|Team Slovakia defenseman, Juraj Mikus, is a 5th round 2007 draft pick for Toronto.
has one goal -- and one goal only -- heading into the World Junior Championships in Pardubice
and Liberec, Czech Republic
. The Slovaks want to perform well enough to avoid relegation from the elite division to the Division I level.
Denmark and Kazakhstan are the most likely candidates for relegation this year. But the Slovaks' spot in the 2009 tournament, to be held in Ottawa, is by no means a sure thing.
The Slovak national junior program is in a state of disarray. Like its former Czech countrymen, Slovakia has seen an exodus of many of its top prospects to the Canadian junior leagues. A handful of the better Slovak juniors have opted for Czech teams.
With a more shallow talent pool than the Czechs (who got relegated to Division I at the Under-18 level earlier this year), the situation in Slovakia is arguably more dire.
When the Slovak junior teams have been hastily convened before the WJC, the players -- especially those who've gone overseas -- often play like strangers, rather than teammates. Compounding the issue has been problems with the team's defense and a steep drop in overall talent beyond the top four forwards and top three defensemen.
At last year's WJC in Sweden, Slovakia was on the brink of relegation. Heading into the final match of the relegation round, the Slovaks did not control their own destiny. Slovakia's spot in the 2008 World Juniors was rescued only by Switzerland beating Germany, 5-3.
Head coach Stefan Mikes has faced a difficult challenge in assembling a preliminary roster for his country.
The age group he has to work with is not as talented as the group born in the early 1980s, nor as promising as the younger group that is not yet ready for the demands of Under-20 competition. He's had to cobble together a team that's a bit short on firepower, and hope that the ambitious preparatory campaign will bear fruit at the tournament.
This year, in order to better prepare for the WJC, the Slovakian Hockey Federation took a bold step.
Junior-aged players affiliated with the various Slovak Extraliga (elite league) clubs were combined into a single team, playing a slate of 22 games against Extraliga teams.
The kids didn't fare very well, winning only twice, losing 19 times in regulation and once in overtime. The juniors managed only 29 goals in that span, while giving up 100. But there were subtle signs of improvement throughout the fall. The games became more competitive, as the youngsters gained some cohesion and were less in awe of playing against the likes of longtime NHLer Zigmund Palffy.
Just as important, the Slovak roster has been bolstered by the addition of seven players, mostly forwards, who are playing in the Canadian Hockey League. They've also added forward Adam Lapsansky, who plays for Slovak Extraliga team HK Poprad rather than the U-20 team, and defenseman Branislav Horvath, who plays in the Czech Republic for HC Slavia Prague.
Three players on Team Slovakia have been drafted by NHL clubs: defenseman Juraj Mikus (Toronto, fifth round, 2007 Entry Draft) and forwards Tomas Marcinko (New York Islanders, fourth round, 2006) and David Skokan (New York Rangers, seventh round, 2007).
While the Czech team leadership took an in-person trip to Canada to scout their WJC candidates in person, Mikes received regular reports from former NHL player Vaclav Nedomansky in order to evaluate the Slovak players in the CHL.
In early December, Mikes whittled the field down to a pool of 32 players. After the Slovaks play their final pre-tournament preparation game against Russia on Sunday, he will make final roster decisions.
The Slovak U-20 games in the Extraliga and European preparation tournaments in the fall revealed a severe lack of scoring punch on the roster.
Right winger Erik Caladi led the U-20 team with five goals during its Extraliga games. Caladi played last season in the OHL with the Belleville Bulls. Center Marek Slovak led the team in overall points, on the strength of six helpers.
The Slovak team will need its CHL players to carry much of the scoring load. That means the pressure to produce offense will fall on the likes of Marcinko (11 goals, 28 points in 21 OHL games for Barrie), Skokan (eight goals, 22 points in 31 QMJHL games for Rimouski), Patrik Lusnak (eight goals, 28 points in 30 OHL matches for Sudbury), Julius Sinkovic (five goals, 29 points in 33 Quebec League games for Val d'Or).
The backbone of the Slovakian defense will likely consist of two top pairings, with the other defensemen being spotted against the other teams' lower forward lines. Mikes has said that he wants to be careful about leaving his team tired late in games.
A holdover defenseman from last year's tournament, Adam Bena, should add bring some experience to the backline. He played a lot of minutes on the U-20 national team this fall, and also scored against Canada in the Slovak's 6-1 exhibition game loss Dec. 20.
After being drafted by Toronto, Mikus opted to play with the Slovak U-20 team this season rather than in the CHL.
Big 19-year-old Windsor Spitfires defenseman Marek Biro is likely to see time against other teams' powerful forwards. Horvath, who played well for the Slovaks at last year's Under-18 World Championships, could also be a contributor. Lanky Marek Daloga also played well in that tournament.
During the course of Team Slovakia
's preparatory schedule, Mikes rotated 19-year-old goalies Julius Hudacek
and Tomas Hiadlovsky
on a fairly even basis. Both keepers were routinely peppered with shots by their more experienced opponents, and often had little chance to make saves.
Statistically at least, their performance in the prep season was almost indistinguishable. Hiadlovsky posted a 4.59 goals-against average and .888 save percentage. Hudacek had a slightly lower GAA (4.29) with an identical .888 save percentage. Hiadlovsky, who was generally solid for the Slovaks in the 2006 Under-18 Worlds, got the nod in the recent exhibition game against Canada.
Erie Otters goaltender Jaroslav Janus (4.53 GAA, .895 save percentage on a weak club) was added to the preliminary roster. Janus, who turned 18 in September, is the youngest option. The Slovan Bratislava product was the main goalie for the Slovaks at the Under-18 Worlds earlier this year, posting a .921 save percentage while allowing 3.14 goals per game in five starts.
The Slovaks realize how important this tournament is to the future of their junior team. The last thing they want to do to have to work their way back up from Division I during the next year. Relegation isn't only disappointing to the coaches and players; it's costly financially to the national federation.
In the preliminary round, the key game for the Slovaks will be the one against Denmark. While the Slovaks would love to throw a scare into Canada or craft an upset over the Swedes or especially the Czechs, the odds are against it.
Assuming the Slovaks follow the expected course and win up in the preliminary round, their performance against Switzerland and Kazakhstan will likely seal the deal on their ability to retain their spot for the 2009 tourney in Ottawa.
Earlier this fall, the Slovaks U-20 team beat the Swiss by a 3-1 score on their way to winning a four-nation World Juniors preparation tournament held in Slovakia. However, in the same tournament, Slovakia was shredded, 7-2, by Team Germany -- a country recently was promoted to play in the 2009 WJC in Ottawa.
When the puck drops on the 2008 Worlds, the Slovaks will need more focused, consistent efforts against the teams they're supposed to beat.