The 2013-14 Czech Extraliga regular season has already begun, with the first game being played on September 11th. The participation of junior-aged hockey players in the league will now be higher than ever. In hopes of lifting Czech draft and Under-20 WJC success and getting the country back to placing among the world's elite, the Czech Ice Hockey Association has introduced a rule that requires every team to dress at least three players born in 1991 or later, and one born in 1994 or later. That means that fans will be able to watch many Czech prospects, including those eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft.
This is a preview of the Czech Extraliga that focuses mostly on the prospects playing in the Czech Republic's top hockey league. The preview begins with the defending champion.
HC Škoda Plzeň
Led by Martin Straka, former NHL player and current general manager and captain of the team in Plzeň, the Indians finally got to the very top at the end of the 2012-13 season. It's far from certain whether they are title contenders again as there has been many changes to the roster since the post-season concluded.
The leading point-getter of the team in the playoffs, Jan Kovář, has left for Magnitogorsk of the KHL. The team also lost the entire goaltending tandem, with Marek Mazanec going overseas to play for the Nashville Predators' AHL affiliate in Milwaukee and veteran Adam Svoboda transferring to Prague's Slavia. As replacements, one of the Extraliga's top players, Radek Duda, and former national-team goalie Lukáš Mensator have joined the team.
There is no prospects born later than 1995 on the team, and no big names for the upcoming draft. The top prospect on the team is goaltender Matěj Machovský, who is supposed to challenge Mensator for the starting job. The 20-year-old native of Opava returns to his homeland after three years in the Ontario Hockey League and has already posted impressive numbers in the European Trophy with a goals-against average of 1.00 in three games.
Among other young guns on the team, defensemen Dan Růžička, Vojtěch Mozík and Jakub Jeřábek, and forward Jan Schleiss, look most hopeful, but that means only one 1994-born or younger player is on the roster. Other candidates will be recalled from Plzeň's Under-20 team, with forwards Vojtěch Tulačka, Filip Mašek and Miroslav Indrák looking like they have the best chances of getting called up from the juniors.
Last year's runner-up managed to keep more of their team's core intact, including their top prospects. The team's top point-scorers – former long-time NHL player Petr Čajánek, former Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Jaroslav Balaštík and Extraliga legend Petr Leška – stay in the country's shoe capital, as does rising star Antonín Honejsek. As for departures, top defenseman Tomáš Linhart left for Třinec, starting netminder Jakub Sedláček will play for Dinamo Riga in the KHL, and veteran Martin Hamrlík has retired from professional hockey with virtually nobody coming in to replace them.
Three big-time prospects will keep on playing in Zlín at least one more year. Number one is Petr Holík, born in 1992 and raised in Zlín. Holík played his first full Extraliga season at the age of 19 and has since turned into one of the team's most effective players. Holik has also represented his country at the Under-20 WJC and the Euro Hockey Tour. The upcoming season might be his breakout season.
A 21-year-old native of Zlín, gifted goaltender Libor Kašík, who spent last season on loan in the Czech's second-highest league, is supposed to fight for the starting position in net. His statistics have been simply amazing and he almost helped push Olomouc to the Extraliga. Now, it's time for him to make a big step and replace Sedláček in the net.
And finally, 21-year-old defenseman Petr Zámorský will compete in his third full season of Extraliga hockey. Zámorský has shown versatility and consistency in his performances inn the previous two season. In addition, this is his second year as a member of the Czech Euro Hockey Tour national team.
With these three quickly turning into Extraliga starters, it looks like Zlin's next appearance in the finals is closer than expected.
