HALIFAX, Canada – After winning Division I, Group B last year, Slovenia is back in the top pool where it finished 16th in 2006. The immense improvement in skill from top level to Division I will be a challenge for the Slovenians to overcome. To avoid relegation would be a huge boost for the program and a significant victory here in Canada.
Slovenia has three capable goalies on the roster, and it takes only one to steal a game at the right time to make all the difference in the world. Gaber Glavic, Andrej Hocevar, and Robert Kristan will all have a chance to play. Hocevar had the lion’s share of the work in 2007 in Division I, so he is likely the one to be given the first start.
Five defencemen on the team played in 2006 when the team was last in the top pool. Ales Kranjc, in fact, led the team with four goals two years ago. Uros Vidmar, Mitja Robar, Dejan Varl, and Jakob Milanovic are also back, giving the team experience even if it lacks the speed and skill necessary to excel at the highest level.
There is no getting around the fact that the team’s fortunes will rise or sag with the play of Anze Kopitar who is far and away the team’s best player. Indeed, not only is he the first Slovenian to make it to the NHL, he is one of that league’s best young players. As a rookie last year with Los Angeles, Kopitar had 20 goals and 61 points and might well have won the Calder Trophy save for the play of Evgeni Malkin. This year, he had 32 goals and 77 points, and the sky seems to be the limit for him. He played for Slovenia last year in Division I and led all scorers with 14 points (1 + 13). His team scored 29 goals, half of which Kopitar contributed to. This year, as the skill level increases, he’ll have to do even better. In 2006, as an 18-year-old, he led his team with nine points. Now a “veteran,” fans can expect great things from this 20-year-old phenom. Other players who’ll have to help out include Tomaz Razingar, Marcel Rodman, and Egon Muric.
Mats Waltin played for Sweden at ten World Championships and Olympics as well as the 1976 and 1981 Canada Cup tournaments during his pro career. He is the new coach for Slovenia and passed one important hurdle a few months ago when his undermanned team beat Denmark in a five-game series (2W-2T-1L). He is better known as the coach who utilized the “torpedo” style of offense which he used while coaching Djurgarden in SEL. He takes over for Ted Sator, who took the team to the top of Division I last year but resigned suddenly in November 2007. If he can keep the team in the top level for 2009, Waltin will have accomplished his mission.
Slovenia has only one date in mind right now — May 6, 2008, the final day of the Preliminary Round. That is the day the team will play Latvia in a game sure to decide which team will advance to the Qualifying Round and which to the Relegation Round. Slovenia and Latvia play in a group with Canada and the United States, and those teams will almost certainly finish 1-2. But in Latvia, Slovenia has a very realistic chance of victory, and a place in the Qualifying Round would be a huge morale booster. Given the downturn of the Latvian game in recent years, Slovenia has an excellent chance to play in Switzerland next year.