Day: May 20, 2021

Canada looks to the top

Canadian forward Adam Henrique returns after winning silver at the last Worlds

By Andrew Podnieks – IIHF.com

Canada is at the top of the IIHF’s Men’s World Ranking and has won a medal in four of the last five years, missing out only in 2018 after a 4-1 loss to the U.S. in the bronze-medal game. A multi-faceted mix of a roster will be a challenge for coach Gerard Gallant to coordinate, but the talent is there.

Goal

Two of Canada’s three goalies know each other very well from the NHL. Canada’s likely starter will by Darcy Kuemper, who played on Canada’s 2018 team and who has been with the Arizona Coyotes for several years. He was the team’s number-one goalie this past season, posting a record of 10-11-3 and a GAA of 2.56. His backup in Arizona is Adin Hill, who will be representing his country for the first time. Hill played in 19 games with a 9-9-1 record and a save percentage of .913 in Arizona. The third goalie will be Michael DiPietro who played at the 2019 World Juniors when Canada finished a disappointing sixth.

Defence

What an incredibly diverse and interesting aggregation of talent Canada has on the blue line this year from veteran players to Owen Power, who is considered by many to be the number one prospect for the upcoming NHL draft. The 18-year-old played this past season for the University of Michigan, which wouldn’t release him to Canada for the World Juniors this past year. Playing in Riga will be great for his development, and great for fans to watch a young talent as it emerges.

Jacob Bernard-Docker helped Canada win gold at the 2020 World Juniors, and played most of this past season with the University of North Dakota. The 20-year-old also played five games for the Ottawa Senators. Another youngster is 19-year-old Braden Schneider of the Brandon Wheat Kings, who played for Canada once previously, at the 2019 U18s. 

Several others will be making their first appearance for Canada, including Colin Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, Sean Walker, of the L.A. Kings, and Nicolas Beaudin of Chicago. Mario Ferraro (no relation to Ray) will also be on the team. The 22-year-old has played for San Jose the past two seasons.

Forward

The forwards have plenty of experience either in the NHL, the international game, or both. Again, youth is well served in the lineup, but perhaps the most intriguing name is Cole Perfetti. The 19-year-old was drafted 10th overall by the Winnipeg Jets in 2020 and helped Canada win silver at this past World Juniors. 

But the most impressive name might well by Connor Brown, who saw a resurgence in his career with Ottawa this year. He had 21 goals in 56 games and at 27 years old is ready to help the Senators in the long term. He’ll be wearing the maple leaf for the first time in Riga. Brandon Pirri is 30 and has had a career both in the NHL and the minors, most recently with Chicago and Rockford.

The most senior member is Anaheim Ducks forward Adam Henrique. The 31-year-old is the elder statesman of the team and has 710 NHL games to his credit. He also won two silver medals for Canada, one in 2010 at the World Juniors and another nine years later at the senior Worlds. 

Canada often adds one outlier to its lineup, and this year that player is Justin Danforth. He hasn’t played in the NHL but has played extensively in the AHL before moving to Europe to continue in Finland and, this past season, with the Czech team HC Vityaz in the KHL. Nick Paul is another player who has been with the Senators since 2015, and in the last two seasons has really established himself as a bona fide NHLer. Not flashy, he is a solid two-way player who will help coach Gallant in whatever role is asked of him.

Two young forwards with the L.A. Kings are Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Gabriel Vilardi. Anderson-Dolan has played at both the U18 and U20, while Vilardi was an 11th overall selection by the Kings in 2017. Both are just starting to come into their own in L.A. Max Comtois is the most experienced player on the team for IIHF competition, but it has all been at the junior level so far. He played in two U18s and two World Juniors, winning gold at the 2018 U20.

Andrew Mangiapane is here because of his fine season with the Calgary Flames, while other young players hoping to contribute and develop include Liam Foudy, who won gold at the 2020 U20; Dillon Dube, also from Calgary and silver and gold medallist at the World Juniors; and, Brandon Hagel and Michael Bunting.

Coaching

A silver medallist with Canada’s 1989 World Championship team as a player, Gerard Gallant took the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup finals in 2018 in their first season. He was fired midway through the 2019-20 season, thus making him available for this assignment, his first behind a Team Canada bench.

Projected Results

Chemistry is the key word for Canada this year. How will all these parts from so many places in so many leagues and at such a variety of ages all fit together? Gallant will have a good deal to say about that, as well as the players’ ability to gel quickly during the few practises and warmup games they will have at their disposal. But this is a very talented group and is perfectly capable of getting to the final weekend. After that, chemistry will decide Canada’s fate, medal or no medal – and if medal, what colour?

Germans want more quarters

Goaltender Mathias Niederberger is back from Germany’s last World Championship squad in 2019

By Andrew Podnieks – IIHF.com

Although much of the German program has seen a dip in recent years before recovering more recently, the senior men’s national team was resurrected under coach Marco Sturm and is getting further impetus from Toni Soderholm. It has qualified for the playoffs in three of the last four years and finished 6th in 2019, the best placing in a decade.

Goal

The Germans will have the two goalies who took them to a spot in the quarter-finals two years ago – starter Mathias Niederberger and backup Niklas Treutle. The third goalie will be 30-year-old Felix Bruckmann, who last played for Germany at the 2008 U18. Niederberger was an excellent 3-0-1 in 2019 and also played once in the 2018 Worlds as well, a year when positions were flipped and Treutle was the number-one man. Treutle also played at the 2011 World Juniors.

Defence

There is a good blend of experience and youth on the German blue line this year. At the top end, Moritz Muller at 34 is the senior man, playing in his 9th World Championship. He also helped the country win an historic silver medal at the 2018 Olympics. Korbinian Holzer, 33, played in the KHL last year and is in his 6th WM, and is the only player from the 2010 Olympics on the team. 

Jonas Muller also has plenty of time with the national team and is the only player to have appeared in all four levels of IIHF play since 2013—U18, U20, WM, and OG. His Olympics was also in 2018, winning silver. Moritz Seider is 20 and one of the bright stars of the future for the Germans. He played at the U18 two years ago and the World Juniors a year later. Marco Nowak was a teammate with Bruckmann at the 2008 U18, and Fabio Wagner has plenty of junior experience but will making his senior debut, as will Leon Gawanke, who played for the Manitoba Moose this past season, and Dominik Bittner (Grizzlys Wolfsburg).

Forward

Long-time NHLer Tobias Rieder brings instant respect to the team and will be a leader in Riga. He is the only member of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey team here (Team Europe) and is in his 5th World Championship. The only other player with NHL experience is 21-year-old Lean Bergmann, who has been playing in the San Jose Sharks system for the last two years. He played at the 2019 Worlds, as did Adler Mannheim’s Stefan Loibl. 

Matthias Plachta is in his 6th World Championship and is a teammate of Loibl in Mannheim. Plachta also played on that 2018 Olympic team. Two other Adler Mannheim forward are here as well: Nicolas Krammer, making his third WM appearance, and the veteran Markus Eisenschmid, who has played in two U18s, two World Juniors, and two senior Worlds. 

Eisbaren Berlin is also contributing three important forwards. Lukas Reichel is only 19 and played at the 2020 World Juniors. He should bring some speed and offence to the group. The 27-year-old Leonhard Pfoderl played at both the 2018 Olympics and 2019 Worlds. And, Marcel Noebels, 29, is in his 6th WM. 

Tom Kuhnhackl, the son of legendary Erich, last played at the 2011 U20 and has been in the AHL with Bridgeport the last three seasons since being acquired by the New York Islanders. He was a Stanley Cup champion with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017. 

Maximilian Kastner will be making his debut with Germany, and John Peterka, 19, is another young gun to watch out for. Drafted 34th by Buffalo in 2020, Peterka is the only member of the team who played at the recent World Juniors in Edmonton where Germany finished 6th after a narrow 2-1 loss to Russia in the quarter-finals. Peterka and Tim Stutzle led the team in scoring with 10 points each this past January. 

