MANNHEIM – The last time the Czech Republic endured a three-year medal drought at the Worlds was from 2002 to 2004, and that ended in satisfying fashion with gold in Austria 2005. Head coach Vladimir Ruzicka hopes it'll be a similar story in his swan song behind the national team's bench.
But for “Rosie,” it's not an entirely rosy picture, since he's bringing less A-list talent than usual, this being an Olympic year. Finishing between fifth and seventh place has become a nasty habit for the Central European country that ruled the hockey world in the heyday of Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr. Can this year's squad bring pride back to Prague?
Despite dramatically leading HC Pardubice to the Czech Extraliga title at age 45, Dominik Hasek will not be part of this year's World Championship team, just as he was excluded from the Olympic roster. The decision by Ruzicka caused some disappointment for fellow '98 Olympic gold medalist Jaromir Jagr, according to quotes in the Czech media. But realistically, the Central European nation's goaltending situation still looks pretty good. It'll be the same trio as the Czechs brought to the Vancouver Olympics.
The choice of starter is no surprise. Workhorse Tomas Vokoun had another excellent campaign with the Florida Panthers, highlighted by seven shutouts, a 2.55 GAA, and a 92.5 save percentage. The 33-year-old backstopped the Czechs to their last world title in 2005 in Vienna, Austria.
The emergence of another NHL-calibre netminder this season has been a pleasant surprise for the Czechs. Despite struggling with consistency at times, Ondrej Pavelec played 42 games for Atlanta this season and provides an acrobatic, big-bodied (191 cm, 100 kg) presence between the pipes.
Filling the third-goalie slot will be budding star Jakub Stepanek, who at age 23 led Vitkovice Ostrava to the Extraliga finals. He also suited up at the Worlds in Switzerland last year, earning shutouts versus Denmark and Belarus.
The Czechs have never been known for turning out big-name defencemen, and this year's blueline for the Worlds looks workmanlike but less than spectacular. For example, Miroslav Blatak of Salavat Yulayev Ufa is the lone holdover from the Olympic team. He also starred at last year's Worlds with a team-best +8 plus minus, along with three goals and an assist.
New York Rangers veteran Michal Roszival will provide some puck-moving savvy: he contributed three goals and 20 assists in 82 games, and will probably relish the chance to play without getting criticized for the $6 million US he earned this season. Roszival's ex-Rangers teammate Karel Rachunek (Moscow Dynamo) and former Ottawa Senators prospect Filip Novak (MVD Balashikha) are other names familiar to NHL fans.
The marquee name up front is, of course, Jaromir Jagr, the greatest Czech forward of all time. The 38-year-old right wing recently re-signed with the KHL's Avangard Omsk for a third straight season in Siberia, despite speculation that he'd return to the NHL for 2010-11 and chase down Joe Sakic for eighth place on the all-time scoring list. Jagr showed flashes of his old self at the Olympics, such as the breakaway goal he scored against Slovakia, although his most memorable moment was getting crushed at centre ice by Russia's Alexander Ovechkin. He can still be a difference-maker in what might be his last Worlds go-round.
Jagr is a fan of skillful 2010 Olympic linemate Roman Cervenka, who topped the Extraliga points parade this year with 73 for Slavia Praha. Right wing Jakub Voracek tallied a career-best 50 points in his sophomore campaign with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and brings a lot to the table with his positive attitude and work ethic. Ex-NHLer Jiri Novotny and Tomas Rolinek, both of whom chipped in 30-plus points for KHL clubs, will also be asked to contribute.
Martin Ruzicka had a breakout season with Ocelari Trinec, counting 23 goals and 24 assists, good for sixth place in Extraliga scoring – he's likely slotted in as the thirteenth forward, though.
This group of forwards bears scant resemblance to the Olympic roster, and without adequate attention to detail in the defensive zone, they could struggle against higher-end competition like Group C rival Sweden.
Assisted by Ondrej Weissmann and Josef Jandac, Vladimir Ruzicka will preach the usual Czech counterattack system. In any case, his squad lacks the firepower to play a pure run-and-gun game like the Russians.
It was announced before the tournament that Ruzicka, who coached the Czechs to gold in 2005, will hand the reins back to Alois Hadamczik (the national coach from 2006 to 2008) post-Germany in order to focus fully on his club team, Slavia Praha. With the knowledge that their boss is a “lame duck,” so to speak, will the Czechs give their all for the man who captured gold at the 1998 Nagano Olympics as a player? It'll be yet another interesting dynamic to watch for this enigmatic side.
Beating Norway and France in the Preliminary Round shouldn't pose too much of a challenge if the Czechs play up to their capabilities. The May 13 showdown with Sweden will likely determine top spot in Group C. After that, you just never know with the Czechs anymore.
One point in their favour: this year's edition has better goaltending on paper than the group (Milan Hnilicka, Tomas Popperle, Adam Svoboda) that won silver in 2006, the last Czech medal at this tournament. They could squeeze into the medals, but no one expects them to challenge the likes of Canada or Russia for top spot.