Ask the Experts: Slovakia Edition
by Lucas AYKROYD|30 DEC 2023
Slovakia has opened the IIHF World Junior Championship with three straight wins for the first time ever. Just how deep can this team go in 2024?
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Chris Tanouye
With the preliminary round at the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship winding down, Slovakia is the only Group B squad with a perfect record. Slovak fans wonder if Gothenburg could yield golden memories of this U20 team just as it famously did with the IIHF World Championship team in 2002.

We asked our longtime World Junior correspondents Andrew Podnieks and Lucas Aykroyd to offer some analysis. 

In your mind, what is the main key to Slovakia’s success through three games?

Andrew Podnieks: So far, what’s impressed me is the way they have been winning—something different every game. Their 6-2 win over Czechia to start featured lots of emotion and goals. Then, 3-0 over Switzerland, which was really 1-0 with two empty-netters. That was tight, pressure hockey. And then an 8-4 shootout win over the Norwegians showed a team full of confidence.

Lucas Aykroyd: With 15 returning players, there’s a “been there, done that” swagger to this group. They solidified that on Day One by thumping the Czechs, which was meaningful not only for the three points, but also because it’s their historic brotherly rivals and the 2023 silver medalists. In a smaller time frame, it reminds me of the Vancouver Canucks hammering the Edmonton Oilers 8-1 to kick off 2023-24 and all the success that’s flowed for Vancouver since then. Essentially, just about everything’s gone right for the Slovaks so far. 

What’s the most eye-catching statistic for Slovakia so far?

AP: For me, it’s their six power-play goals out of the 17 goals they have scored overall. And those six goals have come on only 13 advantages, so they’re both prolific and intimidating. You can say the best team 5-on-5 will win gold, but take the Slovak power play lightly at your peril.

LA: Agreed on the PP from a team standpoint. Individually, I look at Servac Petrovsky vying for the tournament lead in goals and points (5+3=8). The 19-year-old forward, a 2022 sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Wild, already has more points than he did in his previous two World Juniors combined. It’s a nice story whether you hail from Petrovsky’s hometown of Presov, cheer for him with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack, or just love watching a guy brimming with confidence.

Adam Gajan came out of nowhere to earn Best Goalie honours at the 2023 World Juniors. What do you think of the 19-year-old’s encore in Gothenburg?

AP: Three games, three wins, six goals allowed. Connor Bedard and his Blackhawks teammates love what they’re seeing so far, and you can see why Chicago drafted him 35th overall this year. He has size and poise, and his presence in the blue ice has been a big part of their spotless record.

LA: Gajan’s been excellent and is capable of stealing games. I will add a qualifier. At the 2023 tournament, he told me: “I think I'm an athletic and fast goalie. So sometimes I just have to be calmer in the net.” There are still times when he gets caught moving side to side or playing overly aggressively. Not unlike Hawks starter Petr Mrazek, a fellow former WJC Best Goalie (2012). Gajan will need to maintain an element of control as Slovakia faces tougher teams.

What would a top-four finish mean for Slovakia?

AP: As a start, it would mean they’ve won the quarter-finals, which would be a big step in itself. The last time they did that was 2015. It would also mean they’re playing for a medal for the first time since 2015, another marker of improvement. These markers would validate the direction coach Ivan Fenes has the team trending in. This is a team built on skill and puck creativity. And, of course, success begets success, making it a bit easier for next year’s juniors and for these juniors to develop into top-flight players at the senior level.

LA: They had a parade in Bratislava when the men’s 2022 Olympic team won the bronze medal. Slovak fans rival their Latvian counterparts for enthusiasm. Even a fourth-place finish would resonate in a world where top U20 Slovak NHL picks like Montreal’s Juraj Slafkovsky and New Jersey’s Simon are also making their mark right now.

Big picture: do you see the Slovaks as medal contenders or pretenders?

AP: Mostly contenders, but they were outplayed by the Swiss in the second period of that game, so you can see they are not without flaws. Still, given their play, they have a very real shot at a medal, which is something they’ve done only twice before at the World Juniors (bronze in 1998 and 2015).

LA: It depends on how you define “contenders.” Based on the incredible fight the Slovaks gave the Connor Bedard-led Canadians in last year’s quarter-finals – a 4-3 overtime loss despite being outshot 57-27 – they’re certainly capable of reaching the final four in 2024. But can they knock off three playoff opponents in a row, especially if two of them likely include Canada, the U.S., and/or Sweden? That’s longer odds. Still, I think bronze is feasible.