Other forwards include Frederik Tiffels, in his fourth straight WM, and another player who has waited patiently to represent his country again, Daniel Fischbuch. He last played at the U18 in 2011. As well, Andreas Eder has a good deal of junior experience but will be making his senior debut with Germany.

Coaching

After a distinguished playing career in his native Finland, mostly with HIFK, Toni Soderholm turned to coaching, in Germany. He has been with the national team since 2019’s World Championship, where the team finished a very respectable 6th thanks to a 5-0-2 record in the preliminary round that year. That included a huge 4-2 win over Finland on the last day of the round robin. 

Projected Results

Soderholm has plenty of talent but also has high expectations, and spots are getting tougher and tougher to come by in the quarter-finals. Germany will be looking for wins over Italy, Norway, Kazakhstan, and Latvia and hoping for a strong showing against Canada, Finland, and the U.S. in the hopes of accumulating enough points to make the final eight.

Slovaks need to rebound

Marek Daloga brings experience to the Slovak defence

By Derek O’Brien – IIHF.com

The 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was bittersweet for the Slovaks. They played on their home ice in Kosice – the hometown for several of the players. It was the swan song of Ladislav Nagy’s career. They opened with a win over the USA but their tournament got derailed by a couple of late collapses against Canada and Germany that cost them points that would have put them in the quarter-finals. 

Fast forward a couple of years and some things have changed. Seven players are returning, as is most of the coaching staff, but with a big restriction on the number of NHL players available, some players will be expected to take on more prominent roles and other spots for young players will open up. Will that allow Slovakia to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2013?

Goal

Julius Hudacek has been on the Slovak roster for six previous World Championships and been the starter twice, so it would seem to be his crease to lose. The 32-year-old puckstopper has played the last four seasons in the KHL, the last three for Spartak Moscow, and selected to three all-star games. Back in 2014/15, he was the top goaltender and MVP of the SHL while playing for Orebo HK.

Behind him, Branislav Konrad is the veteran. Now 33, he has been a mainstay in net for HC Olomouc in the Czech Extraliga for the past six seasons. He played two games at the 2016 World Championship and two more at the 2018 Winter Olympics. If the Slovaks choose to go the younger route, 24-year-old Adam Huska appears ready. He has been based in the United States since he was 17, first in the USHL, then the NCAA, and now for the AHL’s Harftord Wolfpack in the New York Rangers system. 

Defence

The Slovak team does have a pair of experienced defencemen, namely Marek Daloga and Adam Janosik, who both currently play in the Czech Extraliga. Daloga is a 32-year-old journeyman defenceman who next season will suit up for Kometa Brno, his ninth team (in four different leagues) in seven years. He has played in five previous World Championships and also the 2018 Winter Olympics. This will be Janosik’s fourth World Championship.

The only other two internationally-tested d-men are Martin Gernat and Mario Grman, but it’s been a few years for both. Gernat’s previous appearance was back in 2017, but he’s coming off a big season where he helped Ocelari Trinec repeat as Czech champions and led Extraliga defencemen in scoring with 41 points in 50 games, so he might help the Slovak offence from the back end. Grman’s previous appearance was in 2018 when he was only 20; he’s played the last two seasons in Finland for SaiPa Lappeenranta. 

Rounding out the presumptive top six are Daniel Gachulinec and Mislav Rosandic, but there are four youngsters that will also vie for ice time: 21-year-olds Martin Bucko and Michal Ivan, 18-year-old Samuel Knazko, who plays in the Finnish junior league, and talented 17-year-old Simon Nemec, who registered four assists in five games at this year’s World Juniors and is used to being the youngest player on his team.

