Patrik Elias, who served as captain for the Czech Republic at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, is privy to the talent coming over from his native land and into the National Hockey League these days.
"I think it's getting better," Elias told NHL.com. "There were those five or six years where we had a little drop and that's normal. We don't have that big base for young talent. So many kids play in North America and the sport is getting very expensive back home so not too many people can enjoy playing like we did.
Elias had two goals and four points in five games for the Czechs four years ago in Vancouver. In 10 career games at the Olympics Elias has three goals and six points.
The Czechs were eliminated by Finland in the quarterfinals in 2010 en route to a seventh-place finish in Vancouver. The last gold medal for the Czech Republic was in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the first that included NHL players. There's reason for optimism this year as the Czech orientation camp roster offered an impressive group at most positions.
The Czech Republic will play in Group C of the tournament along with Sweden, Switzerland and Latvia. Players selected for the 25-man roster will fly directly to Sochi as the Czech Ice Hockey Association will not have a selection camp.
The big position of strength for the Czech Republic comes at forward. Patrik Elias (New Jersey Devils), Jaromir Jagr (New Jersey Devils), David Krejci (Boston Bruins) and Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia Flyers) are established offensive catalysts, and barring injury should be the go-to players at the Sochi Games.
Jagr, 41, is seeking a fifth Olympic appearance, having played in all four Olympics that have included NHL players. He had five points in six games for the Czech team that won gold in 1998 and seven points in eight games to help his country win the bronze medal in 2006. He plays on the Devils' top line and leads the team in goals, points and plus/minus rating, and is among the top two in shots on goal.
Krejci might be the best two-way forward on the roster. He not only is among the leaders in points for the Bruins this season but ranks in the top 10 in blocked shots and top three in takeaways, plus/minus rating and faceoff winning percentage. Don't sleep on Phoenix Coyotes teammates Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata, who rank at the top in team scoring. They could also form a dynamic offensive unit in Sochi and provide necessary secondary scoring.
There might not be an elite defenseman in the group, but there are a handful of steady blueliners with veteran leadership. Marek Zidlicky (New Jersey Devils), Zbynek Michalek (Phoenix Coyotes) and tough-as-nails Ladislav Smid (Calgary Flames) likely will lead this unit. Smid, Radko Gudas and Jakub Kindl would be making their Olympic debuts.
Kindl, 26, emerged as a key player for the Detroit Red Wings last season. He not only was second on the team with a plus-15 rating but had a career-best four goals and ranked among the top seven on the team in hits and blocked shots.
Tomas Kaberle, who spent 14 seasons in the NHL before the Montreal Canadiens used a compliance buyout on the 35-year-old at the end of last season, is starring for HC Kladno in the Czech Extraliga. Kaberle has plenty of Stanley Cup Playoff experience, having played in 102 postseason games, and excels on the power play. While he never was known for his physicality, that might not matter on the larger international ice surface in Russia. He'll be seeking a fourth appearance in the Olympic Games.
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun already had announced his retirement from international play before he wound on the long-term injured reserve list with a blood clot, so it would appear Ondrej Pavelec will get the nod between the pipes.
Pavelec led the Czechs to fourth place at the 2005 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, where was named the tournament's best goaltender. He also was a member of the Czech Republic team at the 2006 World Junior Championship, 2010 World Championship (gold medal) and 2011 World Championship (bronze) and the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Washington Capitals backup goalie Michal Neuvirth never has represented the Czech men's national team, but backstopped the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League to a berth in the 2007 Memorial Cup in his first season in North America. He also starred for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League, helping the club capture back-to-back Calder Cup titles in 2009 and 2010.
Jakub Stepanek, 27, served as the third goalie at the Vancouver Games with Pavelec and Vokoun and has represented his country at four IIHF World Championship tournaments.
NEXT IN LINE
Among those forwards also in the crosshairs of the Czech Ice Hockey Association is Ondrej Palat (Tampa Bay Lightning), a tenacious worker at both ends of the ice who can block shots and work the power play. Michael Frolik (Winnipeg Jets), who is in his seventh NHL season, has championship experience after winning a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2012-13. He's twice represented the Czech Republic at the World Junior Championship, totaling nine goals and 11 points in 12 games.
Another forward on the radar for a potential roster spot is Jiri Tlusty, who led the Carolina Hurricanes with 23 goals in 48 games last season. But he's struggled mightily despite playing on the top line with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin for much of the first quarter this season.
Defensively, Michal Rozsival (Chicago Blackhawks) and Roman Polak (St. Louis Blues) have international experience. Rozsival was named one of the top three players for his country at the 2010 World Championship after he had two assists for the gold-medal winners. He also won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks last season. Polak played five games in the Vancouver Olympics.
Goalie Jakub Kovar (Philadelphia Flyers), who plays for Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg in the Kontinental Hockey League, could find a role. Kovar won a bronze medal at the 2012 IIHF World Championship in Helsinki.
Follow Mike G. Morreale on Twitter: @mikemorrealeNHL
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