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Czech's must make opponents earn their goals

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com
Czech Republic hockey team wins the bronze medal at the 2006 winter olympics in Italy.
The Czech Republic remains a force at the adult level of international hockey. In addition to being a frequent medalist in major international competitions, the country is the NHL's largest European supplier of talent, with 56 players (52 skaters, four goaltenders) who have suited up in at least one NHL game this season.

But Czech hockey is in a state of disarray at the junior level. The top Czech prospects leave in droves for Canadian junior leagues in the hopes of attracting wider attention from NHL scouts. The loss off these players from the Czech Extraliga track has had significant impact on the Czech national team's performance at the Under-20 and Under-18 World Championships.

Of late, the young players have shown little cohesion on the ice when hastily convened for the WJC and Under-18s, with disastrous results.

Two years ago, the Czechs limped to a sixth-place finish. At last year's World Junior Championships in Sweden, the Czechs played listless hockey through most of the tournament, and finished an unimpressive fifth. Even more alarming, at the Under-18 Worlds in April, the Czechs got relegated from the elite level to Division I.

As the host country for the 2008 Under-20 WJC, the Czechs are aching to turn around their declining fortunes. The partisan Czech crowds are not only passionate and knowledgeable; they're also not shy about letting their home-team players know when they're dissatisfied.  As a result, the young Czech team can count on vocal support in every game, but it also faces considerable pressure to improve on its recent performances.

This year's Czech team features 10 players selected from Canadian junior teams, with the balance coming from the Czech Extraliga. The Czechs had originally planned to try using a higher concentration of players from their home league, but the results in WJC preparation tournaments were discouraging.

As a result, they've opted to maximize the talent level and hope that the honor and responsibility of playing on home ice inspires the players to come together as a team.

Leadership

Head coach Miloslav Horava will be at the helm of Team Czech, constantly harping on the need for his young players to set all individual goals aside for the good of the team. Horava and team general manager Jaroslav Vlasak logged a lot of miles traveling around Canada to personally chart the progress of national team candidates currently playing in the CHL, while also keeping tabs on players at home.

"I have not seen any WHL games, so I have only been able to interpret what the others said," he told WorldJuniors2008.com.  "It is said that the defense got much better in QMJHL. More goals had been scored earlier. OHL is traditionally a good league and in WHL the play is based on defense."

Ultimately, the Czechs assembled one of the more experienced teams in the tournament. While Canada and Sweden feature a somewhat younger look than in past WJCs, the Czech squad features a heavy concentration of 19-year-olds.

Horava was especially concerned with finding a core of defensively solid players. As a result, some offensively gifted youngsters, such as soon to be 18-year-old Tomas Knotek, the HC Kladno scoring ace, were left off the roster in favor of more experienced role players.


Forwards

Statistically, Michael Frolik did his part at last year's tournament in Sweden, scoring four goals and six points. But three of the tallies came in a single match, as the Czechs salvaged fifth place in an otherwise meaningless consolation game against Finland. So far this QMJHL season, Frolik has posted 10 goals and 31 points in just 20 games for the Rimouski Oceanic.

Frolik and Jakub Voracek are both products of the world-famous HC Kladno junior program. Voracek has emerged as one of the world's top playmaking forwards under the age of 20.
Last year, he enjoyed a sensational QMJHL campaign for Halifax -- 63 regular-season assists and 86 points in 59 games, followed by 17 helpers and 24 points in a dozen playoff games.

But some of the luster of Voracek's accomplishments with the Moosheads was tarnished by his pedestrian play at both the Under-20 Worlds and Under-18 Worlds, including a poor game in the match that sealed the Czechs' relegation to the Division I Under-18s in 2009. With additional experience under his belt, he'll be looking for redemption.

Phoenix Coyotes prospect Martin Latal (a fifth-round choice in 2006) is yet another player who passed through the HC Kladno program. Unlike Frolik and Voracek, Latal has been something of an underachiever during his time in the QMJHL with the P.E.I. Rockets. Part of the problem has been that the smallish winger gives up size, although he tries not to let it hinder him. His speed and skills may translate better to the larger international rink.

