When searching the junior ranks for future NHL talent, good defensemen are usually harder to come by than good forwards. The upcoming NHL Draft class of players based in the Czech Republic is, however, an exception to that rule.
Two Czech defenders are ranked above the top-ranked forward, David Kämpf, and they are Martin Kokeš and Jan Štencel. And since the latter was with the Czech national junior team in Ufa, Russia, at the 2013 U20 World Juniors, he deserves a little more attention.
Štencel, the 18-year-old native of Opava, Czech Republic, is a mobile, versatile defenseman who currently plays for the Under-20 team of HC Vítkovice Steel, a club that runs one of the best youth hockey academies in the country. One of its most notable products, Australian forward Nathan Walker, who spent last summer at the Washington Capitals' rookie development camp, left the team earlier this season to play for the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL.
Štencel used to play with Walker at both the Under-18 and Under-20 levels and has his eyes set on the toughest goals. He's already the winning kind of player. Since transferring from his hometown of Opava via Třinec to Vítkovice in 2011, he has already won two national championships – one at the U18 level and the other at the U20 level. He also has a lot of valuable experience, not only from the aforementioned junior championships, but also from playing in the Czech Extraliga.
In the 2010-11 season, Štencel played for Třinec in the Czech Under-18 Extraliga and collected 25 points in 50 games. That attracted the scouts from Vítkovice, a team named after a neighborhood of the city of Ostrava, the third largest municipality in the Czech Republic. As Třinec is a part of Ostrava's agglomeration and his hometown of Opava isn't too far away, Štencel didn't have to adjust to big city life, but instead only needed to adjust to the quality of his team, which was suddenly considerably higher.
In addition to Walker, who was already an Extraliga regular, current QMJHL player Patrik Zdráhal and another Under-20 national team member, Erik Němec, played alongside Štencel at both levels in 2011-12. Štencel proved himself by scoring 28 points in 36 appearances in the U18 Extraliga and played at a good level in the U20 Extraliga, where he was a given a chance in 11 games.
The Under-18 team would eventually win the national championship. The Vítkovice managers and coaches knew they managed to build a special team consisting of players from Štencel's age category. Štencel then traveled to the south of the country for the 2012 Under-18 WJC where he was one of the underage players, but performed very well. Later that year, he led the defense of the same national team towards success at the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Tournament.
It was becoming apparent that Štencel would need to be given some playing time at a higher level in the 2012-13 season, and that's exactly what happened. He made his Extraliga debut as a 17-year-old and added 17 more games in the top Czech league, recording one assist in those appearances. Back with the Vitkovice U20 junior team, he quarterbacked the power-play and helped lead that club towards another title. Before the U20 Extraliga post-season began, however, Štencel had to prove himself at yet another level.
After Jakub Vrána, Štencel was the second-youngest member of the Under-20 national team at the 2013 WJC in Ufa, Russia. Initially, coach Miroslav Přerost played him on the first defensive pairing, but after a loss to Sweden, he spent the rest of the event as the seventh defenseman. Even from that position, he actually managed to make something happen as he would later add an assist on a rather memorable goal, sending an aerial pass rinkwide to a hidden and uncovered forward right after crossing the blue line.
Back from Ufa, Štencel's next goal was to make the national Under-20 Extraliga championship and that's exactly what he did. Vítkovice seemed to be an unstoppable machine, flying through the playoffs and beating dominant Sparta Prague in the finals. Štencel only had four points in seven games of the post-season, but was one of the leaders of the team and did what he was supposed to do – lead the defense and be a valuable asset on the power-play.
He kept on doing that at the 2013 Under-18 World Junior Championship, where he collected three assists in six games and was named one of the three best players of the Czech national team.
What makes Štencel so special? At 5'9“, he is a mobile blueliner with good speed. Also, his shot from the blue line is a rocket and a threat at all times. Being versatile and speedy, Štencel has no problems racing down the length of the ice to defend against a counter-attack or even throw a big hit. He does have the potential to make it to the NHL and, if he keeps on working as he has been to this point, he should get there one day.
Hockey's Future spoke with Štencel prior to the Under-18 World Championship.
Hockey's Future: You played at the 2013 Under-20 World Championships. What does playing in that tournament mean to you?
Jan Štencel: It was a great experience and I didn't even expect to get called up to play there. That made me enjoy it even more than I would if I had known about it for a long time. We had a good bunch of players and formed a tight team in a great hockey environment. We played well on the ice, too, so I'm happy.
HF: Also, you made your Extraliga debut this year, what about that?
JŠ: I think it's even greater than the U20 World Junior Championships. Professional hockey is at a higher level than junior hockey and it's much more difficult. There's a big difference between the two levels. Players are tougher, faster and more skilled and they are also smarter. It was a good experience for me.
HF: You're eligible for the upcoming NHL Draft. What do you think you need to work on in order to persuade the scouts?
JŠ: I need to work on my agility and get better at moving on the ice, at my skating skills. I should work on my shot and make it harder. Also, I just need to keep up the work I've been doing, the work that got me here, because it can get me farther.
HF: What if a CHL team drafts you in the Import Draft? Would you go overseas or stay at home?
JŠ: To be honest, we've considered this option, but we don't feel like pursuing a CHL career would be good for me because Vítkovice are offering me great conditions and so I would most likely stay in the Czech Republic.