Thrashers 2006 WJC prospects review

By Holly Gunning

Three Atlanta Thrashers prospects saw playing time in the 2006 World Junior Championships in British Columbia: Boris Valabik (10th overall, 2004) and Juraj Gracik (142nd overall, 2004) for Slovakia and Andrei Zubarev (187th overall, 2005) for Russia.

Slovakia

During pre-tournament camp in Kelowna, British Columbia, Valabik was concerned about the players fitting into Coach Branislav Sajban’s system, himself included.

“We have 17 players from the CHL and then another seven from Slovakia,” the Kitchener Ranger explained to Hockey’s Future. “We are being asked to play a different system, so it may be difficult at first. It has never happened to me before, but the coach has asked me not play as aggressive, so that’s kind of new. Maybe I just need to get used to it again, but it is different than the OHL.

“Our coach is from back home. So it is different for him as well. We are mostly all used to playing a CHL style of game. But you know, the coach is always the boss and we respect him. We will try our best to do what we are asked to do.”

Gracik, who plays for Tri City in the WHL, echoed Valabik’s concerns.

“The coaches try to talk to us about the system they want to see us play in the tournament, but we play a different system with our CHL teams.”

He said they were being asked to play a less aggressive physical style at the tournament.
“For example, showing less emotion on our bench. Every team will have a different style of play and we have to be able to play the style required to be competitive and to win games.”

Coach Sajban’s fears of playing too physically were well-placed though, given the IIHF’s zero-tolerance policy. The Slovaks were the second most penalized team, with an average of 29 minutes per game. They were only sixth-best in penalty-killing, however, at 81 percent. Their inability to kill off the penalties they took was in fact part of the reason the team placed eighth out of 10.

Surprisingly, it was Valabik’s offense that is most notable. He finished the tournament tied for second in scoring by defensemen with six points in six games, behind only Alexei Emelin (MTL). He was the third leading scorer on Slovakia, behind Stanislav Lascek (TB) and Marek Zagrapan (BUF), who were part of his five-man unit. Valabik scored more points in the six-game tournament than he has all year in Kitchener (four points in 25 games).

But beyond the offense, Valabik had a rollercoaster WJC. He was paired with Andrei Sekera (BUF) on the first unit, getting huge amounts of ice time. He was assessed a number of questionable penalties for mere incidental contact under no-tolerance, for example a misconduct against Latvia, all too common for 6’6 players. As a result, he played a bit tentatively and seemed frustrated by what the coaches wanted, what the referees wanted, and how he knew he could play.

Valabik had 32 penalty minutes on the tournament, tied for fourth as the most penalized player, and was +2. Gracik ended with two goals and two assists in six games and was –1.

Russia

Defenseman Alexei Zubarev was very confident for his team heading into the gold medal match-up.

“We can compete with them physically but, on a technical level, we will beat them,” he said through an interpreter to the assembled media. “Historically the Soviet type of hockey was more skillful. This year is no exception. We will try to beat them by skills.

“This is confidence, not over-estimated self confidence,” he said.

The confidence was in fact vastly over-estimated, however, as the Russians fell hard to the Canadians 5-0 and took home silver.

Zubarev was paired with Kiril Lyamin (OTT) and had two assists in six games and was +2. He’s had a much better season with Kazan Ak-Bars, where he has 10 points in 31 games as an 18-year-old.

Czech Republic

Ondrej Pavelec was not one of the two goaltenders selected for the final roster for the Czechs. They opted to go with two 19-year-olds who were playing in the Czech Republic, rather than the 18-year-old who was not. Pavelec remained in B.C. with the team.

Marek Schwarz (STL) was expected to be the go-to guy in net, but ended up only playing 140 minutes to Radek Fiala’s 218. The Czech goaltending was only seventh-best in the tournament, with a combined save percentage of .898.

Fiala started against Slovakia and was solid, winning the game. Schwarz either didn’t establish himself or wasn’t given the opportunity to do so, however, he certainly gave the Czechs a chance to beat the USA in the quarterfinal. Fiala, little known outside of the Czech Republic going in, didn’t look out of place.

The team placed sixth in the tournament.

Notes

Alex Bourret (16th overall, 2005) was not selected for the gold medal winning Canadian team, but used that as motivation to have a fantastic December. He was the offensive player of the month in the QMJHL. The winger tallied ten goals, including three game-winners, as well as 18 assists, good for 28 points in only 12 games for the Shawinigan Cataractes. He was a healthy +6 (plus/minus) and dished out 27 hits over that span. He sits fourth in the league in scoring with 68 points.

Jordan LaVallee (116th overall, 2005) a candidate for the USA team, has returned to the ice from injury, and has played four games. He now has five assists in six games with the Quebec Remparts.

Glen Erickson contributed to this report. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.