Horava will be counting on Brandon Wheat Kings center Daniel Bartek to provide steady two-way play. The undrafted 19-year-old has posted 14 goals and an impressive plus-10 rating this season, and has always been solid in his own end of the ice.

Among the Team Czech Republic forwards plying their trade at home, the most talented, but enigmatic, player may be Vladimir Ruzicka Jr. of HC Slavia Prague. A year ago at this time, he was considered a potential first-round choice in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, but his stock sank dramatically after a series of disappointing international performances. The Phoenix Coyotes took a chance on him in the fourth round of the draft, hoping his combination of size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and natural skill will someday emerge. He has dominated at every Czech junior level, but has come along a little more slowly in the Extraliga.  So far this season, the 18-year-old has four goals and 11 points for Slavia.

Conversely, New York Rangers right wing prospect David Kveton, a fourth-round pick in 2006, has emerged as one of the top young offensive players in the Extraliga. In 28 games for HC Trinec, the 19-year-old has tallied 10 goals and 15 points in a league that no longer awards secondary assists. He ranks fourth on Trinec in scoring.

Teammate Zbynek Hampl has appeared in 10 Extraliga games. The agitating Hampl has been a fine producer at the Czech Under-20, with 15 points and 65 penalty minutes in 13 games. Last year, he had 60 points and 121 penalty minutes in 46 games for the Trinec U-20 team.

Left winger Radek Meidl who played in the WHL last season with the Seattle Thunderbirds, is currently playing at the Czech Division I level with HC Olomouc. The 6-3, 195-pound winger produced modestly in the WHL but has held his own (five goals, 14 points in 25 games) against Czech pros one step beneath Extraliga grade.

HC Vitkovice players Roman Szturc and Petr Strapac have started in seven and 12 Extraliga games, respectively, this season. Szturc, a member of the relegated Czech U-18 team last season, has tallied a pair of Extraliga goals this season. He has 16 goals and 25 points in 21 matches for the Vitkovice U-20 squad. Strapac has one point (an assist) for the big team and 18 points (seven goals) in 19 games for the U-20 team.

Jiri Ondracek has received limited ice time in 16 Extraliga games this season for HC Zlin, while Pavel Kubena has suited up in 10 Extraliga games for HC Karlovy Vary.  Slavia prospect Jakub Sklenar (currently on loan to minor-league team HC Rebel Havlickuv Brod) is another player who has been a prolific scorer in the Czech junior leagues but looking for a breakthrough at the pro level. The 19-year-old has one point in 16 games at the Czech Division I level.

HC Pardubice junior Jan Semorad (22 points in 22 games at the Czech Under-20 level this season, one Extraliga appearance) will be playing on familiar ice, as the Czechs will be playing their preliminary round games at the CEZ Arena in Pardubice.


Defense

It's no coincidence that the Czech WJC roster includes four defensemen playing in the CHL, including highly regarded 17-year-old Plymouth Whalers defenseman Michal Jordan (the youngest player on the squad). In WJC preparation tournaments during the fall, Horava was alarmed by what he saw from some of the candidates from the home leagues.

"Teams in Canada are better in the art of defense; they have more discipline and are better with passing. The effect of this strength will be shown in the games played," Horava told WorldJuniors2008.com.

Ottawa 67s defenseman Martin Paryzek will play an important role in organizing the Czech breakout with his passing ability. He's also likely to regularly man a point on the power play. Soon-to-be 20-year-old Shawinigan defender Patrik Prokop will be relied on to help kill penalties and get the puck to the forwards at even strength.  Former HC Kladno product Jan Piskacek, now playing for Cape Breton in the QMJHL, lacks size but possesses excellent mobility and solid puck skills.

Jordan, the eighth-overall pick in the CHL Import Draft this year,  has the potential to develop into a solid two-way NHL defenseman in the future. In years to come, he will play a pivotal role for the Czech national team. His play at the 2007 Under-18 World Championships in Finland was one of the few bright spots for the Czechs.

