A year ago in Alberta, the Czech Republic's U-20 national team was one of the surprises at the 2012 World Junior Championship. After stunning the United States in the preliminary round, the team took on Russia, surviving until overtime when the silver medal squad scored a controversial goal to defeat the Czechs. Besides the team success, Detroit Red Wings goalie prospect Petr Mrázek gained a lot of fans for his celebrations late in the game against the Americans.
Despite the fact that the Czech Republic is one of the countries said to be suffering from an inefficient youth hockey system, the Czechs are actually making strides at every draft. Not long ago, there was barely a Czech drafted by any NHL team. But in 2012, two players, Radek Faksa and Tomáš Hertl, were chosen in the first round. It doesn't look like that will be happening again in 2013, but the Czech Republic will definitely have more players drafted than its eastern neighbor, Slovakia.
There haven't been many changes in the team, with the most notable one being the departure of netminder Mrázek who is not a junior anymore and is doing well with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the American Hockey League. Also, the team's leading point- and goal-scorer from last year's WJC, Petr Holík, will be missing. He's out of the age category, too, but he's making very big strides in the Czech Extraliga. The most interesting names, such as those of Faksa, Hertl or David Musil, are back in red and white.
While last year Mrázek was the undisputable number-one netminder of the Czech team, this time, the starting goalie position is a little more up for grabs.
The two main combatants for the starting job will be Matěj Machovský and Patrik Bartošák. A lot of people expect Machovský to be the one on whom the Czech team will depend when offensive pressure increases in the defensive zone. With almost a hundred OHL appearances, he is more experienced than Bartošák and was always thought to have more potential. As a second-year starter with the Brampton Battalion, the Czech starter at the 2011 U-18 WJC, where the team almost got relegated, is posting solid statistics that place him in the OHL's top twenty.
Bartošák is not only four months older, but he's also spending only his second season in North America. But, unlike Machovský, Bartošák has never made a national team roster for any big event. Now, he is the starting netminder of the Red Deer Rebels in the WHL and his stats rank him among that league's elite. He looks to be in great shape heading into the WJC and he will definitely be tested in one of the Czech's pre-tournament games.
With big Edmonton Oilers prospect David Musil patrolling the blue line for the Czech Republic, the defense might provide a little surprise for their WJC opponents. The son of former NHL defender František Musil, most recently a scout with the Oilers organization, is a big rearguard that seems to be picking up his offensive play, as well. He's already collected fifteen points and the season is still only 27 games young which means he might reach a career-high in points. With Edmonton not drafting Ryan Murray first overall last summer, Musil was given much more importance among the defensive prospects of that team. Nevertheless, the Vancouver Giants decided to trade him to the Edmonton Oil Kings less than two months ago. His new team is on a roll and he's one of the key players, having even more points than top-five NHL draftee, Griffin Reinhart.
Musil isn't the only big name among the Czech defensive corps. Recently promoted from the U-18 national team, 2013-draft-eligible blueliner David Štencel will be looking to make an impact and show his qualities off in front of the scouts. His performance was really impressive at the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup where, despite his lack of size, he was a standout player with a responsible and tough game in his own zone while showing the ability to support the offense. He might be the top Czech prospect for the upcoming draft and as such, he will be under a lot of pressure. His team, the Vítkovice Steel, has already given him the opportunity to play in the Czech Extraliga where he managed to get one point on the board in seven games.
Other notable defensemen are Petr Šidlík and Tomáš Pavelka. Šidlík first played professional hockey at the age of sixteen in his hometown of Jihlava, the same year he made his first appearance at the U-18 WJC. Twelve months later, the short, offensively-minded defenseman was the captain of the team at the same event and No. 9 among defensemen in point-scoring. He's having a breakout season with Victoriaville of the QMJHL, falling just short of the top twenty in the same category. Pavelka might look even better. His position in point-scoring among QMJHL blueliners is No. 6 and he will definitely try to bring this success to the national team.
