Slovakia could surprise at 2014 Sochi Olympics

Sunday, 12.01.2013 / 3:00 AM
Adam Kimelman  - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

Slovakia made a surprising run to the semifinals of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics thanks to outstanding goaltending and a well-rounded offense that featured 11 different players scoring a goal.

A number of those players will be back for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but one giant hole they'll have to fill will be the one left by the late Pavol Demitra. An alternate captain for Slovakia in Vancouver, Demitra died in September 2011 when the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team plane tragically crashed, killing almost everyone on board.

Demitra led the Vancouver Games with 10 points, and Slovakia could fill that hole with expanded roles for Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik, both of whom have scored 40 goals in the NHL.

Defense and goaltending likely will be Slovakia's strength. Zdeno Chara, captain of the 2010 team, likely will reprise that role in Sochi. And Jaroslav Halak, who played every minute in seven games in Vancouver, again likely will play the majority of the time in goal.

FORWARDS

Marcel Hossa - Michal Handzus - Marian Hossa

Tomas Tatar - Marko Dano - Marian Gaborik

Jozef Stumpel - Tomas Jurco - Richard Panik

Tomas Kopecky - Martin Cibak - Marek Svatos

Branko Radivojevic - Rudolph Huna

Slovakia's offense will be led by its older players, namely Hossa and Gaborik. But to hang with the top teams, they'll need production from three key young forwards: Tatar, Panik and Dano.

Tatar, in his first full NHL season, has played a top-nine role for the Red Wings. He's been a top scorer everywhere else he's played, and it appears he's close to reaching that level in the NHL.

Panik, selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning a few spots ahead of Tatar in the second round of the 2009 NHL Draft, is still establishing himself in his first full NHL season. A big, gifted forward, Panik had 22 goals in 51 games in the American Hockey League last season.

Dano, a 2013 first-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, is developing with HC Slovan Bratislava in the Kontinental Hockey League.

One player who could earn promotion into the top three lines is 33-year-old Huna, a left wing who is scoring at a near point-per-game pace for HC Vitkovice in the Czech Extraliga. He's never played internationally for Slovakia, but he could be a nice fit on a team that needs all the offense it can get.

DEFENSE

Zdeno Chara - Andrej Meszaros

Lubomir Visnovsky - Martin Marincin

Andrej Sekera - Milan Jurcina

Ivan Baranka - Martin Gernat

Don't look to the bench much for Chara. He'll be on the ice as much as the coaching staff can get him out there. The big ice likely won't bother him a bit. Pairing him with Meszaros will allow the Philadelphia Flyers defenseman to make plays in space he doesn't get in the NHL.

The defense will be a big part of Slovakia's success, but there still is a chance for the team to work in a pair of young players developing with the Oklahoma City Barons, the Edmonton Oilers' American Hockey League affiliate. Marincin and Gernat won't make any end-to-end rushes, but each stands taller than 6-foot-3 and knows how to play physically.

Visnovsky could be a question mark. He's missed more than a month with a concussion sustained Oct. 19, and at age 37 he would be the team's best offensive-minded defenseman. If Visnovsky is unable to play, it would put even more pressure on Chara to perform as well offensively as he will defensively.

It also could open more ice time for Sekera, who had a 29-point season in 2010-11 with the Buffalo Sabres and provides a nice, heavy shot on the power play.

GOALIES

Jaroslav Halak

Peter Budaj

Jaroslav Janus

Halak was in net for all seven games in Vancouver and likely will be there for every minute in Sochi. The 28-year-old has established himself as one of the best in the world, and he'll have to be again for Slovakia to reach the medal stand.

Budaj has developed into a strong backup and popular figure with the Montreal Canadiens for his attitude and professionalism.

Janus, a Lightning draft pick currently playing with Dano in Bratislava, is on the small side at 6-1, 189 pounds. But his competitiveness carries him. His highest level of international play was the 2009 World Junior Championship, where he backstopped an undermanned team to the bronze-medal game.

NEXT IN LINE:

There are a number of potential candidates playing throughout European leagues. Among them are forward Lubos Bartecko and defenseman Branislav Mezei, both of whom have significant NHL experience.

Bartecko, 37, played five seasons with the St. Louis Blues and Atlanta Thrashers and has played solely in Europe for the past decade. This season he's the captain of KLH Chomutov in the Czech Extraliga. He was part of the 2010 Olympic team and could earn a spot if the coaches are looking for a versatile, experienced forward.

Mezei, 33, last played in the NHL with the Florida Panthers in 2007-08. He's brought his big, bruising style to the KHL the past three seasons, including this season with Vityaz Podolsk. At 6-5, 235, he could bring a physical element on the bottom two defense pairs.

Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK

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