As Slovakia prepares for the 2016 World Junior Championship that begins Saturday in Helsinki, Finland, it has become more and more clear that their tournament is all about survival. Let it be clear that there are no Martin Reways, Marko Danos, or Denis Godlas on this team. New heroes will have to be found and then they will have to perform consistently.
Fortunately for Slovakia, the team can spend the preliminary round not having to worry about Canada, Sweden or the USA, who are all entering the tournament as nominal favorites and feature at least one forward of superstar quality. Instead, the Slovaks will concentrate on establishing a tight-knit defensive unit where everybody does their work accordingly in their own zone before chances and risks are taken elsewhere on the ice.
It is not an uncommon situation for the team or for the players who have largely built recent U18 contingents, which have done all they could to gain just one victory per preliminary round in recent years. It is a situation the team is used to facing. That will be its strength.
Two names on the roster shine above all others, and those are of drafted defensemen Christian Jaros (OTT), who will captain the team, and Eric Cernak (LAK), an assistant captain who is for all intents and purposes the closest thing the team has to a star.
Both are monstrous, right-shooting defensemen who have already played at a WJC (for Cernak, this is his third go-round) and showed they know how to win with little means last winter. They are also cousins. In particular, Cernak is a player who has been talked about for years as he grew quickly in a physical capacity, with ice hockey experts just waiting for the tool box to catch up with that size and tool set. He seems to be getting there now. With the Erie Otters of the OHL, Cernak has collected three goals and eight points along with a +5 rating in 18 games.
Jaros has been in Sweden for several years, and after a good amount of playing time in spot duty for Lulea of the SHL the past two seasons, he is primarily anchored on the blueline for Asploven of the Allsvenskan, where he has five points and a -3 rating in 22 games this season.
Both bring a great deal of pro and international experience for their age. It is something the team will have to bank on, and you can bet that Slovakia head coach Ernest Bokros will have them on the ice for roughly 25 minutes a game and in all critical situations.
Options up front leaving much to be desired
Most are familiar with the hulking Radovan Bondra (CHI) of the Vancouver Giants. Already in possession of a Slovak Extraliga championship, Bondra is now plugging away in the WHL where his 16 points in 30 games are somewhat overshadowed by a -13 rating. He is the go-to guy in this group and, although he was part of it all last winter and a key component of the program’s last U18 World Championship team, he only has two goals in a total of 17 IIHF tournament games.
Upping him is the relatively unknown Kristian Pospisil, a Slovak who spent several seasons as part of the Red Bull Salzburg program before heading over to play for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the QMJHL. His QMJHL rookie season has gone well with 15 goals and 24 points in 29 games. Pospisil is expected to center Slovakia’s first line and lead whatever attack it can muster.
In Matej Palocko and Jozef Huna, the team features two smaller, skill players who are among the scoring leaders for the Czech Bili Tygri Liberec U20 program, whose men’s team ranks first in the Czech Extraliga. Both have Czech second league play experience to show, as well. They join Filip Lestan, who plays for the HV71 U20 club in Sweden, as the forwards playing outside of Slovakia for other programs within Europe. All three will be required to show that they can now be go-to guys as a result of that experience abroad, even if Lestan tends to glance through his physical play more than anything else. He does have three games of SHL experience this season.
Continuity will be the name of the game for the rest of the forward squad as the team is building off of its yearly U20 group that plays in Extraliga play. They haven’t scored much domestically, but they’ve been practicing together since the Fall. Dominik Briestensky, Lukas Hrusik, Boris Sadecky, Matus Sukel, Maros Surovy, Juraj Mily, and Juraj Siska build that contingent and the core of workers up front. Some may recognize Mily and Siska from their time in North America last season, Mily in the USHL and Siska in the CHL.
Please stand up if you’re a real defenseman
Although Cernak and Jaros will need to lead the way for the whole team, the defense in and of itself could go a long, long way in making Slovakia competitive. There is plenty of reason for opponents to refrain from underestimating this team’s defensive unit. Patrik Maier has created a reputation as a defensive defenseman and is in the midst of his second WHL season with the Kamloop Blazers, for whom he has three points and a -1 rating in 18 games. Another player competing abroad is 6’5” Ladislav Romancik, who is in his second year in Sweden, where he has gathered seven points and 34 penalty minutes in 25 games for Sodertalje’s U20 squad. Both are anything but shy when it comes to the physical aspect of the game and they will be counted on to bring just that element to this defensive group.
These four are rounded off by a group including Samuel Ivanic (6’3”, 209 lbs.), Matej Moravcik, Patrik Koch, and Adrian Svoboda. All are part of the Slovakian U20 squad, but only Moravcik is without experience abroad. Koch and Svoboda both have experience in the CHL and USHL while Ivanic spent several season in the Djurgarden junior program in Sweden. A no-name group by face, they are also a group that has much to prove and will be very happy with the upstart underdog role they will surely be assuming.
Only 17, Samuel Solensky has been Slovakia’s most noticeable forward in recent U18 events. In addition to creativity, the fact that his 28 points in 22 games for the aforementioned Liberec U20 team, including 18 goals, has him ahead of several older players would have had many thinking this club could use his contributions up front. Alas, he was one of the final cuts, and size may very well have played the biggest factor for the 5’9”, 170 pound forward.
Keep a close eye on…
Last winter’s team became the Denis Godla show. The kid was a key in winning bronze, despite several very human performances, and then went undrafted in his second summer of eligibility. What this team now needs is a repeat performance, this time from 6’3” Adam Huska. Funny enough, that kind of performance wouldn’t be out of the question for this 2015 seventh round draft pick of the New York Rangers. Huska has been outstanding this fall for the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, for whom he has put up a 1.65 goals-against average and .942 save percentage in 17 games.
Godla part two? We wouldn’t put it past him.
For Coach Bokros, this tournament will be all about his defensive corps getting the job done in its own zone and creating just enough counterattacks to score just enough up front to gain a few victories. The talent he will have on hand doesn’t allow for much more from a tactical standpoint.
Fortunately for Slovakia, they will not be part of Group A play and can concentrate heavily on their games against primarily Belarus and archrival Czech Republic.
Still, test game play to this point hasn’t been promising. In a recent 5-3 loss to Sweden, the team was absolutely helpless until it managed to pop in three goals late in the third. That came after a 5-3 home loss to Germany, a country that not only is currently mired in D1 Group A, but actually finished fifth in that group’s WJC play in Vienna, Austria last week.
The team needs some new heroes up front and this WJC, like several others before it, will be all about surviving. Like those many previous World Junior tourneys, Slovakia has shown a strong knack for doing just that, and this time should be no different.
Follow Chapin Landvogt’s coverage of the 2016 World Junior Championship