Slovakia’s entry at last spring’s IIHF U18 World Championship started its tournament off with a bang by defeating Sweden, 3-1, but the tournament went downhill from there. Although a victory over eventually relegated Germany allowed Slovakia to finish the preliminary round with two victories, their playoff performance looked like that of a team that didn’t belong there.
For better or worse, Head Coach Peter Mikula will only be able to lean on one returning veteran from last year’s team, center Samuel Solensky. Only 5’9” and 168 pounds, Solensky is a crafty player with above average on-ice intelligence and has shown both internationally (U18, Ivan Hlinka) and in the Czech Republic (Bili Tigri Liberec) that he can pivot a top line and consistently set up his linemates.
As for the rest of the team, there will be a lot of names that will appear rather new to the international ice hockey community, and if not, then their biggest appearance yet was for Slovakia at the Ivan Hlinka tournament. Nonetheless, there are lots of interesting pieces to the puzzle and much of the team spent this season playing abroad. Six spent the season in the Czech Republic, two in Sweden, one in Finland, and one in the USHL. One of these players was defenseman Martin Fehervary, who spent the year with Malmo as a 16-year-old, and not only played 30 games in Sweden’s U20 circuit, but also dressed for four SHL contests. This technically made him the youngest player to ever suit up in the SHL.
All this international experience will need to pay off, and admittedly, right on day one of the tournament. Part of what is considered the more difficult of the two groups, Slovakia will kick things off with a match-up against Denmark, and thus a must-win game. Both teams will be seeing it as just that, so the test games leading up to the event were of magnified importance. The results there were a 4-3 shootout loss to Russia and a 7-3 victory over Switzerland. After the game against Denmark, things will get more difficult as the Slovaks will battle Finland, Canada, and the archrival Czech Republic, which could also end up being one of the most fascinating battles in the preliminary round.
With this in mind, here is a look at Slovakia’s entry in the tournament.
Unheralded goaltenders need to shine
Draft-eligible Ivan Hlinka goaltender Jan Koziak didn’t make the grade and was cut in favor of Roman Durny, David Hrenak and 16-year-old up-and-comer Juraj Sklenar, who will likely be the third-stringer, but is clearly the country’s goalie of the future after having gotten plenty of playing time this winter with Slovakia’s in-house U18 project. Likely taking on the bulk of the duties will be draft-eligible Hrenak, a 6’1”, 176-pounder who has not only played for Team Slovakia’s special U20 and U18 programs, but also killed the competition in a few games with powerhouse Dukla Trencin’s U20 team. He will be challenged for playing time by Durny, who spent the entire season as the starter for Liptovsky Mikulas’ U20 team.
Whichever goalie stands in net, he is going to have to be ready to stop all the shots he should against Denmark and then stand on his head against no less than the Czech Republic.
Defense has a bright future, but is the future now?
What seems clear at this point is that the coaching staff is banking on each of Martin Bodak (Tappara Tampere – FIN), Fehervary (Malmo – SWE), and Dusan Kmec (Orebro – SWE) to take a leading role in the fortunes of this team’s blueline and its own zone. The aforementioned Fehervary is looking like the best defensive prospect to come out of Slovakia in quite some time, with the intelligent and responsible defenseman measuring in at 6-feet, 176 pounds. But is he a little too green behind the ears? Surely Kmec, a hulking 6’3”, 223-pound bruiser who put up nine goals and 19 points in 42 U18 league games for Orebro, will be able to help him out when necessary, perhaps even as his partner. Bodak, however, spent 50 games suiting up for Tappara’s U20 squad and has gained invaluable experience at a young age. These three are expected to build the core of the defense.
Also playing abroad was Vojtech Zelenak, a 6’5”, 214-pounder who spent the season with Sparta Prague in the Czech Republic. There, he dressed for 40 U20 league games in which he put up 16 points and a +24 rating. He will be given a prime role on this team and follows in a long line of incredibly large Slovakian defensemen.
