It’s been a few years since Slovakia enjoyed its fairy tale run that included a victory over the USA and a quarterfinal appearance at the 2009 WJC. And, despite a sixth place finish at last winter’s tourney, Slovakia is once again entering an international tournament knowing it could just as easily be battling against relegation. The 2013 World Junior Championship will likely be no different.
This very proud hockey nation has been facing a number of financially-related problems in recent years that prevent it from experiencing the type of success it knew before the fall of communism when it was a part of Czechoslovakia. This has also led to a number of the country's better talents taking their acts elsewhere, usually to Canadian juniors or Scandinavia, as part of the side effect.
Slovakia has nonetheless tried to concentrate its U-20 efforts by establishing a team called HK Orange 20 that competes against the teams in Slovakia’s top pro league, the Extraliga. The team is coached by Ernest Bokros, who is also coaching the U-20 national team, and many of its players hail from the hockey hotbeds run by HC Slovan Bratislava and HK Dukla Trencin. Although the team rarely experiences much in the way of winning, some of its better players in this age group gain valuable coaching and in-game experience and also get to develop perhaps a bit more chemistry than the all-star style ensembles that the bigger hockey nations throw together.
Still, this year’s team doesn’t appear ready to do much in the way of upsetting some of the bigger powerhouses, although they’ll certainly have the opportunity right in the preliminary round when they face off against Russia, Canada and the USA. They’ll also play Germany – and as is the case for Team Germany – that game is the one the Slovaks see as being pivotal with respect to possibly entering the relegation round with points.
There’s nonetheless some good reason for hope. In preliminary round play, Slovakia managed to knock off its neighbor, the Czech Republic, by a score of 4-1, who then proceeded to dismantle Germany 7-2 in Munich. The team is also very confident that in Patrik Romancik, the country has a goaltender who could win a few games on his own accord. In goalie Richard Sobol (Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL), defenseman Peter Ceresnak (Peterborough Petes of the OHL), and forward Martin Reway (Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL), the team features three North American legionnaires whose names might be familiar to North American hockey fans. In addition, a player who will see a lot of ice time in all situations is the draft-eligible KHL regular Marko Dano, a forward who is one of the country’s better prospects in recent years.
Marko Dano (F) – The hard-shooting forward has been taking a regular shift for Slovan Bratislava of the KHL. In 26 games, the 5’11”, 185-pound 18-year-old has collected three goals, five points and a +2 rating. He also played an entire season in the Slovak Extraliga as a 17-year-old, having put up eight goals, 22 points and a +6 rating in 51 total games. This kid is the team’s go-to guy and folks have been talking about him for several years now. It’ll be interesting to see just how motivated he is to put the weight of this team’s expectations on his shoulders. He is a quick player who is strong on the puck and can lead a rush or counterattack with the best of them. He’s also very used to playing with bigger, faster players.
Patrik Romancik (G) – The 18-year-old is 6’0”, 172 pounds and has seen lots of ice time for a number of teams the past two seasons. It’s felt that when he’s on, he’s tough to beat and other teams will have problems. Of course, the question in this tournament is how hot he can be in light of what will likely be 40-50 shots against on any given night in the preliminary round. Also, Adam Nagy is ready and willing as soon as he gets the green light, so Romancik knows that performance and success is pivotal if he’s to be the team’s man in net.
Tomas Mikus (F) – The brother of long time pro, Slovakian national team member and former Montreal Canadiens draft pick Juraj Mikus, Tomas has spent this season playing in the KHL and will line up with Dano, whose five KHL points he’s equaled to date. Mikus is a strong skater who fancies himself a creative weapon. That’s exactly what Slovakia needs him to be.
Who will not be there
Martin Gernat (D) – The 6’5” defenseman and Edmonton Oilers prospect is literally a huge loss. He’s injured and hasn’t played this season. Throw on top that he had nine goals and 55 points in 60 regular season games for the WHL-champion Edmonton Oil Kings, as well as seven goals and 13 points in 20 playoff games last season, and one can truly say that this is among the biggest losses any one team in this tournament could have (excepting Team Sweden). There’s not a player in the program who could have meant as much to Slovakia as a healthy Gernat.
Marek Tvrdon (F) – The Detroit Red Wings prospect has had a real hard time of it with injuries so far in his young North American career. Drafted on the strength of six goals and 11 points in 12 games for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL, the 6’2”, 218-pound forward delivered 31 goals and 73 points in 60 games last season. At the time of his latest injury, Marek had accumulated 22 points in 18 games. This offensive progress added to his WJC experience from last year would have made him the highest profile player on the team.
