BRATISLAVA – After upsetting the world with a fourth place in 2009, Slovakia’s U20 national team tumbled back last year. The Slovaks aim to return to the safer regions and make flirting with relegation a thing of the past.
Four years ago the Slovak Ice Hockey Association made a drastic decision. It came just after Slovakia miraculously escaped from relegation to Division I with a lacklustre performance in Sweden.
A specific U20 project started and saw the junior team players, who were fighting for ice time in the Slovak Extraliga, participate in the league as a club team. Whereas the league results did not give much reason to cheer, Slovakia’s performance at the IIHF World U20 Championship did gradually improve. In 2009 they exceeded expectations, grabbing a well-deserved fourth spot.
Repeating that performance in 2010 proved too ambitious. Drawn into a group with power houses Canada and the United States, the Slovaks could not cause another upset and found themselves back in the relegation round.
Head coach Stefan Mikes returns behind the bench for the fourth consecutive year. This week he announced his 23-man roster that will don the Slovak jersey during the 2011 IIHF U20 World Championship in Buffalo and Niagara, USA.
Surprisingly, Mikes also announced that no less than eight players currently playing in North America will be added to the roster – a substantial raise compared to previous years. Even during the successful 2009 edition, Mikes used just four Slovak players playing in North America.
“When it comes to selecting players for the national team, we do not look at where they are playing. Our staff tries to select the best possible team,” says Mikes. “We have scouted them intensively and know what they are capable of. All of them have come through the various national youth selections so they could quite easily slot into our final roster.”
The real strength of this year’s Slovak squad is therefore hard to predict. Earlier this year they lost to Germany, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. Countries that are of the same level. Last month, however, Slovakia posted victories over Norway and Switzerland and just narrowly lost to Germany.
They will meet the Germans again on December 27 in Slovakia’s opening game of the tournament. It could very well prove to be a key game in the group in order to reach their goal, the quarterfinals, and thus avoid ending up in the relegation series. The round robin group also features reigning champion USA, Switzerland and Finland.
“Last year we lost the games against Canada and the U.S. before our key game against Switzerland. Our confidence was undermined and we lost the game,” Mikes says as he tries to prepare his team to withstand the pressure this year.
“It’s important to know how the players adjust mentally to the pressure and all the massive media attention. If they succeed, they can go a long way as I do not feel our team is weaker than two years ago.”
Mikes’ optimism is not too subjective. The expected squad seems to be one of the strongest Slovak ones in recent history. Although Mikes is still lacking a goaltender who can steal games like Jaroslav Janus did in 2008, his defensive and offensive options are promising.
Edmonton Oilers prospect Martin Marincin is enjoying a successful first season in the WHL. The defenceman averages over a point per game and is expected to lead Slovakia’s defensive line-up along with Adam Janosik, who plays for the Gatineau Olympiques in the QMJHL.
Offensively, Richard Panik will dress for his third World U20 Championship participation. Last year he led his country in scoring with ten points in six games. He will not be alone up front though. Mikes has good hopes that Tomas Jurco, Andrej Kudrna and Marek Hrivnik can take their current form to Buffalo. Forward Juraj Majdan will bring important experience playing in the Czech Extraliga with HC Litvinov.
Despite gaining just a single point from 20 games in the Slovak league, the U20 team has seen several youngsters stand out. Michael Vandas has scored six of the team’s 19 goals and looks to have secured a spot. Centre Andrej Stastny has combined skill and grit and Tomas Hrasko impressed at times on defence.
Slovakia held its domestic training camp in Hamuliakove from 6th to 15th December after which the roster was reduced to 15 players who will join the eight Slovak CHL junior players in Buffalo. The team will play two exhibition games against Norway (December 21) and Russia (December 23).
Slovakia’s 23-man roster
Dominik Riecicky, HC Kosice
Tomas Pek, Slovan Bratislava
Juraj Holly, Calgary (WHL)
Peter Ceresnak, Dukla Trencin
Peter Trska, Slovan Bratislava
Lukas Kozak, MHC Martin
Henrich Jabornik, HK 36 Skalica
Peter Hrasko, HKm Zvolen
Martin Marincin, Prince George (WHL)
Adam Janosik, Gatineau (QMJHL)
Dominik Simcak, HC Kosice
Oliver Jokel, HC Kosice
Andrej Stastny, Dukla Trencin
Miroslav Pressinger, Slovan Bratislava
Peter Sisovsky, MHC Martin
Tomas Matousek, HC 05 Banska Bystrica
Michael Vandas, HK Poprad
Juraj Majdan, HC Litvinov (CZE)
Richard Panik, Guelph (OHL)
Marek Hrivik, Moncton (QMJHL)
Tomas Jurco, Saint John (QMJHL)
Andrej Kudrna, Red Deer (WHL)
Dalibor Bortnak, Kamloops (WHL)