Forward

Slovakia’s group of forwards is not as top-heavy in experience as the defence. Leading the way are a pair who play in the Finnish Liiga: giant 25-year-old Pavol Skalicky from champion Lukko Rauma, who was a depth player in three previous World Championships but will be expected to take a more prominent role this time, and diminutive 27-year-old Michal Kristian of Karpat Oulu, who’s played in two Worlds and an Olympics. The oldest player on the roster is 34-year-old David Buc, who is a bit of a late bloomer in that he didn’t play in his first World Championship until he was 31. 

The only NHLer on the Slovak roster is 22-year-old right winger Marian Studenic, who played eight games with the New Jersey Devils along with 22 for the AHL’s Binghamton Devils. From the AHL is 25-year-old Robert Lantosi of the Providence Bruins, and from the KHL is 21-year-old Adam Liska of Severstal Cherepovets, who performed well for the Slovaks at the U18 and U20 elite levels. Other notable names are 25-year-olds Peter Cehlarik, Kristian Pospisil and Matus Sukel, while other young players include 21-year-old Milos Roman and 20-year-old Martin Fasko-Rudas, who both had solid junior careers in recent memory. 

Coaching

This will be the third World Championship and fourth major tournament – including the 2018 Winter Olympics – with Craig Ramsay at the helm. In each of the two previous tournaments, the Slovaks barely missed the quarter-finals, with the home tournament two years ago being particularly disappointing. But Ramsay has a much different team to work with this time and the make-up of a lot of the other teams is also different, so what matters is that he can get this mixture of veterans and youngsters to all work as a cohesive unit. Assistants Michal Handzus and Andrej Podkonicky were on the staff in 2019, while Jan Pardavy is new, but all are experienced players internationally.

Prior to joining Hockey Slovakia in 2017, Ramsay was a long-time NHL coach – mostly an assistant – with several teams, briefly heading the Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Atlanta Thrashers. He previously played 14 seasons with the Sabres. 

Projected Results

As mentioned, Slovakia has suffered heartbreak in the past two tournaments, just missing out on the quarter-finals, and the path this year isn’t easy. The Slovaks are certainly in a tough group with Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, so if they’re going to make it into the top four, they’ll have to knock one of those teams out – most likely one of the latter two. The game against the Czechs – always one with a lot of emotion – is the last of the group stage for both teams, so we’ll see if it has extra meaning. But first things first… they open up with games against Belarus and Great Britain, so they want to make sure they don’t leave any points from those games on the table before the schedule gets more difficult. 

Belarus is back

Yegor Sharangovich scores for Belarus during the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships

By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

Belarus is back in the top division and eager to prove that its relegation in 2018 was a blip after 14 years among the elite. The team secured promotion from Division IA at the first attempt, taking second place behind host nation Kazakhstan in 2019 and looks well placed to take advantage of this year’s relegation-free tournament as it starts to build for the future. Belarus can also take some inspiration from history: its best ever World Championship performance, a sixth-place finish in 2006, was right here in Riga.

The roster reflects a new generation of Belarusian talent, with big things expected from New Jersey forward Yegor Sharangovich (24) and plenty of interest in 20-year-old Flames prospect Igor Solovyov. Rookie goalie Alexei Kolosov, just 19, has positive write-ups from his first steps in the KHL and, if given the chance here, could establish himself as one for the future.

Goal

It’s a new-look goaltending stable for Belarus, with three players who have yet to feature in IIHF play for their country. Two years ago, Dmitri Milchakov did much of the heavy lifting as the Bison won promotion back to the top division. The 35-year-old is still playing for Metallurg Zhlobin, but gives way to players with an eye on the future in the form of Alexei Kolosov (19) and Konstantin Shostak (21). Both had a taste of KHL action this season, with Kolosov making nine appearances for Dynamo Minsk – posting a shut-out along the way – while Shostak had three outings with Severstal Cherepovets and more extensive action in Russia’s second tier with Molot-Prikamie Perm.