The rest of the defense will consist of Tomas Hedera, Michal Ivan, Martin Krempasky, and Erik Rajnoha. The most interesting in this group will certainly be Ivan, who is only 16, but already played 14 games for Zvolen in Slovakia’s top league. At the junior level, he had 15 points and a +11 in 39 games.
Krempasky is another big boy at 6’2”, 203 pounds and spent all but 12 playoff games (five points, +14 rating for Poprad) playing with Slovakia’s U18 program, putting up seven goals, 13 points, and a +5 rating. The mid-sized Hedera and Rajnoha also were part of the U18 program, for which they spent most of the season.
All in all, it’s been quite some time since Slovakia has gone to the U18 tournament with so few of the young defensemen who were part of the U18 programs throughout the winter.
Wanted: Skaters infected with trigger-happiness!
Slovakia will present a very interesting yet unproven group of young men up front this spring. Solensky has usually been seen as a playmaker, but went goal scorer this winter with 27 goals and 47 points in 41 U20 games for Liberec. He will likely line up with the likes of 6’2” Sam Bucek, who made the move to the Chicago Steel of the USHL midseason and put up 10 points in 18 games after having contributed 15 points in 10 U20 league games for Nitra while also posting five points and a +4 rating in 26 games for the same club in the highest league. These two will anchor the offense and serve as leaders for the less experienced players. Bucek is first eligible for the 2017 draft.
The pair will get some help from a few other forwards who spent the winter in the Czech Republic, namely Filip Krivosík (Pirates Chomutov) and Adam Ruzicka (HC Dynamo Pardubice), along with Milos Roman and Jakub Lacka (both Ocelari Trinec). The 6’4”, 198-pound Krivosik had a big year for his team, chipping in 15 points in 14 games for the club’s U18 team, while also putting up 21 goals, 33 points, and a +22 for the club’s U20 team in 40 games.
Both Roman and Lacka received plenty of ice time this season. Roman is 5’11” and 194 pounds and contributed 42 points and a +22 in 41 games, while Lacka had 40 points and a +21 in 37 U20 league games. Lacka also dominated the U18 league with 38 points and a +37 in 18 games. Things were every bit as impressive for the 6’4”, 209-pound Ruzicka, who finished the year with a combined 24 goals and 47 points in 41 games split between three teams. 30 of those points came with Pardubice’s U20 team in 30 games.
Uniting these players is the fact that not one of them is eligible for the draft until at least 2017.
Also expected to play an important role, if not a first line role, is Marian Studenic. He spent the bulk of the season in the nation’s top men’s league and was responsible for eight goals, 16 points, and a -14 rating in 37 games, but gained valuable experience playing the most advanced hockey of anyone on the team.
Rounding things off will be Peter Bjaloncik, Rastislav Vaclav, Adam Liska, Erik Smolka, and Sebastian Smida. Most spent the majority of the year with the country’s U18 program, for which they each had important scoring roles.
Keep an eye on
Despite a plethora of 16-year-olds and a few very young 17-year-olds who are not yet draft-eligible, scouts will likely keep a close eye on the role Adam Liska of the Slovan Bratislava program receives. He spent the majority of the season collecting 28 points in 43 games for the national U18 program, but just how potent he can be was seen when he had 10 points and a +5 rating for Slovan’s U20 team in 12 playoff games. First eligible for the 2018 draft, his experience at this tournament could go a long way for the program for the next few years.
The must-win game against Denmark is coming too early in the tournament – for both teams. Whoever wins will have a major advantage in avoiding the relegation round. What would then happen in the playoffs is anyone’s guess, but this squad seems to have the makings of an underdog that is ready to upset. The past few seasons were seen as a bit of a lull in the Slovakian program, but this group is giving many in the scouting community much to look forward to. The question is whether all that talent can also spell a winner.
Look for Slovakia to be one of the more interesting teams in the preliminary round and then give someone a scare a couple of periods long in the playoff round.
Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin