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Slovaks take steps for more secure national junior team

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com

Team Slovakia finished eighth at the 2007 World Junior Championships, and is on a mission to avoid relegation this year.

Last year’s World Junior Championships were a near-disaster for Slovakia. The team barely averted relegation from the elite level of the IIHF Under-20 World Championships to the Division I level. Meanwhile, the Slovak national junior program is closer to being eclipsed by the likes of Switzerland than it is to competing for medals.

With Slovakia facing possible relegation this year as well, Slovak hockey officials knew they had to take bold action to give their team the best possible opportunity to hang onto a spot at the top level of the World Juniors. Their sense of urgency was further heightened by the shocking relegation of the Czech team at the Under-18 World Championship level.

As a result, Slovakian hockey has taken an unprecedented step this year. In order to boost preparations for the 2008 World Junior Championships (to be held in Pardubice and Liberec, Czech Republic), a Slovak national Under-20 team was added to Slovakia’s top professional league, the Extraliga.

Junior-aged players affiliated with the various development programs of the Slovak Extraliga clubs – including Dukla Trencin and Slovan Bratislava (historically the top talent producers in Slovakia) – were formed into a single team. There also are players who most recently played North American junior hockey or in the Czech Republic. The Under-20 team has been playing a schedule of games against Extraliga clubs.

The U-20 team games don’t count in the Extraliga standings. The idea is to give young players valuable experience and much-needed time to come together as a team. Even by the account of U-20 head coach Stefan Mikes, the projected Slovak roster for this year’s World Juniors is a bit thin on talent

 

“It looks like we’ve had modest classes (at the U-20 level),” he said in an interview translated to English for the official site of the 2008 World Junior Championships. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t like to rate it as a total decay. For sure I wouldn’t. There are younger classes which seem to be stronger.”

Even so, the Slovaks may find it tough to put future national junior teams in position to succeed unless the current U-20 squad is able to retain its spot at the elite level. Once a team gets relegated, it’s a tough road to recover a place in the top tournament. The last thing Slovakia wants is to yo-yo each year from the elite level to Division I, as Germany has done. That makes it tough to continually build cohesion in the program.

Mikes and other Slovak hockey officials say that cohesion is exactly what’s been missing from recent Slovak national junior teams.

Even when the Slovaks arguably have boasted more individual talent than their opponents, they often have come up short as a team. For instance, at the 2007 World Junior Championships, Slovakia was significantly outworked and outplayed in a must-win preliminary game taken by a hungrier Team Germany.

One of the main reasons Slovakia has slipped at the WJC is the fact that so many of its top junior players leave home early to pursue their NHL dreams in North American junior hockey. The Czechs have had similar problems staying competitive at the junior level – and the Slovaks’ former countrymen have a deeper pool of talent with which to work around in the absence of top players during pre-tournament preparations.

For instance, all four Slovakian players picked in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft chose to play Canadian junior hockey rather than stay in their homeland. Center Tomas Marcinko (New York Islanders, fourth round, 115th overall) played for the OHL’s Barrie Colts. Left wing Tomas Zaborsky (New York Rangers, fifth round, 137th overall) joined the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL. Winger Juraj Simek (Vancouver Canucks, sixth round, 167th overall) suited up for the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings, and center Lukas Zeliska (Rangers, seventh round, 204th overall) played for the Prince Albert Raiders in the WHL.

Among the Slovakian 2007 draftees, players such as New York Rangers seventh-rounder David Skokan (Rimouski Oceanic) and Edmonton Oilers fifth-rounder Milan Kytnar (Kelowna Rockets) are playing for CHL clubs this season.

“There aren’t as many players leaving (Slovakia) now, but still it’s a pity,” Mikes said. “They are forced to assimilate (to a different) style of play than we use.”

One 2007 draftee, defenseman Juraj Mikus (a fifth-round Toronto Maple Leafs pick), has opted to played with the Slovak U-20 team this season. Additionally, two players who were in the CHL last year – right wingers Milan Jurik and Erik Caladi – are with the U-20 team this fall. Last year, Jurik played with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders and Caladi suited up for the OHL’s Belleville Bulls.

The U-20 team has had modest on-ice results in its 12 games against Slovak Extraliga competition. The best performance the team has managed is 2-1 shootout loss to HK Nitra. More commonly, they’ve lost by multiple goals, including a 7-1 pasting against MHK Kezmarok, a 6-0 beating from HK 36 Skalica, a 5-1 loss to MsHK Zilina and a 7-4 defeat at the hands of MHK 32 Liptovsky Mikulas.

U-20 team goaltenders Tomas Hiadlovsky (4.41 goals-against average, .898 save percentage in seven appearances) and Julius Hudacek (4.01 GAA, .889 save percentage in six games) routinely have been peppered with shots.

Meanwhile, there is only one plus-rated skater on the team. HC Kosice-affiliated defenseman Michal Kozak is a plus-1 in six games, but most of the more extensively used players are double-digit minuses. Center Marek Slovak (one goal, four assists) leads the U-20 team in overall scoring, while Caladi paces the squad with three goals.

Keep in mind, however, that the purpose of having the Slovak juniors play against the Extraliga clubs was to expose them to a higher grade of competition and to train them to execute a team-oriented system. No one expected gaudy stats or highly competitive games against adult pro competition.

Mikes reported encouraging signs from his team, but readily admits the squad remains a work in progress.

“The (forward lines) and defense stagnate, we have to work on passing to attack, and last but not least, we suffer from not (converting) chances into goals. There are lots of restraints, be we can see progress in some aspects,” he said to WorldJuniors2008.com.

Shortly before the World Junior Championships, the Slovak U-20 squad likely will welcome several additions from the CHL. But there probably won’t be large-scale roster changes from the squad that has been playing the Extraliga teams.

Will the extra preparation and practice time help the Slovaks better compete at the 2008 World Junior Championships? Slovakia will be playing in the same preliminary-round pool as Canada, Sweden, the Czech Republic and recently promoted Denmark. The odds of reaching the medal round are slim.

But Mikes has said that avoiding relegation is the team’s main goal, and he’ll consider his mission a success if the Slovaks survive a relegation round that’s likely to include Switzerland, Denmark and Kazakhstan. Two teams will remain in the elite tournament for 2009 while the other two will head for Division I.
 

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