By Jack Dawkins – The Hockey Writers
At first glance, the 2021 Tournament Outlook looks bleak for the Slovaks. Slovakia’s showing at the 2020 World Juniors was not good. Their saving grace was their 3-1 victory over fellow Group A member , Kazakhstan. This early tournament victory helped them avoid playing in the relegation matches. In their next three matches against Sweden, Switzerland and Finland, they posted a minus-16 goal differential, being outscored 21-5.
This year, there is no Kazakhstan for them to outlast. They are in Group A again, with Canada, Finland, Germany and Switzerland as their opposition. Canada and Finland are certain to have stacked teams. Germany could be a dark horse for medal contention and the Swiss haven’t faced a relegation round since 2016. This leaves Slovakia as the obvious underdog of their group. All is not lost, and the Slovaks have talent at key positions along with some youth that could help pave their pathway to creating some upsets.
Samuel Hlavaj will likely be the guy for his third go-round at the U20 level. It was kind of surprising to see Hlavaj go undrafted at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft after a stellar campaign with Sherbrooke of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Unfortunately, his international campaigns have not been as stellar. Much of that could be blamed on the teams that have played in front of him and the level of competition he finds himself facing. In order for Slovakia to have any chance of making noise this time around, Hlavaj is going to have to improve drastically on his 5.37 goals against average and .851 save percentage from a year ago. In truth, Slovakia’s success in this tournament begins and ends with his ability to keep them in games against high flying offensive competition.
Beyond Hlavaj there are four other goalies invited to selection camp. Adam Beke might have the best chance to seize the backup job or make a push to get some starts. Although he has not represented Slovakia much at the international level at all, his play with HC Slovan Bratislava’s U20 team over the last two seasons has yielded good results.
Simon Latkoczy is the other goaltender I expect to make the roster. His 20-game stint with the hapless Madison Capitols of the United States Hockey League last season is really hard to make any judgments against. The Capitols were simply dreadful last season in all facets of the game and it’s really hard to lay that at the goaltender’s feet. If nothing else, Latkoczy has experience playing behind a team that is often outclassed and outmatched by their opposition. Eugen Rabcan and Patrik Kozel round out the camp roster at goaltender.
Returning 2020 skater Samuel Knazko is likely expected to anchor the Slovakian back end. He was picked in the third round of the 2020 NHL Draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets. His offensive skillset from the blue line and all-around aggressive style could allow the Slovaks to maintain some offensive zone possession. On paper, he’s the most skilled player on the defense and should be expected to take on a leadership role.
In camp are three other returning defenders from the 2020 team. Oliver Turan is 6-foot-5 but is another year along in his development. He finished out last season playing professional hockey in Slovakia and picked up where he left off to start this season. Turan is a bit of a throwback, big, physical defender without a lot of offensive upside, but his size on the blue line could prove helpful in slowing down opposing forechecks.
Marko Stacha was picked up by the Vancouver Giants (WHL) in the CHL Import Draft, but due to COVID-19 has instead played with HK Dukla Trencin of the Tipos Extraliga, Slovakia’s top men’s league. He started the season with the U20 club, but played his way onto the big club. David Mudrak similarly was picked up by the Oshawa Generals (OHL) in the import draft, but has been playing on loan with HC Kosice of the Tipos Extraliga. Mudrak led all Slovakian defenders in last year’s tournament with three points, all assists.
Turan and Mudrak are both right-handed while Stacha and Knazko are left-handed. I imagine those four players will comprise the top four defenders for Slovakia. They have a tendency to bring eight defenders, so beyond those four there’s sure to be some competition for the final roster spots. Knazko, Stacha and Mudrak have all shown some capability as puck movers and contributors at both ends of the ice. Slovakia is going to need the three of them to be at the top of their games in order to shut down opposing forwards, while also holding offensive zone possessions and working in the cycle. They cannot allow themselves to play long stretches of the game in their own zone.
Oliver Fatul is an 18-year-old whom could be a good candidate to join the roster out of camp. He spent 29 games last season playing with HKM Zvolen of the Tipos Extraliga with acceptable results. He’s not as inclined towards the offensive aspects of the game, but he’s responsible in his own zone. The most exciting inclusion at camp for this Slovak team, is 16-year-old Simon Nemec. He’s not draft eligible until 2022, but Nemec is already drawing attention and turning heads, operating as a mainstay on the back end for HK Nitra of the Tipos Extraliga. He’s the youngest player to ever record a point for a men’s team in the Slovak league.
In case you didn’t see this. #2022NHLDraft prospect, defenseman Simon Nemec and his beautiful power-play assist during Sunday’s game between HK Nitra and HK Dukla Trenčín. Simon was also invited to the WJC camp and he is a lock to make it imo. pic.twitter.com/DM3HXuhbIn
— Rusty7550 (@rusty7550) December 2, 2020
Nemec is a special case for Slovakia here. It’s very uncommon for the Slovaks to give a U20 roster slot to a player so young. However, Nemec’s individual talent is at such a high level, that it may be hard to leave him home. It’s hard to look at the talent available, in-camp, for Slovakia’s backend and not think that Nemec is among the eight best defenders. If he makes the final roster, he will be in competition with Knazko to be the best puck moving defender on the team. He also has good size and mobility. Youth aside, Nemec is truly a special talent worth keeping an eye on.
Don’t count out Nemec’s HK Nitra teammate, Martin Knizka. He has shown very well in professional league play for Nitra. Simon Groch is the only 2021 draft eligible Slovak defender to make NHL Central Scouting’s “Preliminary Players to Watch” list. Groch has looked very good with HC Olomouc’s U20 team in the Czech U20 league. If the Slovaks decide not to bring 16-year-old Nemec, Sebastian Droppa has a lot of men’s league experience in the Tipos Extraliga over the last two seasons. He doesn’t show a lot of offensive upside, but as a depth or substitute defender he could be a contributor.
There are three forwards in camp who played for the 2020 U20 team and are likely to do so again. The rest of the camp group includes a couple players ranked by central scouting, a 2020 NHL draft pick and some other intriguing young talent.
Maxim Cajkovic is the elder statesman of the forward group and should be one of its top players. The 2019 3rd round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning is appearing in his second U20 World Juniors. He’s a natural right wing known for his strong skating ability and powerful shot. If the Slovaks are going to have goal scoring success, Cajkovic is one of the players they’ll be counting on the most.
Also returning for their second tournament are Michal Mrazik and Dominik Jendek. Mrazik is an imposing young forward, checking in at 6-foot-4. He’s done very well for himself this season playing in the Swedish U20 league. He operates well around the net and has some experience playing internationally for Slovakia. Mrazik will need to take a big step up in his production from his lone assist across 5 games last year if the Slovaks are to avoid relegation.
2020 NHL Draft pick Martin Chromiak is also in camp for Slovakia. In the second half of last season, Chromiak was a member of one of the most dynamic lines in the Ontario Hockey League with the Kingston Frontenacs. He has shown ability time and again as both a playmaker and shooting threat. On the breakout, Chromiak is a threat to create oddman rushes and 2-on-1 situations with his speed.
Chromiak has a good slap shot, a wrist shot with some zest on it and a snap shot that is simply too quick for some goaltenders to handle. It remains to be seen if he is the type of player who can take over and drive a line by himself. He has already proven he is the type of player who can successfully line up with a star forward and be a complimentary piece, but the relative talent level of his country’s roster is going to demand that he take on a bigger role.
Beyond the aforementioned four forwards, there are likely to be eight other forward spots up for grabs. With the Slovak trend of bringing eight defenders, the twenty remaining forwards will be cut down to eight. Among the remaining names are some interesting candidates.
Robert Baco and Oleksii Myklukha are both 2021 draft eligible players that made NHL Central Scouting’s watchlist at the start of the season. Myklukha split last season between RB Hockey Akademie in Salzburg, Austria and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL. His 8 points in 21 games with the Huskies doesn’t jump off the page, but Myklukha has shown that he can comfortably share the ice with top QMJHL players. He’s a natural center, with shifty moves and the ability to exploit soft spots in the offensive zone.