Another new face adds experience to the group. British-born, Canadian-trained Danny Taylor saw Deutschland Cup action for Team Canada in 2016/17. He might have been a contender for an Olympic spot the following season but took up an offer from the Senators where he played once in the NHL and 32 times in the AHL. Taylor first went to the KHL in 2014/15, joining Dynamo Minsk, and has also represented Medvescak Zagreb and Sibir Novosibirsk. He has played the last two seasons in Minsk, securing his Belarusian passport and eligibility for the national team. Now 35, he made his international debut for his new country during this season Euro Challenge action.

Defence

Four players – Nick Bailen, Kristian Khenkel, Yevgeni Lisovets and Ilya Solovyov – return from the promotion-winning team of 2019. The first three are familiar, bringing a wealth of KHL experience to the team. All three had good campaigns this time around, with Bailen compiling 35 (13+22) points while wearing the ‘A’ in Chelyabinsk, Lisovets providing a steady presence for Salavat Yulayev and Khenkel fulfilling a similar role at perennial big-hitter Ak Bars. Solovyov, meanwhile, is part of the new generation. Still only 20, this was his first season in adult hockey and he did enough in his 41 appearances for Dynamo Minsk to persuade the Flames to offer him a deal after selecting him in the 2020 NHL draft. At junior level, he impressed in the OHL with Saginaw, producing 40 (7+33) points in 53 games during the COVID-curtailed 2019/20 season and his progress has continued back home in Minsk.

Solovyov isn’t the only promising youngster involved this time around. Stepan Falkovski, who stands at an imposing 205 cm, was part of the chaotic relegation campaign in 2018. Since then, he has enjoyed a couple more solid seasons in the ECHL before returning home to play for Dynamo Minsk this season. With 20 points in 37 games in the KHL, he played his part in the team’s leap from rock bottom to playoff contender. Vladislav Yeryomenko, 22, spent his junior years in the WHL with the Calgary Hitmen before joining Dynamo Minsk for the 2019/20 season. Now he has almost 100 KHL appearances and a Belarusian championship under his belt and makes his senior international debut in Riga.

At the other end of the scale, Andrei Antonov returns to World Championship action for the first time since 2009. The 36-year-old was the top-scoring D-man in the Belarusian championship, with 33 (5+28) points for Yunost Minsk. Further experience is added by Salavat Yulayev’s Dmitri Korobov and Dynamo Minsk’s Ilya Shinkevich.

Forward

Yegor Sharangovich is the big new hope of Belarusian hockey. The 22-year-old is the only active NHLer on the team, scoring 30 (16+14) points in 54 games in his rookie season with New Jersey. The Devils drafted him back in 2018 and immediately brought him over for a couple of seasons in the AHL. This summer, he was loaned back to Dynamo Minsk, where he potted 17 goals in 35 games to power a strong start to the team’s KHL campaign, before returning to North America ready to compete at the highest level.

Sharangovich looks set to inherit the status once held by the Kostitsyn brothers. This year, Andrei is absent after a frustrating campaign split between Neftekhimik and Pardubice, but Sergei returns after missing the entire 2019/20 season. He returned to the ice with the Bratislava Capitals, and did enough to earn a call-up for his seventh Worlds.

The dual-national contingent this season involves three forwards. Geoff Platt, now with Salavat Yulaev, is a familiar face in the Belarusian camp, but Francis Pare and Shane Prince are poised for their World Championship debuts. Pare won a Gagarin Cup with Metallurg under Mike Keenan in 2014, the start of an on-going KHL career that most recently brought two seasons in Minsk. Ex-Sens and Isles winger Prince also completed a second season with Dynamo this term, and his creative flair brought him 49 points in 52 regular season games. 

Pare is not the only Gagarin Cup winner on the Belarus roster, with Nikita Komarov helping Avangard to the title this season. However, the 32-year-old centre was used sparingly during the season and is generally more notable for his work rate than his production.

