A little miracle took place for Slovakia on the last night of the U20 World Junior Championship this past winter. The bronze medal obtained by Slovakia at this year’s WJC practically rejuvenated an ice hockey nation that was feeling as if its best days were eternally behind it. The tournament darlings made that bronze medal game victory over Sweden feel as if they’d won the Stanley Cup.
Hoping to catch onto the tail wings of those WJC victory winds, Head Coach Ernest Bokros is bringing a team to the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship that will not feature a Martin Reway or Peter Cehlarik. In fact, it won’t even feature the eligible Erik Cernak, arguably Slovakia’s best prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft, and a defenseman who already played a top role for the WJC team.
In fact, coach Bokros will be bringing along a group of relatively unknown players, and it appears that WJC attendee Radovan Bondra will be the one who needs to put this team on his back in order to simply retain the class. The most important teammates in assisting the 6’5” Bondra in this endeavor may prove to be Green Bay Gamblers’ goaltender Adam Huska, Assat Pori’s winger Roman Zitny and Lulea forward Filip Lestan. All three have garnered some international attention over the course of this season with Huska in particular playing very well in exhibition play for Slovakia, who’d very much welcome a Denis Godla-like performance from the 6’3” goalie who is currently ranked 16th among North American goalies for the upcoming draft. Zitny is a small all-around forward with good hockey sense and strong puckhandling skills while Lestan puts his 6’3” frame to use to create space for his teammates and keep opponents honest. Having gathered 149 penalty minutes for Lulea in just 31 U18 contests, it’s clear that he’s no stranger to physical activity.
The few leaders in this team will be joined by a group of young men who know each other well and have predominantly spent time playing for the country’s U18 national team that plays in the nation’s second league. The coach knows them and has been able to work with them a lot longer than, for example, Tim Hunter has with his group of Canadian boys. Thus, Slovakia is building on continuity and the belief that they have the skaters required to go out and destroy an opponent’s game plan. Realistically, there is no other route than adopting that underdog feeling and making life tough for the stronger programs.
The loss of the aforementioned Cernak is something that can’t possibly be compensated for, however. The 6’3”, 203-pounder would have been the team’s linchpin for just about every situation and, although many have questioned his decision-making abilities in the past, he has shown improvement in that department and was already a top-four defenseman for Kosice’s pro team, having collected 14 points and a +13 rating in 50 games. Losing him to injury is something that radically changes this team’s outlook.
Instead, they’ll have to give heavy playing minutes to solid all-around defensemen Andrej Hatala (5’11”, 187 lbs.) and Andrej Vadovic (6’1”, 187 lbs.), who have both had decent winters in establishing themselves to be among Europe’s most interesting 100 players for the upcoming NHL Draft. The right-shooting Hatala has captained Slovakia in the past and even saw 15 games of top league action for Dukla Trencin, going pointless. Vadovic is defensively-oriented and has had some ups and downs this winter, but is used to logging lots of minutes. Both have spent over 25 games time with the U18 squad in Slovakia’s second pro circuit.
Up front, the hodge-podge of two way forwards that Bokros has a good command of will have to make due. Likely seeing time on the first two lines will be Boris Sadecky (6 foot, 185 lbs.) and Peter Valent (5’10”, 170 lbs.), who both saw lots of ice time this winter. While Sadecky is more of a playmaking defensive forward, Valent has at times shown some real good mitts, with both players likely seeing special teams play.
Viewers can also expect to get familiar with the names Peter Horvath, Patrick Kolesar, Dominik Trska, and Martin Andrisik, as well as Michal Roman and Matej Murin, who have both spent the past two seasons playing successfully for Trinec’s junior program in the Czech Republic. These have proven to all be players who will go to battle in each and every game, having experienced their fair share of losing along the way.
One defenseman has had a tough winter playing for the Red Deer Rebels and will surely wish to use this tournament not only as a breath of fresh air, but to show his true mettle. The defensively-oriented Mario Grman is a solidly built, 6-foot and 185-pound player who concentrates on doing things well in his end. He was used sparingly by the coaching staff and only collected three assists and a -4 in 33 regular season games. Here he’ll be required to log lots of minutes as one of the few players used to facing North American competition in light of Cernak’s injury-based exclusion.
Who the NHL scouts will be watching
Radovan Bondra, F – Although not yet having developed himself as a scorer per se, Bondra saw a good bit of playing time in the U20 WJC (having gone scoreless) and only just turned 18 in late January. Not a relative of Peter Bondra, this kid nonetheless likes to make use of his leg strength in a similar manner to drive to the net from the outside whenever possible. At 6’5” and 212 pounds, the winger has spent this winter looking less and less lanky while finding ways to make better use of his surprisingly good and accurate shot. Finishing off the season with Kosice, Radovan put up three goals and seven points to accompany a +6 rating over 30 games for the Slovakian champion and is clearly bringing a victor’s mentality with him to Switzerland, where his role will be like no other he’s had yet.
Samuel Solensky, F – Only 16, this underager is THE next name to keep an eye on coming out of Slovakia. He’s spent more than three seasons being groomed by the Czech club Liberec and is coming off a winter in which he not only put up seven points and a +6 in six U18 games, but another 14 goals, 41 points, 47 penalty minutes and a +21 rating in 42 U20 games – numbers almost unheard of for a 16 year old. Only 5’9” and 159 pounds at the moment, he’ll likely be thrown into top-nine role and perhaps even see power play time. How he does here will likely decide whether he remains a prospect in the Czech Republic or finds his way to a junior circuit in North America. The skillset is already far above-average for his age group and thoughts of what Columbus’ Marko Dano was doing at that age should have scouts paying close attention.
If anything, the bronze medal at the WJC showed that the national program’s desire to keep their charges playing all winter long together and against pro or semi-pro competition can indeed bear some fruits. This club will take just that mentality into tourney play and features a coach who has been part of things for a very long time. In addition, there’s reason to believe that goaltending could end up being a strength, and as many tournaments have proven before, all you need is for your goaltender to steal the odd game or two to at least avoid the relegation round.
For the first time in a while, there will be nothing similar to an established Dano or Reway running around and leading the attack. Players of that magnitude are as yet void on this club. With offensive production possibly being a problem, matters will get no easier if the no-name defense doesn’t prove to have a few unexpected gems; at the moment, there’s nothing indicating that this group of defenders, which has had problems with teams like Germany in recent international play, will be able to be decisive in the preliminary round.
Despite some interesting players, there’s little belief that this team will stand a chance against group opponents Sweden, the USA and Russia, even if Slovakia has been a constant threat to particularly the Russians in recent years. There just isn’t enough power or proven depth to think this team is up for more than maybe one upset.
Of course, the last day of the preliminary round will see Slovakia face off against Germany and, as in so many years before, be it at the U20 or U18, whoever wins this game will likely avoid the relegation round. That is and remains the key goal for both teams.
Should Slovakia somehow find itself in the relegation round, two wins against what will likely be Latvia must be in the cards. This isn’t a year of relegation. But despite missing Cernak and having no offensive star of note, chances are that this Slovakian team will make it to, and then bow out in, the first round of the playoffs.
Follow Chapin Landvogt’s work from the U18 World Championship at Hockey’s Future