The Czech Extraliga is now underway. As is the case each season, we can look forward to top-notch European hockey, since the league may be among the three best on the continent. Almost every team has one or more veterans who lead the franchise and are either long-time patriots or new acquisitions from abroad. However, this year will feature more youngsters than normal, just because the level of Czech junior hockey has gone back up close to where it used to be. And finally, we'll also take a look at some possibilities that come with the NHL lockout.
Let's start with the defending champion.
After winning the playoffs last year, the team from a city that can proudly call itself “Czech Hockeytown” will have to defend the cup without two of last year's best players, Jan Kolář and Petr Koukal, who have left for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). In the pre-season, they won just three games out of nine, including the last two games against Liberec. Also, Corey Elkins has left the team after he signed with the Anaheim Ducks. The managers tried to fill the holes with two offensive reinforcements: Kris Beech, who played a couple of seasons in the NHL, and Pavel Brendl, also a former NHL player who's spent the last six years playing around Europe.
Pardubice has produced lots of skilled players over its history, including arguably the best European netminder ever, Dominik Hašek. Pardubice may have felt that they had a budding version of Hasek for the coming season in the form of Marek Langhamer, but the Phoenix Coyotes draft pick instead decided to play in the WHL for the 2012-13 season. Instead, the team will rely on Extraliga veteran Martin Ruzicka to mind the nets this season.
The other big upcoming star is Tomáš Nosek, the captain of Team Czech Republic at the last U-20 WJC in Canada. This large left winger is expected to record his first full Extraliga season at the age of 20 and even though he hasn't been drafted into the NHL, he's considered one of the brightest prospects that are set to move up to the Extraliga this season.
Lockout possibilities: Milan Hejduk, Jakub Kindl, Aleš Hemský, David Krejčí
HC Kometa Brno
Last season's runner-up have a tough quest in front of them. Their team started to dominate the league as late as in the playoffs and now, it's up to them to prove critics wrong and show that they can be a good regular-season franchise. It can happen because their only significant departure is the loss of Finnish goalie, Sasu Hovi, who decided to take a year off. On the other hand, 6'7” rearguard Boris Valábik decided to restart his career after an injury in Brno and experienced center Tomáš Divíšek will add responsibility to the team.
Two 22-year-old forwards will likely record their first Extraliga seasons with Kometa Brno. Let's start with the bigger, yet less of a grade-A prospect, winger Hynek Zohorna. His brother plays for Pardubice, so last year's finals were truly special for the two. The young Kometa player is expected to rack up about 25 points this year and one day in his hockey career he should become an Extraliga first-line winger.
The other youngster, however, has a lot more upside. His name is Jakub Svoboda and this could be his final year in the league. The former Saginaw Spirit forward might resemble T. J. Oshie in his energetic style of play. He exploded in the playoffs last year, where he posted 15 points in 20 games, which made him third among playoff point-scorers in the league. After this season, he will very likely go to the KHL, and maybe one day, he'll follow in the footsteps of Roman Červenka to the NHL.
Lockout possibilities: Tomáš Vincour
HC Škoda Plzeň
Led by former long-time NHL player Martin Straka, who is both the team captain and general manager and also owns the whole franchise, the “Indians” only got better in the off-season, though it might have looked like they couldn't get any stronger because they were as strong as they come. The absence of Sean Avery-like Radek Duda will hurt, but he will be replaced by former NHL enforcer Ryan Hollweg and Czech power forward Milan Gulaš. Also, skilled left winger Václav Pletka has joined the team.
Six top-notch prospects highlight this year's Plzeň's youngster crop. Let's just quickly take a look at five of them before we talk about the number one. Among the goalies, Marek Mazanec definitely has the best chance of making it to the NHL one day. This year, he was drafted by the Nashville Predators and is expected to fight for the starting goalie position with Plzen. Defensemen Vojtěch Mozík (19) and Jakub Jeřábek (21) both have valuable U-20 WJC experience. The latter was the captain of the Czech's 2011 WJC squad.
Ondřej Havlíček is number-three among offensive prospects. He received a taste of action in the top league last season and showed some scoring instincts with eight goals in 17 Extraliga games. 17-year-old Dominik Kubalík scored his first goal as a 16-year-old in his Extraliga career debut, which included playing on a line with Straka. He'll definitely fight for high-round NHL Draft position despite the fact that he's not Plzeň's top young gun.