Young talent also gets a chance, with Alexei Protas poised for his World Championship debut. The 20-year-old was a late addition to the roster after the end of the Hershey Bears’ season in the AHL and will not be able to play until May 24, when he has completed quarantine. The centre, drafted by the Capitals in 2019, spent most of last season on loan at Dynamo Minsk, returning to North America at the end of the club’s KHL play-off campaign.

This year’s team has more players from the Belarusian championship, partly due to Mikhail Zakharov’s influence from behind the bench. Sergei Drozd, Stepan Lopachuk, and Mikhail Stefanovich have all played for Zakharov at Yunost, while German Nesterov gets the call after a good season with HC Gomel. However, the addition of 18-year-old Danila Klimovich, a centre who played in the Belarusian second tier with Minskie Zubry, might be the most eye-catching. He scored six goals in five games at the World U18s, making himself impossible to overlook for the trip to Latvia.

Coaching

Mikhail Zakharov’s appointment as head coach of Team Belarus represented something of a change of direction. In the past, the country’s hockey federation often chose to appoint foreigners who could jet in, galvanise the team and bring a fresh view for a short tournament. However, that strategy failed miserably under Dave Lewis in Copenhagen, with the Canadian dismissed midway through the group stage as a disjointed roster lurched inexorably towards relegation. 

Back in the top division, this season the call went to Zakharov, who has stepped away from club coaching to focus solely on the national program. Eight times a champion of Belarus with Yunost Minsk, the 59-year-old knows the depth of the country’s talent pool as well as anyone and, while his blunt approach can ruffle feathers, it can also get results. Zakharov led Belarus at the 2010 Olympics, but this will be his first World Championship as head coach, having previously been assistant from 1998-2001 and again in 2018.

Zakharov is assisted by Dmitri Karpikov, currently goalie coach at Yunost, and Mikhail Kravets, who was head coach of Vityaz in the last two KHL seasons.

Projected Results

Whatever happens in Riga, it can hardly be worse than the last Belarusian World Championship campaign. The 2018 tournament in Copenhagen saw Belarus in disarray off the ice, changing head coach mid-stream, and losing all seven games with a painful goal differential of 8-36. For a team used to security, if not spectacular success, it was a huge blow.

Since then, however, things have changed. A number of senior players have retired – eg long-serving defenseman Vladimir Denisov – or been replaced. At the same time, Dynamo Minsk has introduced a policy of giving more game time to local youngsters and was rewarded with a playoff spot in the KHL this season. That has an obvious knock-on effect for the national team, with more opportunities for local talent to mature.

This year’s Belarusian team is something of a work in progress, with several players getting their first taste of hockey at this level. This group will expect to be too strong for Great Britain and will fancy its chances of getting results against Denmark and Slovakia. A quarter-final place is probably too much to hope for, but Belarus will be confident of demonstrating that 2018 was an aberration and the team deserves a long-term place among the elite.

Czechs look for new heroes

Czech stars Jan Kovar, Filip Hronek and Dominik Kubalik are among the returning players from the World Championship squad two years ago

By Derek O’Brien – IIHF.com

Like most of the world’s elite hockey nations, the Czechs are heavily impacted by a lack of NHLers. Even in years where they don’t have a lot of depth, they’re usually able to rely on stars such as Jakub Voracek, David Krejci or David Pastrnak. This year there are six NHLers but they’re all 25 or younger and don’t have a lot of top-level international experience, so it will be time for some new blood to fill the leadership and top offensive roles. 

Of the 28 players on the roster, the average age is 26.36. Thirteen of them have never played in a World Championship and only two have played more than two tournaments. However, several of them have played in U18 World Championships or World Junior Championships in recent years, which fits the mould of up-and-coming head coach Filip Pesan.

Goaltenders

The starter should be Simon Hrubec, who played two games in 2019 as a backup to Patrik Bartosak and is the only goalie on the roster with any World Championship experience. Hrubec, 29, was a long-time netminder for Ocelari Trinec but went to the KHL this past season, where he backstopped Avangard Omsk to the Gagarin Cup after being acquired mid-season from Kunlun Red Star. In 2017/18, Hrubec was the MVP of the Champions Hockey League.

