Goaltending: Last year, the Czech’s went into the World Juniors with one of the best duo’s in the tournament. Well, that didn’t exactly pan out whatsoever, with the team struggling to rely on either Vitek Vanecek or Daniel Vladar. This year, they both come in with more experience and should be more stable this time around. Vanecek was drafted 39th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Washington Capitals. He played for the Czech under-18 team for 22 games during the 2013-2014 season, posting a 2.52 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. An experienced international goalie who looked fairly solid for the Czech U19 last year, Vanecek is getting a good opportunity to learn from former AHL All-Star goalie Mark Dekanich with the South Carolina Stingrays this year, the ECHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals. Behind him will Daniel Vladar, one of the top goaltenders from the 2015 NHL Draft. means he will be ready to steal the spotlight in 2016 or 2017. The kid is 6’5″, and while it’s natural to think that all he needs to do is just sit and cover the net, he has the rare ability to be flashy, yet safe with his play. Like Vanecek, Vladar also made the jump to the play hockey in the United States, splitting time between the pipes with John Lethemon with the USHL’s Chicago Steel. Speaking of stealing, he could end up doing just that with the starting role if Vanecek can’t get the job done in Finland this year.
Defensemen: There’s no way you can talk about a strong Czech team without mentioning Jakub Zboril, yet they still managed to cut him last year anyways. It was evident from the start that they missed him on the point, struggling defensively every single shift without him. He did have a solid Summer Showcase tournament in Canada this past summer, and there’s no question the Boston Bruins first rounder will be a leader on a team without a great group of stars like Canada or the United States. Dominik Masin will also be a big contributor on the back end for the Czech’s, having participated internationally at the U16/17/18/19/20 levels already in his young career. A returning defenseman from last year’s dismal World Junior effort, the 19-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning prospect is expected to be a big minute cruncher while bringing good size and speed to a team that could need to rely on their top pairing defensemen through much of every game. Comprised of many 19-year-old defenders, Jan Scotka and Filip Pyrochta will likely fill out the top four, with both having played for the Czech U20 at some point over the past year. Scotka, who has represented the Czech Republic at various levels since 2012, is a reliable shutdown defenseman that should hold his own while Victoriaville Tigres blue liner Pyrochta will add a good two-way presence to the second top pairing. Plzeň defender David Sklenicka should help inject some fire into close situations if needed as well.
Forwards: With a lot of current CHLers on the Czech roster, there could be some high scoring forwards if you like to believe that major junior hockey in Canada is the place to be. New Jersey Devils prospect Pavel Zacha is the obvious number one star that the team will put a lot of pressure on to succeed. The first overall pick by the Sarnia Sting at the 2014 import draft, Zacha finished his OHL rookie season last year with 34 points 37 games after missing time throughout the season. A star at the most recent Under-18 World Championships, Zacha only had two points at last year’s World Junior tournament but with the two-way star expected to play a bigger role this year, his production should be much higher. Charlottetown Islanders playmaker Filip Chlapík could be the person that helps create a lot of Zacha’s offense, especially after a strong Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup tournament a few months back. David Kase has already played with Zacha previously in international play, so the Philadelphia Flyers prospect could have a chance to put up some solid production during the World Juniors, something he typically does when he puts on the Czech jersey. Buffalo Sabres prospect Václav Karabáček could also see time on the first line, having played with Zacha when the pair tore up the World Under-18’s back in 2014. Michael Špaček is having a strong rookie season with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels, playing at over a point-per-game average by the time he was announced to the preliminary tournament roster in early December. Tomáš Šoustal, Šimon Stránský and Lukáš Vopelka should also help add some extra strength to a solid top nine that shouldn’t have many issues finding the back of the net.
Projection: This has been a big question for many years, but after having a lot of promise a year ago, is this the year that the Czech’s finally break through and compete for a medal again? It’s been ten tournaments since their last World Junior medal, and with some solid depth at every position, they may actually be able to compete again this year. Unfortunately, don’t expect them to finish better than fifth or sixth, but hopefully it won’t be as much of a trainwreck as a year ago.
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