At 22 years of age, and with 184 Extraliga games under his belt and 111 points produced, undrafted yet amazingly skillful forward Jan Kovář is on a quick route towards becoming a star. Last year was his second among Extraliga's top performers and, if he keeps his pace, he will collect 65 points this year, which would exceed by four the number posted last season by former NHL player and league-leading scorer, Petr Nedvěd. That would be an amazing performance and maybe, after a long time, we could see a Czech player signing an NHL contract straight from the Extraliga.
Bílí Tygři Liberec
“The White Tigers” will try to extend their number of seasons among Extraliga's top teams. In ten years of their elite league history, they missed the post-season just three times. There is not a sign why this year would be their fourth time out of the playoffs and the return of the legendary captain Petr Nedvěd only increases the likelihood of another successful season. That's despite the fact that the team lost three big-time players in the off-season – quick Slovak Milan Bartovič left for the KHL, as did offensive blueliner Marek Trončinský, while long-time point producer Tomáš Klimenta decided to change teams. The only notable reinforcement is Tomáš Netík, a skilled winger who will play with the Tigers until the Swedish Elitserien starts.
In terms of upcoming younger players, the Tigers have retrieved their former junior players Adam Jánošík and Tomáš Filippi who have come back from the QMJHL. The former is a responsible offensive defenseman who was drafted in the third round of the 2010 NHL Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The latter is a surprisingly good center who scored four goals at the last U-20 WJC. Both are expected to stick with the team for some time to come. Also, 18-year-old forward Patrik Urban is trying to crack the lineup, but the experts are afraid that his size will limit him from playing Extraliga hockey at this time.
However, the number one prospect from the Tigers team is a Liberec native, 21-year-old forward Michal Bulíř. Even though he's listed as a winger, Bulíř successfully replaced Nedvěd as the number-one center while the missed time due to injury, showing off his upside and playing style. And the style is so much similar to Nedvěd's that he's already expected by some to replace the captain in two or three years. Bulíř has the upside to be a quality Extraliga forward, but he still has a lot to prove to earn that label. This season will accurately tell where can we expect him in five years.
Lockout possibilities: Jiří Hudler, Ladislav Šmíd, Radim Vrbata
HC Sparta Prague
Just a season after ending just a couple of places above relegation, Sparta won the entire regular season, only to see their cup hopes swept away in the first round of the post-season by Brno. Since then, the team has lost their number one goalie, Tomáš Pöpperle, and hard-shooting blueliner Michal Sersen, who now play for Lev Praha in the KHL. Also, center Mario Bližňák left for the KHL. But, fortunately for the fans, management found players to replace them. The new starting goalie is Marek Schwarz, who used to be in the St. Louis Blues system, and coming back from Sweden is Jaroslav Hlinka, also a former NHL player.
Two youngsters are worthy of a mention here. First, Daniel Přibyl, who has long been considered a NHL Draft steal when the Montreal Canadiens picked him in sixth round of the 2011 draft. The 6'3” forward, whose playing style resembles that of Vladimír Sobotka, had great pre-seasons both last and this year, but in 2011-12, he didn't manage to stay in the Extraliga and even played for the U-20 team again. This shouldn't happen again, though, as Přibyl definitely has the potential to become an elite minor league player (AHL or KHL).
The other prospect with upside is former Kootenay Ice winger Dominik Pacovský, who had a successful rookie season last year racking up 27 points in 50 games. If he keeps on improving the way he has, he's going to be a staple among top Extraliga players one day. His spot with the first team for the upcoming season is almost guaranteed.
Lockout possibilities: Martin Havlát, Michal Neuvirth
HC Mountfield České Budějovice
One of the teams that has strong expectations every year has lost almost all of their star players in the off-season. Only managing to keep the great goalie Jakub Kovář and former NHL player Aleš Kotalík, the team had to watch skilled forward Václav Pletka and power forward Milan Gulaš transfer to Plzeň. The weird thing is that there hasn't been too many reinforcements coming in. The most notable one is that of Slovak left winger Rastislav Dej, and also, some young players have come to the southern region of the country.
Jakub Kovář won't stay in Budějovice for too long. He's considered one of the top Czech goalies and he should go to the KHL after the upcoming season. Pavel Kantor could become the starter in time, but should get a bigger share of ice time as the backup this season. Kantor is 21 years old and can be a solid Extraliga starter in the future. The same could be said for winger Robin Soudek, who has the potential to be a first-line forward. After four seasons in the Western Hockey League, he's going to have to prove that Canada made him a better player and make the first team.
The top prospect, however, is defenseman Bohumil Jank. He's back where he started his pro career four years ago at the age of 16. After twenty Extraliga games, he went to Victoriaville and last year, he played 13 games with Lev Poprad of the KHL. He's got loads of experience, including two U-20 WJCs. This year, he might end up being a second-pair blueliner for Budějovice. Since he did well in the KHL last year, his potential might be as high as a top AHL/KHL defenseman.
HC Vítkovice Steel
The team from Ostrava, the third-largest Czech city, will be one of the cup contenders, just like every year. Not many changes happened after a season which can be considered one of the worst for this team – they ended sixth and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Two changes are important, though, and they are the comebacks of former NHL blueliner Michal Barinka from Switzerland and Slovak forward Rudolf Huna from the KHL.
It is tough to decide who the top young gun is for Vitkovice, but we'll start with the younger brother of Tomáš Káňa, a former Blues draft pick. 22-year-old Jan Káňa is apparently better than his brother, even though he wasn't drafted. The younger Káňa was second in points among Vítkovice players last year and is obviously not finished with his progress. This year could tell the potential of this former U-20 national team player, but it looks like he's got the potential to make it to the NHL.
The same goes for Nathan Walker, most likely the best Australian player ever. Though he was born in Cardiff, Wales, he spent his childhood in Sydney and came over to the Czech Republic when he was fourteen, so he can speak Czech fluently. This year, he went undrafted, but had a try-out with the Washington Capitals, most likely because managers and scouts were afraid of drafting a player from a country not known for producing top hockey talent. But Walker was the second-best Extraliga draft-eligible player last year, so if anyone has the potential to make the NHL, it's him.
One of the more dangerous Czech teams will hold its quality for the upcoming season since everyone important is returning while no additions will really improve the team's roster. So let's get straight to the youngsters, especially the goaltender, Jakub Sedláček. He's just 22, but he's been around for four seasons, having his Extraliga debut at the age of 18. Since then, he played at the 2010 U-20 WJC and guarded the net for Zlín either as a starter or splitting time with his backup. His potential might be as big as that of Jakub Štěpánek.
Among defensemen, Petr Zámorský looks like he has the most upside. He played at the last U-20 World Junior Championship, but he still has to work hard. Also, former Moose Jaw Warrior Antonín Honejsek might turn out to be a big-time left winger one day; still, even though he used to be considered one of the best Czechs of his age as a junior, his road to a better league than Extraliga will be long and tough.
And finally, skater number one. Zlín native Petr Holík is pure skill and will and it was amazing to watch him raise his play level as the playoffs approached. He's got some experience, too, and he was vital for the success of the Czech national team at the 2012 U-20 WJC. He's one of the best Extraliga players of his age category and one day, he might have a real shot at making an NHL team.
Lockout possibilities: Martin Erat, Roman Hamrlík
After Jaromír Jágr purchased the franchise and changed its nickname to “Knights”, everyone expected the team performance to improve. Last year, the team lived up to these expectations and should be even stronger this year. Although Canadian blueliner Jason Lepine, who looked really great with Kladno, has gone to Finland, and the Knights have also lost their long-time leader Jaroslav Kalla, some new reinforcements, especially Jan Hlaváč, are keeping the team close to the playoff positions.
There is not many great youngsters occupying the Knights roster, but we can talk about two. 22-year-old's Jan Piskáček and Antonín Melka are both Kladno natives and should one day take over as leaders of the team. If that happens, the Knights are back where they were a couple of years ago. Both players are capable of filling into minor, second or third line roles on the team, but being Extraliga elites? Not really.
HC Oceláři Třinec
After winning the cup, the “Steelers” had a nightmare season and finished tenth and out of the playoffs. Some players were forced to go, just like experienced goaltender Martin Vojtek and offensive defenseman Mario Cartelli. The management of this rich team, however, managed to get the team stronger in the off-season by adding goal scorer Tomáš Klimenta, young blueliner Vladimír Roth and former Buffalo Sabres draft pick, Marek Zagrapan. This year, a return to the post-season is expected.
The top young player here is Jakub Orsava, a flashy 21-year-old winger. His last season spelled success as he scored 10 goals and got the call from the national team to play in the Euro Hockey Tour. He's also got experience from the 2011 U-20 WJC and is expected to raise his point total to 30 this year. At his best, he can develop into an elite KHL forward.
