Coming into the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, it was widely felt that a lot of unlikely things would have to go right for Slovakia in order for the team to medal. For the country itself, the expectations were mild with maintaining the class being the main goal.
By defeating Belarus 4-2 in a nail-biter that included a goal given by the referee on an awkward play late in the game, the team ultimately achieved the minimum. A tight 2-0 loss to the brotherly Czech Republic and another 2-1 loss to Russia were valiant efforts that would have attested heavily to Slovakia’s pure competitiveness, but the team just couldn’t put the puck in the net.
Once they finally did score three goals, which only happened once, it was in an 8-3 shellacking by host Finland. Despite relatively good goaltending from Adam Huska (NYR) to kick things off, the loss against Finland was followed by an astoundingly uninspired 6-0 loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals, the team Slovakia had beaten for bronze last winter. Making the whipping all that much more surprising was the fact that no less than four Slovakian players have been playing and maturing in Sweden, which would have one think it is a team they would have been especially inspired to put up a bigger fight against.
With a goal and four points, Matus Sukel was about the only forward on the team that showed up for the tournament. Slovakia knew going in that there were no Martin Reways, Peter Cehlariks or Marko Danos to lean on, but the lack of offensive firepower was seldom as apparent as in this tournament, where the team got shutout twice and managed just eight goals in the entire event. At just 5’9” and 172 pounds, the Orange U20 product was a bit of a surprise in light of a few bigger names that went fairly silent throughout the tourney.
The 6’5”, 205-pound Ladislav Romancik will turn 20 soon and played a nasty game, sometimes too nasty in accumulating 18 penalty minutes. Still, he wound up with a +1 rating and one point, putting himself on the map. He is currently playing for Sodertalje’s U20 program in Sweden, where he has totaled seven points, 59 penalty minutes, and a +2 in 27 games. This said, his role was not the same as that of captain Christian Jaros, a 2015 Ottawa Senators‘ fifth rounder.
If one shuts an eye to the team’s final two games, Huska was the player who kept this team in things for the first three matches and ultimately decided the game against an almost upstart Belarus. He couldn’t keep things up to complete the tournament, but he was given little support as the team began to crumble. It is hard to say if class retention would have been possible without him.
The reasons behind team Slovakia’s disappointing tournament
In begins and ends with the fact that no players similar to Reway, Dano, and Cehlarik were in the lineup. There simply was nothing resembling a first line to be found. The scoring was missing and the guys who needed to make a difference, such as 6’5”, 218-pound Radovan Bondra (CHI) contributed next to nothing up front. In general, the team’s play was all about surviving and hoping to pounce on counterattack opportunities, but the power play was also too harmless for a team that was generating little in 5-on-5 play.
Looking forward, the team has retained the class and may be bringing a largely different group next season. If the U18 team is any indication, the same concerns will pop up in Toronto and Montreal unless the likes of Bondra and Filip Lestan have learned a lot in Helsinki about stepping up to the plate.
2016 prospects that helped themselves
Speaking of which, the 6’4”, 185-pound Lestan will never be mistaken for a scorer, but as an 18-year-old eligible for the upcoming NHL Draft, he did involve his big body without heading to the penalty box too often, which has been his trademark to date everywhere he has played, including his current station of Jonkoping, Sweden where he currently plays junior hockey. A physical player, he showed much more maturity than he did at the U18 World Championship in Switzerland while showing a leadership role in a checking capacity. One goal, four penalty minutes, and a -1 rating was his modest output, but for a player who has already suited up for three SHL games and likes to involve his body in a physical manner, his apparent improvement in the maturity department might make him a sought-after product in the later rounds of the draft.
2016 prospect may have hurt his cause
Having enjoyed some decent success in the QMJHL, 19-year old Kristian Pospisil was expected to be a go-to on offense at this WJC. Despite a number of good actions along the way, however, he just didn’t seem to have the heart in becoming a decisive factor and ended the tournament with zero points and a -3 rating. Perhaps of all the players who came over from Canadian juniors, he had the hardest time being an impact player in this tournament. A shame for him, his prospect status, and most of all, for Slovakia.
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