Roman Will, 28, who played one game for the Colorado Avalanche back in 2015/16 but now plays in the KHL for Traktor Chelyabinsk, will challenge Hrubec for minutes between the pipes. Petr Kvaca, just 23, played his way onto this team based on a stellar season with Bili Tygri Liberec, which he backstopped to the Extraliga finals.

Defence

This Czech team’s defence is big and young. The two oldest in the group are Andrej Sustr and Ondrej Vitasek, who are both 30, and they are among four d-men who are at least 193 cm – Michal Moravcik and David Musil are the others. Sustr is an interesting story in that, despite his experience in the NHL, KHL and 2016 World Cup of Hockey, this will be his first World Championship. At 201 cm and 98 kg, he is also the team’s biggest player.

Among the nine defencemen on the roster, three are from the Finnish Liiga and two each are from the NHL and KHL and domestic Extraliga. The two NHLers – Libor Hajek of the New York Rangers and Filip Hronek of the Detroit Red Wings – are also the youngest of the group at 23 years of age. Despite that, Hronek is playing in his third World Championship and has been named one of the team’s alternate captains. Hajek impressed at the 2018 World Juniors in Buffalo under coach Pesan, where he helped the Czechs to a fourth-place finish with eight points in seven games. 

Forwards

The group of Czech forwards has a bit wider variation in age, ranging from three players under 22 to 33-year-old Tomas Zohorna, the oldest player on the team. The second-oldest and by far the most internationally experienced player on the team is 31-year-old captain Jan Kovar. With 29 points in 52 career World Championship games over six previous events, plus five points in six games at the 2018 Winter Olympics, the Czechs will lean on the playmaking centre for both offence and leadership. This past season, Kovar won the scoring titles for both the Swiss National League’s regular season and playoffs, won the title with EV Zug and received the playoff MVP award.

Eight of the 16 forwards on the roster are 25 or younger, including all four NHLers – Dominik Kubalik, Jakub Vrana, Filip Zadina, and Filip Chytil. With 38 and 36 points this season, respectively, wingers Kubalik and Vrana will be expected to lead offensively. The youngest player on the team is 20-year-old Matej Blumel, who is coming off a breakout season with Dynamo Pardubice. 

Dmitrij Jaskin, who recorded 137 points in 133 regular-season and playoff games combined for Dynamo Moscow over the past two seasons and has performed well for the Czech national team in the past, will miss this tournament with an injury.

Coach

Although only 43 years of age, Filip Pesan has established himself as a respected coach in the Czech Republic. He led Liberec to a national title in 2016 and guided the Czech U20 team to a semi-final berth at the 2018 World Juniors – the only time in the last 16 years that’s happened. Over the past several years he’s also played a key role in coaching and player development in the Czech Ice Hockey Association. As already mentioned, this is a young team and several of the players have played for Pesan before, so he should have no trouble getting everybody on the same page. 

If Pesan lacks experience at hockey’s elite levels, his assistants more than make up for that. Between Jaroslav Spacek and Martin Straka, the Czechs have four World Championship gold medals, two Olympic golds (both members of the 1998 team) and nearly 2000 NHL games behind the bench. 

Projected Results

The Czechs, and the Czechoslovaks before them, have never finished worse than seventh place at the World Championships, meaning they’ve never failed to make the quarter-finals since the current playoff format was adopted. Having said that, it’s probable that the Czechs will finish in the top four of Group A but not guaranteed in a group that also includes Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Denmark, Belarus and Great Britain. While Czech fans will look forward to those games against Russia and Sweden, which are both winnable, the games against the Swiss and Slovaks could be crucial for positioning, and the Czechs will have to be wary of losing points to Denmark and Belarus. With a lot of the top teams missing NHL players, a lot of mid-level squads could see this as their chance to make a move. As usual, once the knockout stage of the tournament begins, most teams remaining have a realistic chance.