Coach Ernest Bokros has been double-shifting this winter as the U20 and U18 Slovakia national team coach, but he’ll only be bringing one player to the upcoming U18 who was also with him at the WJC, namely forward Martin Reway. And that’s only if Reway is healthy enough to go. What he’ll also be bringing along with him are three of the five oldest players at the tournament as well as the tournament’s youngest participant.
Clearly though, his chief goal will be to simply maintain the team’s spot in the top division. Last year’s club hosted the Division I Group A tournament and rather handily walked through it on its way to promotion. Not surprisingly, the top returning scorer from that team would be Reway, who managed four goals and 11 points in five games.
But the task of avoiding relegation will not be an easy one. The team is heading to Sochi well aware that everything may come down to a game against an opponent like Latvia to conclude the tournament in the relegation round. The squad recently lost two test games against archrival, the Czech Republic, and didn’t look particularly coordinated in the process. For sure the team will look to make things difficult for each and every opponent, but victories against Sweden and Canada would have to be viewed as a wonder, and Slovakia hasn’t been able to finish ahead of Germany and Switzerland in recent years.
Strengths: Although only 5’7”, 154 pounds, goalie David Okolicany gained some valuable practice for a men’s pro team this past season, putting up a 2.95 goals-against average in nine appearances. This was accompanied by a .911 save percentage. The team will need him or one of the other two 18-year-old goalies to stop the pucks they should stop, and then some. This team also features no less than five forwards who spent this past season playing juniors somewhere other than in Slovakia, with Dominik Rehak having been active in the QMJHL. These players will surely be able to help the team adjust to the new international competition.
Weaknesses: The team has shown little sign of having much chemistry or tournament-style coordination to this point in time. The majority of players did not spend this past season playing at a particularly high junior level and only a small handful actually saw play in a men’s league. To top things off, not one player has ever played a U18 WJC game at the top level.
Key player: Forward Martin Reway not only suited up and played an important role for the Slovakian U20 team in Ufa, he also is coming off a year with the Gatineau Olympiques where he followed up a 22-goal and 50-point regular season performance (in just 47 games) with one goal and 12 points in 10 playoff games. The generally shy young man would be counted on to lead the attack and carry a heavy weight in the locker room, but it is still uncertain that he’ll even be in attendance. Without him, finding one key player to lead the way is a difficult task, but whoever is in goal on any given day will likely earn that title.
Who NHL scouts will be keeping a close eye on: No Slovak player could have possibly opened as many eyes this past season as Peter Cehlarik, who spent the winter with Lulea in Sweden. Originally having started off as a U18 player for the program, the 17-year-old quickly became a key scorer for their U20 team and was eventually given a shot at the SEL level. With three goals and three assists in eight regular season games, the team practically had no choice but to keep him on board for the playoffs, where he then managed one goal in six games. Still, his ascent into the men’s team was really nothing less than astronomic. Of special note, he’s first eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft. Two other players who’ll be given a good little look-see are forwards David Soltes and Timotej Sille, who are the highest ranked Slovakians for the upcoming draft not named Dano.
Unexpected gems: Speaking of which, with forward Marko Dano having been talked about since he was 15, and now a highly ranked European prospect for this upcoming draft, one won’t have to look long or far to find the next Slovakian 15-year-old of considerable note. His name is Erik Cernak and he’s a 6’2”, 190-pound defenseman who’ll be looking to make a name for himself in Sochi. He collected 11 points in 42 games for Slovan Bratislava in Slovakia’s U20 league this past season, but will catch the viewer’s eye most prominently thanks to his physical game, which is referred to as ‘punishing’. A young man-child, this is a boy viewers will want to keep an eye on.