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World Junior hockey 2013: Czech Republic can take advantage of weak group

Last year, the Czechs made a big return to the quarterfinals of the World Juniors after two years outside the playoffs. This year, they've managed to escape the 'Group of Death' and look set to make some more noise as a result.

Rick Stewart

Being a Czech hockey fan hasn't been too encouraging when looking at the World Juniors in recent years. Sure, the team has had success at the senior men's level, but their greatest generation is well past their prime, and the idea of competing with Russia and Canada seems to be a thing of the past as the USA and Sweden surpass them.

However, things may be stabilizing for the country. The national program took a huge hit with the death of legendary coach Ivan Hlinka in 2004, and combined with a bit of a collapse in the structure of the hockey program in the post-communist era, the hockey federation has had some reorganizing to do.

The past two years have seen a re-emergence of top Czech talent in the NHL Entry Draft. It's too early to say if it's just a random fluctuation or the start of something more regular, but this year's World Junior entry benefits tremendously compared to the past few years as a result.

Depth Charts - Forwards
Left Wing Centre Right Wing
Dmitrij Jaskin* Tomas Hertl* Martin Frk*
Radek Faksa* Matej Beran Tomas Hyka*
Jakub Vrana Lukas Sedlak* Petr Beranek
Michal Svihalek Erik Nemec Vojtech Tomecek

Petr Koblasa

This is a talented group of forwards, but it could have been stronger. Czech professional clubs, who often feel hard done when teenage prospects leave their system to join a major junior club in North America, often lobby to have players excluded from the national team roster as a punishment. This bizarre punishment, which only hurts the national program and not really the individual player's development (or the club that he leaves for in the least), cost the team the services of WHL star winger Matej Stransky, a Stars prospect.

Still, even without Stransky, this is as talented of a forward group as we've seen from the Czechs in many years. Tomas Hertl is a quality professional centre already, while Dmitrij Jaskin and Martin Frk have immense skill from the wing. The 18-year-old Radek Faksa was a high draft selection last year, renowned for his two-way ability. And young Jakub Vrana, a 16 year old who I believe is the tournament's youngest player, has already seen time in Sweden's Elitserien for Linköping.

Key Player: Tomas Hertl dropped a little in the draft rankings over concerns about his skating, but his smarts and stick skill are likely to make him a good player in the classic Czech sense. He's got great size, two-way acumen, and is great at forcing turnovers. Quite simply, he's a center that does so much on the ice that he makes the job for his wingers very easy. He should be matched up against all of the top lines in the tournament, and could cause for some very frustrating nights.

Depth Chart - Defense
Left Defense Right Defense
David Musil* Marek Hrbas*
Tomas Pavelka* Petr Sidlik*
Stepan Jenik Patrik Urbanec
Jan Stencel

The defense here really thins out after the top pairing. Tomas Pavelka is a strong offensive defenseman and will likely quarterback the team's PP, but it's a pretty unspectacular group as a whole. Fortunately, David Musil is one of the better defensive defensemen in the world in this age group, and should be able to cover quite a bit for the team's lack of depth.

Combine that with quality two-way forwards up front, and a five-man defensive scheme could definitely have a good effect. Jan Stencel looks to be the young guy getting his feet wet at this level, a 2013 Draft eligible skater from Viktovice in the Czech Extraliga.

Key Player: I could say Pavelka, since he's likely the difference between the Czechs having a legitimate second pairing and some depth as a result, but David Musil looms to large on this roster to not be singled out. On a light night, I'd expect Musil to log 27 or 28 minutes.

If the Czechs are in a real battle with a top team, I could see Musil playing well above the 30-minute mark. The only possible break I see for Musil will be when the Czechs are on the power play, as they might not be using him on the top unit, even though I think he's capable of doing that at this level.

Goaltenders
Patrik Batrosak
Matej Machovsky
Jan Lukas

There's no obvious Petr Mrazek successor in goal, but the Czechs do have a pair of quality major junior goaltenders in Batrosak (Red Deer Rebels, WHL) and Machovsky (Brampton Battalion, OHL). Batrosak has one of the better save percentages in the WHL this year at .921, although Machovsky has the longer track record as a starting goaltender at this level, and was the Czechs starting goalie at the U18 level a couple years back.

There's little information on Jan Lukas, although due to him playing in the Czech Republic he was their goaltender of record for most of the team's international friendly play this year and therefore might be a bit of a sentimental favorite for the coaching staff.

Tournament Outlook

The Czechs are in a pool with Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, and Latvia. The Czechs have the ability to win against every one of those opponents, but also conversely have the ability to lose against all of them. It's probably more likely the Czechs beat Sweden and Finland than lose to Switzerland and Latvia, but crazier things have happened.

The Czechs should find themselves back in the quarterfinals, and if they do end up in the relegation round this year, it'll have been due to a USA type letdown. There is too much talent in here compared to Switzerland and Latvia to not give this team a quarterfinal berth. Once they qualify, we've seen quite often in recent years that anything can happen in the winner takes all knockoff round.