HC Slavia Praha
It was a great rebound season last year for Prague's Slavia, coached by Vladimír Růžička and led by future NHL star Tomáš Hertl. But a lot of changes have been made this past summer as team managers tried to ensure that the team gets to the playoffs again in the next season. Hertl has already left and signed a contract with the San Jose Sharks, the team that drafted him into the NHL 17th overall back in 2012. Also leaving is former NHL goalie Miroslav Kopřiva, whose starting job was taken over by 23-year-old Dominik Furch last year. Furch will have to fight to keep that spot as veteran Adam Svoboda joins the team, as does rugged rearguards David Štich and Juraj Valach, and former NHL forward Jaroslav Bednář.
Hands down, not much of Slavia's roster consists of top prospects with Hertl already overseas. The two who will get some attention are forwards Lukáš Žejdl and Michal Poletín, both 22 years of age and looking for a breakout season. Besides that, it looks like Slavia is betting on experience.
Out of 1994-born or younger prospects, only big defenseman Ronald Knot has been confirmed on the roster. Slavia's junior team isn't exactly full of top prospects and, out of the 2014 draft prospects, only Dominik Mašín, who captained Team Czech Republic at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup, is a name worth mentioning.
HC Oceláři Třinec
Fans of young hockey players will have much more fun watching Třinec in the upcoming season, even though the team has lost some big names over the summer. But the open slots means that youngsters will get more opportunities on the ice. Goal-scorer Tomáš Klimenta is gone, top blueliner Tomáš Klouček is a free agent, and David Květoň left for Kärpät in Finland. Only versatile defenseman Tomáš Linhart joined the team in the off-season, but the team has plenty of prospects ready to shine. Also, besides former NHL forwards Radek Bonk and Václav Varaďa, Martin Růžička turned into a scoring machine last year with 83 points in 52 games, but decided to stay because NHL teams would only sign him to try-out contracts.
The most interesting prospects on the team were born in 1991, and that list includes Jakub Orsava, a flashy winger who played for on the Czech Euro Hockey Tour national team the last two seasons; goaltender Šimon Hrubec, who is looking to keep the number-one spot in goal for himself this season; and tough forward Adam Rufer, who will want to prove that he can be a legit Extraliga forward. Aside from those three, Jakub Kindl's brother Denis Kindl and blueliner Daniel Krejčí will attract attention this season.
Two players born in 1994 and 1995, respectively, have been announced on the roster, as well, with those players being defenseman Michael Foltýn, who is simply coming out of nowhere, and forward Marek Růžička, who was a star last year with Třinec's Under-18 team. The Under-20 team's roster hasn't been announced yet, but it will most likely include likes of high-scoring forward Tomáš Franek and 2015 draft prospect Michal Kovařčík.
HC Sparta Praha
The older of the two Prague-based teams, Sparta, will be looking to go higher in the standings after another mediocre season. The roster underwent a huge overhaul this summer, with a lot of good players leaving and others joining. The two leading point-scorers, Jaroslav Hlinka and Petr Ton, stayed, but another scoring machine, Petr Tenkrát, and veteran Michal Broš have left. On the other hand, Tomáš Pöpperle is coming in from the KHL's HC Lev as the new starting goaltender, and Tomáš Rolinek was appointed the team's new captain right after joining. Other big names who joined the team are Lukáš Pech, who is an effective point-scorer, and great two-way defenseman Karel Kubát.
The top prospect on the team might be Dominik Simon. The 19-year-old forward was first eligible for the NHL Draft in 2012 but, despite spending most of last season among professionals, Simon didn't get a chance to compete at the last Under-20 WJC and wasn't drafted into the NHL. That might come in June of 2014 if this is his breakout season. Simon has big potential and if he gets enough ice-time in this Extraliga season, he might well convince NHL scouts of his upside.
Most likely the only prospect that can compete with Simon is defenseman Marek Hrbas, 20, who spent the last four seasons in North America playing for the Fargo Force of the USHL, and Edmonton and Kamloops of the WHL. Hrbas played at both of the last two Under-20 WJC's, but now it's his first chance to show fans in his home country what he is capable of doing in the Czech leagues.