Patrick Koys (F) – For some, Koys was considered one of the top up-and-comers from Slovakia as he headed to North America earlier this season to play for the Shawinigan Cataractes. In 21 games this season, the 5’11” right wing has only one goal and five points. He’s also sporting a -15 rating and hasn’t been considered for the team.
Tomas Jurco (F) – It is necessary to mention this name as Jurco is only but a few days away from being eligible for this tournament. For certain, the AHL rookie and Detroit Red Wings prospect would have been the top dog up front for Slovakia, a team desperately in need of this kind of offensive support.
Who NHL scouts will be focusing on
Marko Dano (F) – There’s that name again. Heading into the season, it was felt that Dano would be a top-60 pick at the 2013 NHL Draft. He’s done nothing to dissuade this, but could use this tournament to promote his draft position considerably.
Martin Reway (F) – The winger turns 18 shortly after the tournament in January. He has spent this season playing for the Gatineau Olympiques in the QMJHL and has 11 goals and 25 points in just 24 games. He’s 5’10” and 170 pounds and scouts will be very curious to see how much of a thorn in the side of the better competition he can prove to be, seeing as few really knew what to expect of him in the Q heading into the season.
Around the boards – keep an eye on
Richard Mraz (F) – The 6’2”, 209-pound forward started the season for the Ottawa 67's and only put up one goal in eight games before heading back to Slovakia, where he’s been playing for HC Orange 20. NHL teams will continue to keep an eye on him as he was once thought to be a prospect with some positive possibilities.
Peter Ceresnak (D) – He may not be the best defenseman on this team, but he is an NHL draft pick and a stay-at-home defender with a 6’3”, 209-pound frame. He’s in the midst of his second season with the Peterborough Petes and his numbers are truly nothing to write home about after having put up six goals and 16 points for the Petes in 61 games last season. In fact, he’s currently sporting a -13 rating, to boot. Nonetheless, he’s about the highest profile defenseman on the team and understands opponents such as the Canadians and Americans better than just about anyone else. He’s going to need to bring his considerable international experience to the table in a good way if Slovakia is to make the playoff round, as this is his third WJC.
Patrik Luza (D) – The 6’1”, 192-pound defenseman is playing in his first WJC after time with the U-18 squad. Like many Slovakian defenders before him, he’s got size and he’s even seen playing time in two KHL games this season. He may very well be one of the go-to guys on defense, even if in more of a defensive role.
David Bajanik (D) – Another big boy at 6’2” and 192 pounds, the 19-year-old defender is currently playing for the MHL club Budapest in the second Russian league, where he has five points and a -10 rating in 23 games. As a 17-year-old, he played 28 games for Baie-Comeau of the QMJHL, where he had two assists and a -7 rating.
Richard Sabol (G) – The 18-year-old goalie is currently playing for the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL and his transition hasn’t been easy. In only six games this season, he has a 1-2-1 record, 4.22 goals-against average and a .871 save percentage. He is expected to be the third-string goalie at this tournament.
Biggest strengths: Goaltending could end up being a strength, especially if the team finds itself in the relegation round. Romancik could be a difference-maker on any given night. There is also size here as a number of players, particularly defenseman, are 6’1” or larger. This is nothing new in Slovakia. What they do with that size is another thing. The team is also pretty homogenous and coach Bokros works with the bulk of the players on a weekly basis, thus knowing their strengths and weaknesses. As such, the players themselves should also have the familiarity and chemistry that other teams likely won’t. The few players who do not play for HC Orange 20 are, for the most part, coming from more renowned programs.
Biggest weaknesses: The team is lacking the overall skill level and proven talent to do much more than scare the odd opponent. The depth is lacking and one has to wonder if any offense whatsoever can come from any line other than the first, and even that line wouldn’t necessarily be a scoring line on a number of Slovakia’s opponents. There’s also no telling what the special teams will be capable of. That the team has to face Canada, Russia and the USA in round one is another reason to doubt that this team could possibly avoid the relegation round.
Be it at the Men’s level or in the junior ranks, Slovakia has seen countries such as Switzerland, Germany and even Slovenia, Norway and Denmark get closer and closer in development and prowess. Latvia has been pushing the Slovaks for years, even if Latvia also has financial restrictions to battle with. With the Slovakian U-18 club having already experienced a recent relegation, the U-20 team has its work cut out for it in remaining one of the world's nine best junior clubs. Much like Germany, Slovakia’s top goal in the preliminary round is to beat their central European neighbors. It will be easier said than done as the two teams match well, even if Slovakia would have to be considered the favorite. Considering the likelihood of having to play in the relegation round, Slovakia will need to prove itself better than no less than Latvia. The task should be do-able when taking the names into consideration, but games aren’t played on paper.