Among the Extraliga defensemen tabbed for the tournament, Horava went for experience. Former Halifax Mooseheads defender Jiri Suchy, a member of last year's squad, returns.

He now plays for HC Vitkovice. The Czechs also selected 19-year-olds David Kajinek (a Liberec White Tigers prospect who has shown some offensive flair and an ocassional mean streak at the Czech junior level), Lukas Martinec (HC Plzen), and  Antonin Boruta (HC Zlin).

Martin Janacek (HC Olomouc) and Tomas Kundratek (a player in the HC Trinec system), both 18, round out the defense core.

Goaltending

The Czechs have a pair of well-regarded 19-year-old goalies to choose between in Jakub Kovarand Michal Neuvirth.

A fourth-round Philadelphia Flyers pick (109th overall) in the 2006 Entry Draft, Kovar returns to play in his second World Junior Championship for the Czech Republic.  Last year, he served as backup to Atlanta Thrashers' prospect Ondrej Pavelec.

Kovar got into two games for the Czechs at last year's tournament. He mopped up for Pavelec in the Czech Republic's 6-2 preliminary-round loss to Finland, playing the final 35 minutes in goal and turning back 10 of 12 shots. After the Czechs were knocked out of the medal round, Kovar got nod for the consolation game against Finland. He played an impressive game, stopping 29 of 31 shots to earn the victory for the fifth-place Czechs.

In recent tournaments, the Czech entries have struggled with giveaways, counter-attack goals and special-teams play.
During his club-team season last year, Kovar was arguably regarded as the top goaltender in the Czech junior leagues, posting a 2.07 goals-against average and .929 save percentage for the top junior team, HC Ceske Budejovice. 

This year, like many top Czech prospects, Kovar has transferred to Canadian major junior hockey after being selected in the CHL Import Draft. He's playing in the OHL for the Oshawa Generals, the same team that features prized 2009 Entry Draft prospect John Tavares. While offensively potent, the Generals have had some problems defensively. Kovar has given the club a chance to win in most of his 16 starts to date, and his save percentage (.903) is a better indicator of his overall play than his 3.14 GAA. He splits time in goal with third-year OHLer Daryl Borden.

"I haven't seen Kovar play yet this season in the Ontario League, but he's a goaltending prospect that we like quite a bit. He has excellent fundamentals, and having some experience at the World Juniors should help him this year," said Philadelphia Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren.

As a returning player, Kovar may have the inside track to begin the tournament as the Czech starter. However, he may also wind up splitting starts with -- or bumped from the crease by –Washington Capitals prospect Neuvirth, of the OHL's Windsor Spitfires. 

Neuvirth, a second-round pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, came to Windsor earlier this season in a trade with the Plymouth Whalers. After a few rough outings early last season, he went on to have a strong rookie season for Plymouth. While he's been a little bit inconsistent so far this year, he has also shown the ability to steal games.

The stereotypical Czech goaltender (see Dominik Hasek, Roman Cechmanek and others) plays a hectic, sprawling style that somehow seems to work more often than not. That's not Michal Neuvirth's game at all. He plays a familiar butterfly style and, when he's on the top of his game, has a fluid economy of motion.

Intangibles

For this year's Czech team to improve on its showing from the last two years and come away with a medal, it will need players like Frolik and Voracek to produce against the better teams in the tourney. 

Panthers prospect Michal Repik (a second round pick in 2007) would have been selected to the tournament but has been forced out of action by a concussion. Jiri Tlusty can't go because of his pro commitments to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Both players will be missed, and others will have to pick up the scoring slack.

Meanwhile, the Czechs will need to tighten up its team defense to give goaltenders Kovar and Neuvirth a chance to make the saves.  In recent tournaments, the Czech entries have struggled with giveaways, counter-attack goals and special-teams play. Team Czech Republic needs to make teams like Canada, Russia, Sweden and the USA earn their goals.

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