The Czech national team might have its most dangerous weapons up front. Two first-rounders, one potential superstar and a couple of hard-working players will show any team that the nation is making a comeback.
It's tough to pick a forward to start with, but everybody knows Dallas Stars' prospect Radek Faksa. The native of Opava in the northeast region of the country, where most top Czech prospects come from, has been to this junior championship already. At last year's WJC, he scored only two goals and added no assists which left him behind expectations. He's not having a strong 2012-13 season with Kitchener, but he's still a threat in the offensive zone.
Much more of a danger up front might be Prague native, center Tomáš Hertl, who was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in 2012. Not only is he making progress in the Czech Extraliga, he's also had his first opportunity to play for his country's entry in the Euro Hockey Tour, alongside more well known talents such as Tomáš Plekanec, Aleš Hemský, and Petr Nedvěd. The 6'3“ top Extraliga rookie of the previous season is on his way to reach 40 points this time. Right now, he's only one point behind Aleš Kotalík, who was in the NHL not long ago. It looks like Hertl is progressing faster than Faksa and, given the fact that he outplayed him at the last WJC, it's expected that he will be the leader of this year's team.
The story of Dmitrij Jaškin is totally different and, if it ends well, it might look like it is taken from a movie about a sports miracle. The son of a former Russian hockey player who came to the Czech Extraliga in the early 90's, Jaškin was drafted 41st overall back in 2011 by the St. Louis Blues following a couple of great seasons in the Slavia Prague youth system and one year in the Czech Extraliga. After the draft, it looked like he was going to explode in the Czech top-level league, but it didn't happen. Instead, he was demoted back to the junior team where he somehow picked himself up and, thanks to performing fairly well at the WJC and a good stint with Slavia's lower-league affiliation, made it back to the first team for a couple of games nearing the end of the 2011-12 season. This summer, he went to the Moncton Wildcats in the QMJHL where he leads the team in points with 50 in 31 games, placing him seventh overall in the league. After such a big jump, one can only wonder where he'll play next season.
There are two more QMJHL forwards on the team, the more famous of them being Martin Frk. The technically talented and very offensive forward started playing for the Halifax Mooseheads at the age of sixteen after his hometown team let him go following a legal dispute. Even though he might be mostly remembered for slashing Erik Gudbranson two years ago in Buffalo, he's developed into a valuable player, currently third in point-scoring among the strong Mooseheads' squad. Drafted by Detroit, the team with possibly the best scouts in the NHL, Frk will definitely be heard from one day as an NHL player.
The other Czech playing in the QMJHL is Tomáš Hyka, who scored two points last year in Alberta and isn't quite done yet. Shortly after being drafted in the CHL Import Draft by the Gatineau Olympiques, the native of Mladá Boleslav appeared in a couple of NHL pre-season games for the Philadelphia Flyers after receiving an invite to that team's training camp. In his first season across the Ottawa River from Canada's capital, he led the Olympiques with 64 points, but this year, he's having a little sophomore slump, struggling both up front and back in his own zone. The World Junior Championship might provide a little boost to the confidence of the Los Angeles Kings draftee, however.
The Czech national team will also feature the youngest player participating in the tournament on the roster. Jakub Vrána, who currently plays in the Swedish junior league and has been given a chance in the Elitserien as well, is the only 1996-born player at the WJC. That would seem to indicate that he is one of the top prospects for the 2014 NHL Draft, and he will now have to show the scouts he can make it on a bigger stage than in the Swedish junior league. If he can do it, he'll be a player to keep a close eye on going forward.
To sum things up, this Czech Republic team will definitely be looking to generate some offense given the presence of highly-regarded draftees like Faksa, Hertl, Jaškin and Frk in the lineup. Back on defense, Musil will be the most solid wall between the opposing offense and the Czech goal. The confidence of the Czech squad is high as they want to end up going home with a medal, a task that could be more difficult given some of the talent available to the more powerful hockey countries taking part in this tournament.