Two more players are worth a mention in Třinec. First, offensive defenseman Vladimír Roth, who came over from Slavia Prague and will be a cornerstone of the Steelers' power-play. After a 20-point season last year, he's making a real bid to make the Euro Hockey Tour this year. Also, Adam Rufer has got something to offer; it's not skill though, as he's a character guy and not afraid of dropping the gloves.
Lockout possibilities: Martin Havlát
HC Energie Karlovy Vary
This team from a famous spa city is always low in the standings – in the last five years they had just two seasons at the top and in one of them, they went all the way to win the cup. This year, they expect to bounce back from the previous unsuccessful season and maybe, acceptance of their junior team into the MHL will help them raise some juniors. The biggest casualty is the loss of experienced Slovak forward František Skladaný, but with arrivals of Canadians Dustin Kohn and Matt Keith, the “Energy” might be stronger this year after all.
There is not much going on among young guns here. though. Most of them are still too young to make the team and will play in the MHL, so we'll just talk about two players. The first of the two is 18-year-old right winger Petr Koblasa who should settle in with the first team this year and even make the national team for the upcoming U-20 WJC in Russia. He went undrafted even though he played at the U-19 WJAC shortly after turning 18. Also, Martin Rohan is a grade-A prospect and a talented rearguard that should become one of the best in the Extraliga one day.
Lockout possibilities: Tomáš Vokoun
HC Slavia Prague
Under command of former NHL player Vladimír Růžička, the famous Slavia Prague had its worst season in Extraliga ever and had to fight to avoid relegation late into the season. And it doesn't really look good this year, either, as Michal Vondrka went to the KHL and Dmitri Jaškin decided to develop in the QMJHL. The arrival of veteran forward Jaroslav Kalla will help the team, but coaches will have a lot to do to get Slavia to the playoffs.
Of course, who else could be the number one NHL prospect here other than Tomáš Hertl. Drafted by the San José Sharks in the first round of this year's NHL Draft, the big 18-year-old center will take over Michal Vondrka's job and lead the team towards a higher standing. Last year, nobody could really believe how good this kid was. He played with confidence and properly used all his size, speed and skill to generate points. As expected, he had some slumps, but especially his start to the season was great. Many scouts were surprised that he outplayed Radek Faksa at the last U-20 WJC, so his inclusion on the U-20 national team this year will make the Czechs that much more of a threat.
Slavia is packed with future stars and one of them should be Jakub Krejčík. The 21-year-old blueliner had his rookie season last year, but he was one of the only reasons that Slavia avoided relegation. That earned him a spot with the Czech national team at the World Championship in Sweden and Finland. Also, Dominik Furch is expected to have a bright career. The former U-20 national team starting netminder had his Extraliga debut at the age of 17, but hasn't really developed since then. In this way, he can be compared to Steve Mason. However, Furch has an upside of a quality KHL goaltender, so he might get improve quickly if given the chance.
Lockout possibilities: Roman Červenka, Jan Hejda, Vladimír Sobotka
HC Verva Litvínov
Alongside Pardubice and Kladno, Litvínov belongs to the Czech cities where hockey has a long tradition. Players like Ivan Hlinka and Robert Reichel grew up there so it is proud of its hockey history. It can't be so proud of the present, though. The team hasn't really succeeded in last couple of seasons and there is no success visible in the near future. Nothing has really changed in this off-season, except for some small-time players replacing other small-time players.
It is hard to tell who is the number one prospect here, so let's just talk a little about two of them. 22-year-old goaltender Pavel Francouz has been on the radar of NHL scouts for quite some time, making draft rankings in a couple of recent years. After having his Extraliga debut at the age of 18, he had to get modest and go to the lower league to gain ice time. In Litvínov, he should finally stay up for some time. Slovak right winger Juraj Majdan is just a year younger, but already making his first steps in the Extraliga. He's played in 140 games in the last three years and will stay up north for some more time.
The newcomers of the Extraliga who eliminated Mladá Boleslav in the qualifier has strong junior teams, winning national championships at both the U-20 and U-16 levels last year. Now, they'd like to translate their junior success into the Extraliga. But the jump will not be easy since there hasn't been many reinforcements this past summer, and also, not many juniors are planning to move up to the first team this year. As of now, Chomutov's been strong in the pre-season. It is hoped that the team decides to try out some youngsters this season since wasting so much talent in the junior leagues isn't a smart choice.