By Steven Ellis – Eurohockey.com
The past three tournament champions that weren’t Canada have been won by teams who finished seventh the previous year. Where did Slovakia finish last year? Seventh.
Goalies: Whenever Slovakia does well at international events, it tends to be because of their goaltending. In Montreal this year, the story likely will have to be the same. Adam Huska was one of the top goalies in the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers a year ago, leading to him earning the starting role at last year’s World Juniors. The USHL Goaltender of the Year had a rather average World Junior tournament, playing on a Slovak team that really didn’t have a lot going for them in the first place.
Prior to last year’s World Juniors, Huska represented his country at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in 2014, going 0-3 in three games. A few months later, he acted as the starting goalie at the Under-18’s in Switzerland for Slovakia, once again playing on a weak team. While neither performance resulted in much success, Huska did shine enough to earn the attention of scouts, eventually leading the New York Rangers to use a late draft pick on him The Univ. of Connecticut netminder will be stuck in a very similar position of being outperformed by stronger teams, but he’ll still be a player to watch.
Defensemen: Los Angeles Kings prospect Erik Cernak will, almost certainly, be the best defenseman on Slovakia and one of the best in the entire tournament. An assistant captain for Slovakia, this will be Cernak’s fourth straight World Junior performance which is impressive considering very few NHL prospects get this game chances in the prestigious tournament. He’s seen it all with the U20 team, and with one last kick at the can, he’ll want to lead his team to a decent result.
After him, though, the team will be inexperienced in World Junior action, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good options to work with. One of those players is Andrej Hatala, a hard-nosed defenseman that brings speed and skill to the blue line. While he doesn’t have as complete of a package as Cernak, he’s a stable blueliner that will be given every opportunity possible to thrive. 18-year-old defender Martin Bodak will have NHL scouts eyeing him closely this year, and after a very strong Ivan Hlinka tournament in 2015, there’s a really good reason why. Bodak has another year of eligibility ahead of him, but he’s already at the top of the Slovakian draft class for defensemen. Martin Fehervary is another fascinating underaged defenseman, with the 2018 Draft eligible prospect hoping to prove himself, albeit in a lesser role. He seems to be a leader whenever he represents his nation against players his own age, so how will the Malmö Redhawks defender do against the best junior players in the world?
Forwards: The Slovaks don’t have a number one star like some of the stronger teams in the tournament, but Radovan Bondra is one of the closest bets. While Bondra’s surname may sound familiar, he actually is not related to Peter in any way. A fifth-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, Bondra is a huge 6’5, 218lbs forward that is almost impossible to stop when he’s around the crease. He’s not a big point producer, as evident by his 14 points in the final 28 games following the World Juniors a year ago, but he’s currently sitting at a point-per-game after 29 games with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants this year. Look for Bondra to be on the top line for the Slovaks once again this year.
Centering Slovakia’s line will likely be Sarnia Sting forward Adam Ruzicka, a 6’4 power forward with tons of skill to boot. A likely third-round pick this year, Ruzicka recently captained Slovakia’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament squad, putting up four points in four games for a team that won their first game since 2009. Ruzicka will be counted upon by the Slovak World Junior team over the next two tournaments as well, and will have a similar role improvement with Sarnia in the OHL during his time with the team. For now, he’s one of the most exciting European prospects to watch in this tournament.
Finishing off the top line should be Samuel Solenský, who has adapted well in the American NAHL league. In his first 26 games while adjusting to life in the States with the Johnstown Tomahawks, Solenský has put up 20 points after recording three goals as captain of Slovakia at the Under-18’s this past April. He’s represented the Slovaks at various tournaments in different age groups, but the 18-year-old will be playing for his country at the World Juniors for the first time. Same goes for 2017 Draft prospect Marian Studenič, who has looked good in a supporting role for the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs this year. Studenič will be placed in a second line role for the tournament, alongside another star 2017 prospect, Samuel Buček. Buček has put up 23 points in 25 games with the QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes, a strong response to his point-per-game performance with the Slovak U18 team a year ago. He’s done a great job every time he’s represented his nation, and this year is just the start of what should be a good national team career for the Nitra, SVK native. Miloš Roman will be given a chance himself, but at 17-years-old, there’s still lots of time to exploit his offensive skill.
Projection: This team has a bit more optimism heading into the tournament than in recent years, returning to the site of their incredible 2015 bronze medal winning run. Slovakia has some talent at all positions and some of the best depth they’ve ever had, but that can be said about some of their stronger opponents, too. Look for Slovakia to be a mid-pack team, avoiding the relegation round and maybe giving a team a tough run in the quarter-finals, but that’s it. But, hey, the past three tournament champions that weren’t Canada have been won by teams who finished seventh the previous year. Where did Slovakia finish last year? Seventh.