Goalies: No question, the star between the pipes last year was none other than Denis Godla, an undrafted goalie that practically came out of obscurity to earn the top goaltender award at the end of the 2015 World Juniors. This time around, they’ll have to hope Adam Huska, a New York Rangers prospect with a lot of U18 national team starts, can be just as good, if not better. While the team would probably like having Matej Tomek in the crease (not playing due to injury), Huska is one of the top goalies in the USHL after putting up incredible numbers with the Green Bay Gamblers. Playing on a weak Slovak team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in 2014, Huska went 0-3 in three games for Slovakia, just months before acting as the starting goalie at the Under-18’s in Switzerland. While neither performance resulted in much success, Huska did shine enough to earn the attention of scouts, eventually leading the Rangers to use a late draft pick on him this past June. Huska should be given every opportunity to run away with the starting role, with Stanislav Škorvánek given maybe a game or two to help rest Huska for a potential quarter-final effort.
Defensemen: With Slovakia being one of the weaker teams in the tournament, their defense is going to be something that will likely end up looking bad in the process. While they obviously don’t have top end talent, that isn’t to say that they wont have solid blue liners to work with. Andrej Hatala, for example, has looked rather solid with HK Dukla Trencin in the top men’s league in Slovakia, getting chances to prove his worth after playing on Team Slovakia U18 last year. Christian Jaroš is also back and ready to mingle with the best of them following a safe showing at last year’s World Juniors. A fifth round pick of the Ottawa Senators, Jaroš has looked fairly strong with Swedish club Asplöven HC, his second campaign playing against men. He won’t contribute much in terms of offense, but if you need a shutdown guy who’ll be safe in his own zone and keep things close when you need it. At 18-years-old, Eric Cernak already looks like a future defensive stud for the Los Angeles Kings and he’s proven that with his strong play with the OHL’s Erie Otters. An assistant captain for Slovakia, this will be Cernak’s third straight World Junior performance which is impressive considering he still has another year of eligibility next year. As the only 18-year-old defenseman on the roster, Cernak can easily impress and grow his game even further before taking to the ice next year back in Canada. Ladislav Romancik will likely fill out the top four, having played well for the Slovaks in various other international tournaments. With a good start to the season with Södertälje SK J20 in Sweden, Romancik could be an underrated player that teams will follow throughout the tournament, especially if he gets a chance to play with Cernak.
Forwards: While underrated, the Slovaks will be bringing a couple of strong forwards that could end up giving some of the top teams a run for their money. Radovan Bondra is one of the bigger names, and while Bondra’s surname may sound familiar, he actually is not related to Peter in any way. A fifth-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, Bondra is a huge 6’5, 218lbs forward that is almost impossible to stop when he’s around the crease. While not a big point producer, Bondra currently sits at just over a point-per-game with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants after splitting last season with HC Kosice and the U20 Slovak national development team. Bondra will likely be slotted with fellow CHLer Kristián Pospíšil and Slovak U20 team centreman Matus Sukel on the first line, giving the team a bit of size up front to help intimidate opponents. Pospíšil, an aggressive player that does take his fair share of penalties, made the jump over to the QMJHL’s Blainville-Boisbriand Armada after a point-per-game season in the Russian MHL league with Austrian club EC Salzburg. The 19-year-old forward has never suited up for the Slovaks at a U20 event in the past, and after a so-so performance with the Under-18 team in 2014, he’ll want to make an impact in his final tournament as a junior hockey player. Most people outside of Slovakia probably have not heard of Sukel, a potential number one centreman after fulfilling the role with the Slovak national junior team. A member of the bronze medal World Junior squad last year as a bottom six forward, the speedy centreman should be given the best role he’s ever had playing for Slovakia, so the expectation is that he’ll be able to do something with that responsibility this year. The top scoring player from that development team, Juraj Mily, didn’t have much success as an 18-year old in the QMJHL and USHL a year ago, but he’s grown to be an effective player in the Slovak league with nine points in his 20 games. Filip Lešťan, another hulking forward at 6’5, will likely find a spot within the top six after playing solid in the Swedish Hockey League with HV71, albeit only in a restricted role for a short period of time. His presence was surely known at the Under-18’s a year ago, so he’ll hope to have that happen again this year against older players. Lukas Hrusik and Juraj Šiška should also compete for top six roles on a team that will need to desperately find some scoring, but the chemistry of having so many forwards that play together could help.
Projection: Size is a big theme for the Slovaks, who will ice a roster with an average size of 6’1. Now, when you play on the bigger ice where speed is king, that doesn’t always translate into success. The Slovaks pulled off a miracle last year, winning the bronze medal after most people expected them to hang around in the relegation round. Now, with most of the stars gone to the pro’s, the team will have to be lucky again if they hope to move past the quarter-final round. Don’t expect that to be the case, but they’re good enough to avoid falling into the bottom two team trap.
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