After a real rollercoaster ride at the 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia, Slovakia bounced back to the fun and promise of WJC playoff hockey play at the 2014 WJC. But the fun was over when they ran into a Swedish team that looked ready for gold medal destiny. Nonetheless, it was a tournament where super prospect Marko Dano was able to reaffirm hockey minds that he’s the real deal.
The team will now enter the 2015 World Junior Championship with a number of interesting players, most of whom have represented Slovakia in U20 or U18 play at some juncture.
Leading the way are two returnees who should be major components to any success Slovakia will enjoy. The 6’2”, 196-pound Lulea forward Peter Cehlarik and 5’10”, 175-pound Sparta Prague winger Martin Reway will be called on to carry the offensive load over the next two-and-a-half weeks.
Cehlarik has been playing junior and senior hockey in Sweden for some time now. The 2013 Boston Bruins third rounder is currently a regular for Lulea, having put up four goals and 13 points in 29 games this season as well as three points in six CHL contests. His game continues to develop, and at this point, he’s a man amongst children when he’s on the ice against fellow juniors. Every opponent has to give him extra attention around the net because he has the type of hands and hockey sense to make you pay in a very quick fashion for ignoring him.
Reway may be a little tyke physically, but he has the heart of a lion and he’s done nothing but excel in international play over the past few seasons. He had 62 points in 43 games for the Gatineau Olympiques last season and is currently playing pro hockey for Sparta Prague, for whom he has 21 points in 23 games plus another seven in six CHL contests. Speed, creativity, hockey sense and an awareness to protect himself in tight situations makes him an outstanding prospect for the NHL and almost downright prototypical for a Montreal Canadiens franchise that has an abundance of smaller skill players at the NHL level and in their prospect bin. At this point, the third-year WJC veteran can be expected to have his way with a number of opposition defensemen.
Although Cehlarik and Reway will be the absolute cogs in this Slovakian engine, they will not be alone in trying to be the tournament’s upstart team. They’ll be joined by a number of players who play predominantly for the U20 junior team, which collects the bulk of the players who come into question for the WJC and has them play together against teams in Slovakia’s top pro league. There, they gain the often brutal experience that comes with playing against pro men in a controlled atmosphere, where they have neither the option of being relegated nor making the playoffs. The results to date have been inconsistent and unconvincing, at best. Still, the program is believed to be of great benefit in light of the country’s financial problems and the number of players who have left the country in their younger years to better develop elsewhere. Most of them are big-bodied players who spend a lot of time on the ice and will be ready to live it up in the underdog role.
Exceptions are Patrik Maier, a very strong three zone defenseman who sticks to the fundamentals. He is 5’11” and a compact 190 pounds and is plying his trade for the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL. There, he’s been adjusting to North American play at a proper pace, but is still clearly in the midst of that process, having put up 7 points, a -9 rating and 56 penalty minutes in 35 games to date. His experience from this season will be of great importance for this Slovakian team and he should be seeing top four minutes.
Otherwise, there are plenty of question marks on the blueline, but up front, a number of players are intriguing and will need to deliver in all three zones to give Slovakia a good shot. Smaller Patrick Koys was once considered a top talent coming out of Slovakia, but hit some snags along the way. He currently captains the U20 program team and has gotten his career back on track, something he’d like to show the international community after a less than dynamic season for the Shawinigan Catraractes in 2012-13. Also providing experience and leadership is thickly built Dominik Rehak, a former U18 captain who will be looked at to play a key defensive center role and throw his 185-pound frame around.
Even more vital is the play of two year WHL veteran and WJC returnee David Soltes, who has 17 points in 25 games for the Prince George Cougars. He was able to gather some good experience in recent years as a part of the U20 and U18 teams. Possibly joining him on a line will be 6’3”, 200-pound Juraj Siska, who has nine points this season in 31 games for the Saint John Sea Dogs in the QMJHL.
