The Czech Republic has failed to medal since being promoted to the elite division in 2008. In the last two years at the U18, they had to fight to avoid relegation both times, but now it finally looks as if they have a real chance to get past the preliminary round and compete against the strongest of the participants.
Earlier this season, the Czechs played a tight, three-game series with Russia and last week, they overpowered Slovakia by a total score of 8-1 in two games. One thing that has changed compared to last season is the presence of big names. 17-year-old winger Jakub Vrána has gotten more mature and stronger since appearing at the same tournament a year ago, drawing huge interest from scouts and racking up eight points in six games.
Vrána now also has some highly-valued Under-20 WJC experience, just like versatile defenseman Jan Štencel, who only had one point at last year's U18. Aside from competing at the 2013 World Juniors in Ufa, Russia, Štencel also won the Czech Junior Extraliga title with his Vítkovice Steel club, quarterbacking most of its power-plays. The last of three players possessing U18 WJC experience is rearguard Jan Košťálek, who plays for Rimouski in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Also, the current team contains a couple of names not eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft. This list includes big center Pavel Zacha, who has only recently turned 16, but is already nearly 6'3“ and 200 pounds according to official data provided by the Czech Ice Hockey Association.
Strengths: Not many have noticed, but the Czech team is getting more and more physical with every season. Their top players this year all play an intimidating kind of hockey, including Vrána who isn't exactly the tallest hockey player in the world. Also, with a couple of the QMJHL's Acadie-Bathurst Titan players in Adam Zbořil and Patrik Zdráhal, who have both played together all year, their should be much more chemistry in their top lines. Also, the Czechs have always had that kind of offense that can score at any time, shorthanded or up a man.
Weaknesses: Last year, the Czech Republic relied on solid netminder Marek Langhamer until he was injured in only their second game, which then exposed the biggest weakness of that team. His backup, Patrik Polívka, failed to fill the void and recorded a goals-against average of 4.86. The truth is that Langhamer didn't have a good tournament, either, so he wouldn't have likely saved the Czechs even if he had remained healthy. This year, Vítkovice U20 team backup René Svoboda will be the number one for the Czechs and, even though he's posting good numbers this season, both the Vítkovice U20 defense and the Czech U18 national team defense are good enough to help cover any deficiencies in Svoboda's game.
Key player: No doubt about this one, it's Jakub Vrána. The 17-year-old forward shared the lead of the team in points and drew an amazing amount of attention a year ago. In the summer of 2011, the gifted winger left his hometown of Prague, where he played for a smaller team in the district called Letňany, to play in Sweden. There, he has since played for four different teams in the Linköping organization, starting at the Under-16 level, then spending most of the 2011-12 season playing the Under-18 elite league, and finally reaching the Swedish Elitserien itself this year. The team gave him a chance in five games of the prestigeous competition, but he failed to record any points and posted a -2 rating. Aside from that one blip, he was a point-per-game player in the Under-20 elite league. In comparison to Filip Forsberg, who's playing in Nashville right now, Vrána doesn't show much worse numbers; at the same age, Forsberg only collected four more points in the same league.
Who NHL scouts will keep a close eye on: Of course, the most watched player of the team, if not the entire event, will be Vrána who may eventually be chosen in the first half of the first round as he is eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft. From players who can be drafted this year, defensemen Štencel and Martin Kokeš, who was ranked even higher by the scouts at one point the season, and Košťálek will be watched. The scouts will also want to see the aforementioned goalie Svoboda, who is the best Czech-based netminder eligible for the 2013 draft. From the forwards, Acadie-Bathurst teammates Zbořil, who is smaller and technical, and Zdráhal, who is bigger and more suited for the North-American style of hockey, will be looked at. The Sudbury Wolves' Dominik Kubalík, who has experience from the Czech Extraliga, where he played in the 2011-12 season alongside Martin Straka, will also draw some interest. Also, don't forget the young sensation Zacha, who is eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft. Zacha, however, is unlikely to rack up as many points as Vrána did a year ago. His teammate from Liberec junior team, versatile defenseman Filip Pyrochta, is available for the 2014 draft.
Unexpected gem: There isn't one Czech player that could surprise observers. Instead, it can be Zacha or Pyrochta, but most likely, the unexpected gem is forward Miroslav Indrák. He might not be the most talented player and he would be the last one to tell you that he is, but he knows how to be in the right place at the right time. He seems to be a natural goal-scorer because he fairly often, although he says that it's mostly just coincidence and good luck. It will be interesting to see how he performs on a bigger stage.