Sabres Report: Czech Mates

By Ken McKenna

The 2002 World Junior Championships have come and gone, with the Russian team taking home the gold medal as a result of their 5-4 victory over Canada in the WJC finale. While the Russians can bask in the fleeting feeling of glory days gone by, another former Eastern Bloc nation, the WJC host and defending champ Czech Republic, were left to ponder a disappointing 7th place finish.

As luck would have it, the Buffalo Sabres sported just 2 prospects participating in the WJC, with both of those players playing for the Czech squad. C Jiri Novotny and LW Michal Vondrka were both 2001 draft choices for Buffalo, with Novotny being the more high profile of the two due to his status as a 1st round pick. Both players also play for the same organization, Budejovice, with Novotny playing in the top Czech league and Vondrka splitting his time between the elite and junior squads.

If one were to judge strictly by statistics, it could be said that neither player had a particularly good showing at the WJC. Both players notched just 2 points in 7 games, with Novotny logging 2 assists, and Vondrka netting 1 while adding a helper. Both players were a minus for the tournament (Novotny –3, Vondrka –2), while also sporting nearly identical shots-on-goal numbers (Novotny 12, Vondrka 11).

In the case of Vondrka, at least, the statistics didn’t lie. As reported to me by Robert Neuhauser, the Czech Editor for Hockey’s Future, Michal’s performance was largely disappointing, mainly due to the fact that he didn’t see a lot of ice time. Vondrka bounced between the 3rd and 4th lines throughout the tournament, filling the roles of grinder and extra forward. Overall, Michal’s performance could best be termed as workmanlike, but not especially inspiring.

On the other hand, Jiri Novotny played well enough to be named one of the three best Czechs at the WJC. While this is a somewhat dubious distinction considering where the Czech team finished, it nevertheless indicates that Jiri was not just a passenger during this tournament.

Jiri’s natural position is center, but he instead played LW throughout the WJC. Novotny spent most of his time on the Czech’s 2nd line, although his solid play throughout the tournament earned him a spot on the 1st line in the Czech Republic’s final game of the tourney. In terms of Jiri’s performance, Robert Neuhauser’s description gave me the impression that Novotny played pretty much to form- he displayed strong playmaking ability and good defensive instincts, while also showing improvement in his skating. Jiri needed to be more physical, however, and he still showed a tendency to pass up a good scoring chance in favor of a pass, so those are areas of his game that will need improving.

Overall, Jiri appears to be developing into a checking center, or perhaps a 2nd line center, with playmaking ability but limited goal-scoring potential. Michal, on the other hand, is a bit more of a project, as he is still somewhat rough around the edges. Vondrka is more of a shooter than Novotny, but he is not as skilled or as accomplished defensively as Jiri is.

Looking at Buffalo’s other European prospects, it appears to be a group of players with some potential who have been largely mediocre through the first half of the 2001-02 season.

In the case of Marek Dubec, a Slovak winger playing in the Czech Republic, he has been on IR for a good portion of the season. He has appeared in just 12 games for Vsetin of the Czech junior league, where he has posted 14 points (9G, 5A). His goals-to-assists ratio is pretty much in line with past years, as he is more of a goal-scorer than a playmaker. I don’t know the extent of his injury, or how long he’ll be out of the lineup, so it’s difficult to say how much Marek has improved this season.

Another former 1st round pick for Buffalo, C Artem Kriukov, has had his playing time limited due to a knee injury. Artem started the season with Yaroslavl in Russia’s top league, but he appeared in just 3 games for the Locomotive before injuring his knee. According to information provided by Kriukov’s agent, Artem was in Buffalo for a few weeks of rehabilitation on his injured knee under team supervision. Artem has now returned to the Yaroslavl lineup, where he has registered one assist in three recent games.

On a more promising note, D Denis Denisov has made the jump to Russia’s top league. Denis is playing for Krylya Sovetov, where he has appeared in 27 of their 30 games. His numbers are modest (0G, 3A, 6PIM), but this is most likely because he is playing behind more experienced defensemen. Denisov is showing progress, however, which should help to erase some of the memories of his mediocre 2000-01 season.

Buffalo’s other Russian prospect, LW Vasily Bizyayev, has returned to Russia following a forgettable season with Kitchener of the OHL. His return to Russia appears to be equally forgettable, however, as he has played in just 7 total games during the 2001-02 season. Vasily did play in 3 Superleague games (0G, 1A) for CSKA Moscow, the worst team in that league. He has also appeared in 4 games for CSKA-2 in the First League (juniors), where he has picked up 2 goals- not exactly the stuff of legends.

Finally, playing for Huddinge IK in Sweden is D Calle Aslund. Calle began the season with the London Knights of the OHL, but he appeared in just one game for that team. Apparently, Calle decided he wasn’t ready to make a move to North America, so he returned to Sweden to play for Huddinge in that country’s top junior league (J20). Calle has a +10 rating in 18 games, generating 5 points (1G, 4A) in those games. Aslund’s 38 penalty minutes make him one of the more penalized players on the Huddinge roster, a sign that he has a physical side to his game.

Thanks to Robert Neuhauser for the information on the Czech prospects, and to Johan Nilsson for providing info on Calle Aslund.