BRATISLAVA, Slovakia - Regardless of the outcome at the upcoming U20 World Championship in the Czech Republic, no one will be able to claim Team Slovakia was unprepared. After narrowly averting relegation at last year’s tournament, the Slovaks have taken a bold, innovative approach to preparing the U20 squad to successfully defend its spot at the elite level.
The Slovakian Hockey Association has taken the unprecedented step of admitting the national U20 team to the Slovak Extraliga in order to help the junior team prepare for the 2008 U20 World Championship in Pardubice and Liberec. Junior-aged players affiliated with the various Slovak Extraliga clubs have been combined into a single team, playing a slate of 22 games against Extraliga competitors.
Slovakia is the first country to give its national junior team access to play against top-level adult competition. While other countries have staged similar experiments, it’s always been done on a smaller-scale. In Finland, for example, a U20 team has played against second-tier Mestis opponents, while Switzerland has had its juniors play a short slate of matches against National League B teams.
The Slovaks are the first to have their junior talent face off against the likes of longtime NHL and national team standout Zigmund Palffy (now with HK 36 Skalica) and former wunderkind Robert Döme (Slovan Bratislava). It has been a baptism by fire, to be sure. U20 team goaltenders Tomas Hiadlovsky (4.59 goals against average, 88.8 save percentage in 10 appearances) and Julius Hudacek (4.29 GAA, 88.8 save percentage in eight games) have been peppered with shots in most games.
The U20 team’s games do not count in the Extraliga standings, because winning is not the objective. The purpose is to provide the young players valuable experience and much-needed time to come together as a team. That takes time, and there has been progress over the course of the autumn, even if the on-ice results seem modest to casual observers.
In 16 matches played to date, the U20 team has won one time (a 3-2 shootout win over MHK Kezmarok on November 16), lost 14 times in regulation and were defeated once in a shootout. But the team has become increasingly unified and competitive.
In their earlier games, the juniors routinely lost by lopsided margins, including defeats by 7-1 (Kezmarok), 6-0 (Skalica) and 10-1 (MHC Martin) scores. More recently, the majority of results have been closer. But even when the juniors fall short, there are valuable lessons to be taken away by U20 head coach Stefan Mikes and his squad.
For instance, in a recent 0-4 loss to Skalica, veterans Palffy and Richard Hartmann schooled the kids with a goal and two assists apiece. But afterwards, Mikes was also able to point to several instances in which the U20 players made good defensive stops. That’s something from which the young players can gain confidence.
Simply gaining the experience of having played against a luminary like Palffy or a championship pro team like Slovan Bratislava removes some the intimidation factor going up against even the most formidable of junior opponents.
The Slovak juniors recently downed Switzerland 3-1 on their way to winning a four-nation World Junior Championships preparation tournament on their home ice. Divison I teams Germany and Norway were the other two participants. While the Slovaks were concerned by a 2-7 loss against Germany, the game against the Swiss was the one the Slovaks were most focused on winning. Switzerland, along with Denmark and Kazakhstan, will be the Slovaks most likely opposition in the relegation round of the 2008 U20 Worlds.
In the preliminary round of the U20 Worlds, Slovakia will be playing in the same preliminary round pool as Canada, Sweden, the Czech Republic and recently promoted Denmark. Slovak coach Mikes readily admits that the odds are against the Slovaks reaching the medal round. Two relegation round teams will remain in the elite tournament for 2009, the other two will be demoted to Division I.
As of now, the Slovaks and Swiss are the most likely to retain their spots. But as the recent lopsided loss to Germany demonstrates, the Slovaks simply cannot afford to take anything for granted.
By Mikes’ account, the projected Slovak roster for this year’s World Juniors is a bit thin on high-end talent relative to past entries. What’s more, the gap in international hockey narrows with each passing year. There’s a fine line between the lower reaches of the elite level and the upper echelon of Division I.
“It looks like we have had modest classes [at the U20 level],” he said in an interview for WorldJuniors2008.com. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t like to rate it as a total decay. For sure I wouldn’t. There are younger classes which seem to be stronger.”
One of the main reasons why Slovakia has slipped at the junior level is the fact that so many of its top junior players leave home early to pursue their NHL dreams in North American junior hockey. The Czechs have had similar problems staying competitive at the junior level – and the Slovaks’ former countrymen have a deeper pool of talent with which to work.
“There aren’t as many players leaving [Slovakia] now but still it’s a pity,” Mikes said. “They are forced to assimilate [to a different] style of play than we use.”
One Slovak player selected in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, defenceman Juraj Mikus (a fifth-round Toronto Maple Leafs pick), has opted to play with the Slovak U20 team this season. Additionally, two players who were in the CHL last year – right wingers Milan Jurik and Erik Caladi – are with the U20 team this fall. During the U20 squad’s preparation schedule in the Extraliga, Caladi has tallied a team-high five goals in 16 games. Centre Marek Slovak (one goal, five assists) leads the U20 team in overall scoring,
Mikes reported seeing encouraging signs from his team, but readily admits the squad is still a work in progress.
“The [forward lines] and defence stagnate, we have to work on passing to attack and, last but not least, we suffer from not [converting] chances into goals. There are lots of restraints, but we can see progress in some aspects,” he said.
Shortly before the World Junior Championships, the Slovak U20 squad will likely welcome several additions from the Canadian junior leagues. But there will probably not be large-scale roster changes from the squad that has been playing the Extraliga teams.
For the Extraliga experiment to be deemed a success, the Slovak U20 team will have to show greater cohesion at the World Juniors than some of their recent entries. If they play like a team and match the effort of their opponents, the Slovaks stand a good chance of retaining their spot at the 2009 tournament.