Team Czech Republic Hockey Preview
UPDATE : This article was written over a year ago, as a preview of the Olympic Hockey Tournament. Please check out our updated Olympic Hockey Primer, and our full Podcast Preview of the Olympic Hockey Tournament.
Team Czech Republic
Updating our 2010 Winter Olympic Ice Hockey Preview, today we examine the Czech Republic. Controlled by the Czech Ice Hockey Association, it has a storied history of international success since becoming an independent nation in 1993. At the last Winter Olympics, the Czechs won a bronze medal by defeating Russia. That marked the second medal the Czech Republic has won in the last three Olympics, one of only three nations to medal twice in ice hockey since the NHL allowed its players to participate (the others are Russia and Finland).
The Czechs biggest victory, however, was when they captured gold at the 1998 games in Nagano. They followed that triumph with three straight the World Championships gold medals (1999 to 2001), and again won gold in 2005. The 2005 championship was especially sweet as it was the only World Championship where, due to the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, all NHL players were available to participate.
The current squad is coached by Vladimír Růžička.
Jaromír Jágr, Avangard Omsk (KHL)
Patrik Eliáš, New Jersey Devils
Aleš Hemský, Edmonton Oilers
Milan Hejduk, Colorado Avalanche
Martin Erat, Nashville Predators
Martin Havlát, Chicago Blackhawks
Robert Lang, Montreal Canadiens
Václav Prospal, Tampa Bay Lightning
David Krejčí, Boston Bruins
Tomáš Plekanec, Montreal Canadiens
Milan Michálek, San Jose Sharks
Jiří Hudler, Detroit Red Wing
Jakub Voráček, Columbus Blue Jackets
The only real superstar on the squad is Jágr, and its questionable whether he even decides to play. Jágr has already moved on from the NHL, opting to play in Russia’s upstart Kontinental Hockey League. He certainly has more loyalty to his home nation than the NHL, but he’ll also turn 38 at the beginning of the Olympics. If he or another older veteran like Robert Lang decides to forego the Olympics, it opens up a spot for up and comers like Florida’s Michael Frolík, Phoenix’s Martin Hanzal or Washington’s Tomáš Fleischmann. All are developing players, and all are beginning to make the decision to leave them off tougher as they force their way on with strong play.
If there’s no Jágr, the mantle of playmaker falls to Hemský and the perpetually nicked up Havlát. Both can produce at a point per game level in the NHL, even if they’re not as good as Jágr. While the Czech team may be thin on top shelf talent, it’s incredibly deep. It’s almost an entire team of second-line NHL players, which mean they can rely on a team effort rather than having any one player carry the squad. No real stars, but no real scrubs either. Keep an eye on youngsters Krejčí, who’s already making waves on Boston, and Voráček . Both are extremely talented and can bring a lot to the table if their games progress as hoped.
Tomáš Kaberle, Toronto Maple Leafs
Pavel Kubina, Toronto Maple Leafs
Michal Rozsíval, New York Rangers
Marek Židlický, Minnesota Wild
Roman Hamrlík, Montreal Canadiens
Jaroslav Špaček, Buffalo Sabres
Filip Kuba, Ottawa Senators
The Maple Leafs duo form a reliable core to another solid but unspectacular group. There’s no Norris trophy candidates here, but the overall unit looks respectable. Židlický would ideally be an offensive force and power play specialist, but his last few years in the NHL have not been spectacular. Hopefully there’s some bounce back for him, even as he plays for a stifled Minnesota team.
If there’s one thing this unit lacks, its on the offensive side. Most of the players are very solid in their own end, leaving no question on the defensive side of the game. But who’s going to step up and make the strong outlet passes and quarterback the power play? After Kaberle, there’s a definite question mark. That’s why Židlický’s play can be an important key. If the defense can help kick start the forwards, the Czech team can be clicking on all cylinders. The final cuts to this unit included Milan’s brother Zbyněk Michálek and the somewhat disappointing Rostislav Klesla.
Tomáš Vokoun, Florida Panthers
Ondřej Pavelec, Atlanta Thrashers
Marek Schwarz, Peoria Rivermen (AHL)
Vokoun is ideally the man between the pipes, at least if everything goes to plan. He’s been one of the more underrated goalies in the NHL the last few years, playing on weaker squads in Nashville and Florida, which obscures his great talent. He hasn’t had a great 2008-09 season, but it looks to be the normal ups and downs of goaltending as opposed to anything to really worry about.
Pavelec is one to keep an eye on. A real riser in the goaltending ranks, he could take fire and become the #1 guy, either through spectacular play or Vokoun’s game slipping. Odds don’t favor that happening just yet, but there’s an outside chance of it happening. Pavelec ‘s already knocking down the door in Atlanta. The young Schwarz rounds out the trio. He’s currently in the AHL, but has seen time with the St. Louis Blues this year and may very well be a full time NHLer by the time the Olympics roll around.
Outlook: On talent alone, the Czech team is one of the weaker ones in the field. That may seem like an insult, but it speaks more to the depth and star-quality talent other countries possess. This isn’t a bad team, however. In fact, the Czechs often bring out their best in big tournaments. When they won gold in 1998, more than half the team was filled with non-NHLers. This is a country that’s repeatedly overachieved, and 2010 may be no different. A long shot gold medal contender, the Czech Republic remains a strong overall contender that will probably find its way into at least a bronze medal game. If not more…