The Slovakian/Ukrainian/Polish top prospect for the #2021NHLDraft , Oleksii Myklukha, scores this shorty on the Americans. Myklukha has been a dominant player in various European junior leagues since he was just 14. I consider Myklukha a top 15 prospect for 2021. pic.twitter.com/8xUBNZZ8BJ
— TPEHockey (@TPEHockey) December 12, 2018
Center is not a position of strength for the Slovak team this year. Myklukha’s time in the QMJHL could prove invaluable to this team, having already played against some of the tougher competitors that Slovakia is likely to face. Of the players in selection camp, Myklukha’s quality of competition faced is among the highest and is on par with Chromiak and Cajkovic. If he were to make the team, I expect to see him centering one (or maybe both) of those potent wingers.
Baco put up 23 points in 31 games with a Czech U20 team last season and hit the ground running this season to the tune of 6 points in 9 games. His 6-foot-3 size should also help him assert himself in camp. He’s got a powerful shot and can work well in the cycle. He has also shown some good skill in tight around the grinding for loose pucks and trying to jam in rebounds and tip-ins. In spite of being 2021 eligible, both Baco and Myklukha have shown talent that should see them compete for a roster spot.
There’s three players playing junior hockey outside of Slovakia that seem like good candidates to make the final cut. Simon Jellus played 7 games for Slovakia in the U18 World Juniors in 2018-19. Last season he had respectable production in the Swedish U20 league to the tune of 7 goals and 22 assists in 43 games. This season he has 6 goals in 18 games. He has found a bit of scoring touch at a respectable junior hockey level.
Juraj Slafkovsky has done something similar with TPS U20 team in Finland. Slafkovsky is another 2022 draft eligible player with immense size. The 16 year old checks in at 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds. He has also played some time at the center position for Slovakia internationally. In 2019-20 Slafkovsky played with the U16, U17 and U18 team in international competitions and totaled 9 points through 10 games. If he had had a good camp, it would be hard to ignore Slafkovsky’s history of solid center-play and point production in spite of his young age.
Lastly, Michael Drabek has 9 points in 6 games with his Czech U20 club. These players are playing against tougher competition than they would likely have faced had they stayed in Slovakia to play their junior hockey and it could give them a competitive edge towards winning a roster slot.
From inside Slovakia, Lukas Skvarek looks like a contender. The 6-foot-3 center/wing had 15 points in 5 games at the junior level for HK Nitra’s U20 team before he was bumped up to the big club where in 10 games he scored 2 goals. This is a player who thoroughly dominated junior hockey in Slovakia at the age of 18. Center, Maros Jedlicka accomplished a similar feat with HKM Zloven. He had 5 points through 2 junior games before playing 8 with the big club.
Mammoth-sized Center, Dominik Sojka did not start the season in juniors at all. The 6-foot-6, 220 pound 19-year-old started this season with HC Banska Bystrica, where he had finished up last season. Sojka is not a point scoring dynamo by any stretch of the imagination, with only 2 points in 40 games of Tipos Extraliga experience. He does, however, have 40 games of Tipo Extraliga experience spread across 3 seasons. Sojka has a big man’s body and has experience playing a man’s game. It’s really hard to quantify what kind of value that might have. These players all bring varying degrees of professional experience but they have each had some degree of success in that realm.
The Final Word
There’s some real talent in this player pool if Slovakia is willing to field them. Beyond the three players already drafted by NHL teams (Knazko, Chromiak, Cajkovic) some of the best talent available to Slovakia is going to come in the forms of younger players like Nemec, Myklukha and Slafkovsky. It’s really a question of whether or not these kids show well in selection camp and if the Slovak coaching staff is willing to take a chance on them for the tournament.
The cruel truth is that Slovakia simply does not have the talent pool of some of their opponents in their group. Covid-19 has presented a unique situation where Canada, Finland and Germany are going to be able to field obscenely potent rosters. On the surface it appears as though it’s going to be a tall order for Slovakia to avoid playing in the relegation round, let alone even sincerely think about competing for a medal. However, if they field some of the younger dynamic talent available to them, they could surprise some people. Slovakia has some defenders that are capable puck movers and they have some forwards that are capable offensive producers.
The big questions is going to be, “can they put it all together?” If they are able to battle through this tournament and avoid relegation, they could come out the other side of this with some valuable experience for their younger players going forward. If their top players show up and perform up to their potential, they could steal a few games. Chromiak, Cajkovic, Hlavaj and Knazko are going to have to lead the way and be the best players on the ice game in and game out. If they can do that and outplay supposedly “better” competition, truly anything is possible.