Home of many Czech hockey legends, including Nagano coach Ivan Hlinka and former NHL player Jiří Šlégr (who just announced his comeback with the team), but this team rarely makes the news. There hasn't been many changes for this season, plus the team is hardly ever considered a threat in the playoffs. At least they were able to keep their top point-scorers, Viktor Hübl and František Lukeš. Their only big losses are long-time member of the team Vojtěch Kubinčák and defensemen Karel Kubát and Ján Brejčák, the latter of which will play in the KHL for Slovan Bratislava.
The only two prospects who are worth mentioning, both defensemen, only joined the team this summer. The top prospect is Tomáš Pavelka, a 20-year-old blueliner who spent the last two seasons with the QMJHL's PEI Rocket and who also played at the Under-20 WJC. The other is Filip Pavlík, who is already 21 and played one game in the KHL for Lev Praha last year. They should both become permanent members of the team, but no miracles are expected of them.
Kladno is another town where many big hockey players come from, including Jaromír Jágr, who also played there during last year's lockout. So did Tomáš Plekanec, Marek Židlický, Jiří Tlustý and Tomáš Kaberle, who is team's last addition to the 2013-14 roster. The former long-time Toronto Maple Leaf will have a great impact on his new team in the Extraliga, as will three other newcomers, elite forwards Jan Hlaváč and Petr Tenkrát and big Slovak defenseman Ivan Majeský. Not many players from last season's roster have left, but the post-lockout team that Kladno had was way below Extraliga level. Other holdovers from last year's roster include veteran Pavel Patera and goaltender Jan Chábera, who is a solid starter.
Just like in Litvínov, the two top prospects in the Kladno organization – which is owned by Jágr – are defensemen. One is 20-year-old Milan Doudera, who is in his second season after rejoining his hometown team after getting two OHL seasons under his belt. Perhaps even more interesting will be 20-year-old Václav Kolařík, who played for Budapest in the MHL for half of last season before turning in a great offensive performance for Kladno's Under-20 team.
Last season saw a lot change in Vítkovice, with Vladimír Svačina and Rudolf Huna taking over from Jiří Burger and Viktor Ujčík as the team's top point-scorers. Also, Ujčík has decided to leave the team and will play in Jihlava, in the Czech's second-highest league. Leaving the team as well are former long-time NHL defenseman Marek Malík, former St, Louis Blues draft pick Tomáš Káňa, and responsible defenseman Tomáš Voráček (no relation to the Flyers' Jakub Voráček). There were no big names coming in this summer, but there is quite a few prospects to talk about.
The two most interesting forwards, although their upside seems to be unclear, are 1991-born Lukáš Kucsera and Petr Kolouch, who are both looking to get more ice-time. Much more promise is shown by 19-year-old defenseman Marek Bail, who might spend the majority of this season playing for the team's minor-league affiliation in Šumperk but is looking to make his Extraliga debut.
The top prospect on the team is already well-known to people who watched the 2013 NHL Draft closely because it was this player that was the top Czech-based prospect in that draft. Jan Štencel might have missed out on his first chance to get drafted, but this year he is determined to convince the scouts that they made a mistake. The versatile defenseman looks like he has a permanent spot in the lineup secured, but now it's up to him to get more ice-time and make things happen.
HK Mountfield Hradec Králové
A lot has changed in this organization since their feud with the Budweiser Budvar brewery that eventually forced the team to relocate from České Budějovice to Hradec Králové. Some players stayed in Budějovice, one level below the Extraliga now, including long-time NHL forward Aleš Kotalík. Most of team's core has stayed, including Jiří Šimánek who was, after Kotalík, the most influential player on the roster. Starting goaltender Jakub Kovář left for the KHL where he'll play for Yekaterinburg, while the backup from last season, Pavel Kantor, should step in as the top netminder.
There is several prospects to talk about and they are all of equal potential so let's start with a goaltender who could challenge Kantor for the starting job. 20-year-old native of Hradec Králové Jaroslav Pavelka has just returned from Windsor, but is planning on being a competitive backup for the more experienced Kantor. Among defensemen, 21-year-old Bohumil Jank already played a full Extraliga season last year in Budějovice and 19-year-old Karel Plášil had his debut, but not much more than that, so he'll be trying to get more Extraliga playing time in his new town.
Also, 1995-born forward Luboš Rob, Jr. will want to get more Extraliga ice-time and, like Štencel, prove to the scouts that he should have been drafted. 20-year-old Michal Švihálek played at the last Under-20 WJC, but didn't get many points on the board until the playoffs where he scored two goals in five games. That could be a sign that a good year of hockey is coming up for this kid.
HC ČSOB Pojišťovna Pardubice
Last season was a letdown for Pardubice fans as they failed to reach the playoffs as defending champions of the league. The loss of elite forwards Petr Koukal and Jan Kolář, both KHL-bound, cost the team a lot. After Aleš Hemský and David Krejčí had to go back overseas as the lockout ended, Slovak forward Martin Bartek became the leader, but now he's gone. His countryman, Radovan Somík, will now share that responsibility with feared goal-scorer Petr Sýkora (not the one who played in the NHL a couple years ago).
Three prospects who should permanently play in the upcoming season should be mentioned. Much is expected of Tomáš Nosek, who used to be a much bigger name in Czech junior hockey than he is right now. Currently 21 years old, he will try to have a successful third season with the team as his sophomore campaign went rather well.
Challenging the top goaltending tandem will be 19-year-old netminder Daniel Dolejš, who is coming in on loan from Havlíčkův Brod. Last year was his first full season among professionals, but not yet in the Extraliga. Dolejš' main concern will most likely be getting to the Under-20 WJC, so he will only play for Pardubice if he's needed as the starter.
2015 draft prospect, forward Michael Špaček, is now the number-one competitor for the top spot among Czech prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft, the current leader being Pavel Zacha from Liberec who will be mentioned later. Špaček had a lot of ice-time during his team's European Trophy journey, but ended up with no points in the entire competition. He's hoping for some ice-time with Pardubice's Extraliga team, but will spend the majority of his season in juniors.
HC Kometa Brno
Brno fans were let down as their team needed to battle to stay in the league after reaching the finals the year before. This year, their team will be looking to rebound as most of the core has stayed, including leading point-scorer Jan Hruška and the top overall player, Jakub Svoboda. Also, there have been good players added to the roster, including elite defenseman David Nosek and former NHL player David Pivko.
But the team is also full of young blood. The three top prospects were born in 1994 and later, but let's start with number one, 1996-born forward Pavel Jenyš. Jenyš showed off his abilities in front of NHL scouts at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and had a good European Trophy, as well. He'll be looking to become a permanent member of the team now as he's hoping to impress NHL scouts even more.
The other two are also forwards. Both Adam Raška and Petr Mrázek have played one game in the Extraliga already, but they're still working to get a permanent spot on the team. Both were born in 1994 and their careers are actually very similar, with one of the only differences being their size as Mrázek is a little bigger. It's tough to say who has the better chance of getting one of the places on the team, Jenyš or one of these two. It's pretty safe to say that the two have much more experience than the younger Jenyš, though.
HC Energie Karlovy Vary
Karlovy Vary had a terrible 2012-13 season and honestly, they look even weaker now. While Chomutov and Liberec, the only two teams that ended behind Energie in the standings, brought some big names in this summer, Karlovy Vary instead let some good players get away. That list includes leading point-scorer Lukáš Pech, top defenseman David Nosek and legends who carried the team's spirit, Václav Skuhravý and Petr Kumstát. Now it's up to forwards Martin Zaťovič and David Zucker, who still have to prove themselves, and young goaltender Tomáš Závorka.
The top prospects on this team are all forwards and there's three of them worth taking a look at. Surprisingly, much of the rest of the team consists of average Extraliga players who already have some experience. It's not easy to pick the number-one prospect as there is a pair of 19-year-old forwards who could both go a long way. Both Vojtěch Tomeček and Petr Koblasa appeared at the last Under-20 WJC and will most likely be given a green light with the Energie this season. The latter has more Extraliga experience, but they both had a great campaign last year in the MHL. Now it's up to them to prove that they can be more than ordinary prospects.
Also, Michal Vachovec will attract some attention. The 21-year-old forward with more than 70 games of Extraliga experience has been trying to make things happen in the Extraliga for quite a while now. It looks like this will be his breakout season. If not, the future probably won't be so bright for Vachovec.
Despite the fact that Chomutov almost fell back down from the Extraliga in their first season, it looks like they will be able to compete for a playoff spot in the upcoming season. Most of the team's core stayed, including leading scorers David Hruška and Tomáš Divíšek, the latter of whom was only there on loan last year. And as there is many interesting prospects on the roster, we can say that the Pirates have that useful combination of experience and young blood on their team.
Eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft, 17-year-old forward Ondřej Kaše is Chomutov's top prospect. The youngster showed a lot of promise last year at the Under-20 level and at the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and also got some professional hockey experience with the team's minor-league affiliate in Kadaň, his hometown. After that, he had a pretty solid Under-18 WJC and, with one goal in seven games of the European Trophy, it's no wonder that he might play a whole Extraliga season this year. He'll try his best to impress the NHL scouts.
18-year-old David Kämpf is a good prospect, too. His last season resembled that of Kaše a good bit, and so does his preseason that just ended a couple of weeks ago. At 6-foot-2, Kämpf is a power-forward and his size should provide his linemates with some space on the ice. It's up to him to learn from the more experienced players, and to one day develop into a star in a top European league, and possibly even get to the NHL.
At defense, 21-year-old defender Tomáš Bartejs is entering his sophomore season after showing some offensive upside during his rookie season in 2012-13. 19-year-old Libor Šulák is a newcomer to the Extraliga and might play often for the team's affiliate in Kadaň. However, he's showing some offensive upside even though he's a big, primarily shutdown defenseman.
Bílí Tygři Liberec
Last season was a nightmare for the White Tigers, but they managed to build a brand new offense with many big names coming in during summer. Petr Nedvěd will still be the captain in what might be his last season of professional hockey. The team was unable to keep Radek Duda, whom they had on loan from Chomutov, and tough guy David Štich who decided to join Slavia in Prague. On the flipside, elite offensive defenseman Jiří Hunkes, skilled forward Petr Vampola, big forwards Martin Bartek and Koba Jass and rearguard Tomáš Voráček have joined the team. Also, Marek Schwarz will continue minding the Tigers net. It looks like a rebound season is coming up.
16 years of age and already looking like an accomplished Extraliga player on the ice. That's 2015 draft prospect Pavel Zacha, who is now about 6-foot-4 and ready to play in his first full Extraliga season. A couple of days ago he signed his first professional contract with the team and is expected to stay for the two seasons before his draft year. In the meantime, he will try to make sure that he improves his game as much as possible in order to catch the attention of the scouts and be drafted as high as possible.
Another big prospect is mobile defenseman Filip Pyrochta, who is eligible for the 2014 draft. It's pretty sure that he will spend most of his season with the team's affiliation in Benátky nad Jizerou, but he could play a couple of games in the Extraliga and also try to impress the scouts. From the junior category, Matěj Psota, a 19-year-old native of Liberec, will try to crack the lineup.
Besides Nedvěd, the team will depend a great deal on two smart, young forwards who have developed amazing chemistry with each other. Michal Bulíř (22) and Tomáš Filippi (21) belong to league's best in their age category and want to get even better. If they're not future stars in the making, who is? They're just looking for the best fit on their line, somebody who would provide them with a lot of space.
Follow Radoslav Vavrina on Twitter via @Pacific4_Rado_V