Another player who could be a game-breaker for the Slovaks is Robert Lantosi, an average sized 19-year-old who has spent three seasons with the program in Vasteras, Sweden. This season he’s got 15 points in 18 junior games and another two points in 12 Allsvenskan contests. He was loaned to a third league club, where he gathered four points in three games. Experienced against men, Lantosi could be just the scoring joker no one is expecting and will likely assume a top-six role on the team.
Despite these promising players, the likely compliment to Reway and Cehlarik up front will be Matej Paulovic. The 6’3”, 196-pound winger plays with a lot of awareness and gumption, which clearly caught the eye of the Dallas Stars who drafted him in the fifth round in 2013. This year he’s been a top scorer and true all-around player in the USHL for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, having put up 27 points, 50 penalty minutes, and a +12 rating in 25 contests. His experience on North American rinks and ability to play with skill players could allow Slovakia to have one of the tourney’s top scoring lines. Before heading to North America, he had spent two seasons playing Swedish junior hockey for Farjestad.
Who the scouts will be watching
Erik Cernak, D – By this time, fans should have denoted the 6’4”, 205-pound youngster as being one of Slovakia’s brightest prospects in years. Still just 17 years old, he’s been taking a regular shift and occupying top-three minutes for perennial powerhouse Kosice in the Slovakian Extraliga. Known primarily for his defensive play and big blueline shot, Cernak has at times also been known to make very poor puck-related decisions. This is something he’s worked hard to change and will want to use this WJC to prove that to the international community. A kid who can play in all three zones and loves to throw the body, scouts are particularly happy about his potential as a right-shooting defender. Aside from Cehlarik and Reway, Cernak may be the country’s most important player this winter.
Christian Jaros, D – Eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, Jaros has followed Cehlarik up to Lulea and began the season as a junior player, but has spent most of the season playing for either the SHL team (one assist and -4 in 14 games) or Allsvenskan club Asploven (one assist and -2 in 4 games). Still learning the ropes, the 6’3”, 205-pounder with a right-handed shot has been very impressive for the Slovaks in international play and is already an integral part of this defense. He does good things in all three zones and has been soaking in that Scandinavian coaching the past two years.
Radovan Bondra, F – Although not yet having developed himself as a scorer per say, Bondra is just 17 and already possesses that almost typical monstrous Slovakian frame, checking in at 6’5” and 212 pounds. Lanky and looking somewhat uncoordinated, he doesn’t have any problem shooting the puck, but is a work in progress on the skating side. Should he turn that into a strength down the road, then the sky is the limit. Slovakia would love to see him have his coming out party at this tournament.
A very strong first line and a number of forwards who could strike and make the difference at any given time.
No clear-cut international goalie who can be expected to win games on his own, and this behind a defense that features two promising youngsters, one international skater still learning the ropes in Canada, and a bunch of relative no-names who still have much to prove.
This team will again feature a majority of players who have been playing together against men for most of the season as part of the HK Orange 20 program. That will mean that there’s routine, chemistry, and familiarity with a common system and with each other. Nonetheless, there’s little WJC experience in either the goaltending department or on defense. Both positions are a work in progress and whoever is in goal will have to show more than he has to date. At this point, it looks like U20 team and Slovan Bratislava prospect Denis Godla has the inside shot.
As usual, size is above-average on this club and this will be all the more important in tight corners, where gobbling up space and blocking shooting and passing lanes will be critical. Still, if that fails, these players may be left in a quicker opponent’s dust. With Canada, Finland and the USA in the group, Slovakia will be little more than an underdog, a role it loves to have and has often thrived in. The match-up against Germany on the 30th, a team they lost to in 2013 and then crushed in 2014, will decide between playoffs and play-downs.
Coming off a 3-1 test game victory over archrival Czech Republic, the Slovaks look to once again be ready to make some noise and, on paper, clearly have a team that should leave Germany and Denmark, if not also Switzerland, behind them.
Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin