gotten themselves in a groove, because the U.S. and Sweden in particular will be incredibly tough opponents, while Switzerland usually plays the Czechs tight. But a match-up with the year’s Russian side could be just the thing that catapults this team to a semifinal appearance.

One thing is certain, though – the playoffs will take place with the Czechs participating.

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin