The Czechs haven’t taken home a major international title in years, but a flood of youth has them trending in the right direction.
The Czech Republic has fallen a long way as a hockey superpower since it ruled the world at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Its only Winter Games medal since then is a 2006 bronze. It has just two medals, both bronze, over the past five world championships. It also hasn’t medalled at the world juniors in more than a decade, so it’s easy to see what the problem has been: a lack of elite young talent coming up the pipeline. The good news? That may be changing. Rhyme off the best Czech players today and, aside from the immortal Jaromir Jagr, you finally get a collection of players in their 20s, from Jakub Voracek to Ondrej Palat to Petr Mrazek. And with promising youngsters like David Pastrnak, Jakub Vrana and Pavel Zacha on the rise, the future looks brighter for Czech hockey than it has in years. So maybe the 2016 World Cup team is a bit sprightlier and becomes a sleeper. The only problem: the 2014 Sochi squad was a gong show the moment it was announced, with bizarre snubs including Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata. There’s a new GM in town, Martin Rucinsky, so maybe we’ll see a better team this time after a sixth-place finish in Sochi. With that, I present the Czech Republic roster projection. Special thanks to Czech hockey writer
Pavel Barta for serving as my sounding board. And note that I’ve snubbed Vrbata. He deserves to make the team, but I’ll believe it when I see it. He’s been repeatedly passed over for big tournaments.
Petr Mrazek Mrazek has a strong a claim to the No. 1 gig as any goalie on any team in the tournament. He’s vaulted himself into the Vezina Trophy race (we can forgive the consecutive five-goal games last week). Barring a meltdown over the final two months of the season, he’s locked down bellcow duties for the Czechs.
Michal Neuvirth He’s taken longer to realize his potential than many anticipated, but Neuvirth is enjoying his best season yet at 27, with a sparkling .930 save percentage on a defensively sketchy Philadelphia Flyers team. He deserves to play in his first major international tourney since the 2008 world juniors.
Alexander Salak Salak, 29, is the seasoned vet of this group. He’s a Czech mainstay at international events and excelled in limited duty at the 2014 Sochi Games. Salak was awful at the 2015 worlds but has washed away the icky aftertaste thanks to a stellar season with Sibir Novosibirsk in the KHL.
On the bubble: Dominik Furch, Jakub Kovar, Ondrej Pavelec
Radko Gudas The Russians have seemingly nothing but left-shooting D-men, and the Czechs are loaded with righties. Too bad they can’t make a trade. Gudas, a righty, should play plenty of minutes but could be overmatched in the speed department. Still, he’s as tough as they come. He’s effective when he manages to play on the right side of the law.
Tomas Kundratek Kundratek plays a solid two-way game. He dipped his toes in the NHL a few years back as a Washington Capital. He’s flourished as a KHL freshman this year and is in his prime at 26. A sensible choice.
Zbynek Michalek He’s not remotely flashy, but he’s steady, mature and well-rounded. Michalek has seen his minutes chopped dramatically with the Arizona Coyotes but should still lead the Czechs in ice time. This D-corps has a low ceiling, lacking any elite performers.
Roman Polak If he’s worth multiple second-round picks to the San Jose Sharks…he’s Team Czech material. I kid, I kid, but Polak deserves to make the team. He brings similar tools as Gudas’ to the table. Polak is big and strong, he’s tough to play against, and he’s not the fleetest of foot.
Ladislav Smid Injuries have limited the rugged Smid’s appearances this season, and he’s been less effective than normal when in the lineup. Has he played his way off this team? Maybe, but it wouldn’t hurt to have one left-shooting NHL defenseman on this squad.
Andrej Sustr Sustr intrigues me most among the Czech candidates. He has tremendous size at 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds, and his offensive game has inched forward with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Marek Zidlicky Zidlicky, 39, is a prime candidate to retire after the 2015-16 NHL season and may have no interest in playing for the Czechs. They could certainly use his offensive ability and power play experience if he’s willing to suit up, however. I’ll pencil him in as the seventh blueliner for now.
On the bubble: Michal Jordan, Michal Kempny, Vojtech Mozik, Jakub Nakladal, Michal Rozsival
Roman Cervenka Cervenka just makes the cut as the 13th forward. He was a bust as an NHLer but remains an effective scoring center on his home continent. He’s left the KHL for the Czech Extraliga, where he lights it up with Pirati Chomutov. His stock has fallen, especially now that he plays on a weaker circuit, but he’s such a consistent mainstay on Czech national teams that he could get another shot.
Michael Frolik Frolik lacks razzle-dazzle but should play a ton of minutes because he’s such a sound-200 foot player and will see penalty kill time. He’s a physical forechecker, and he can score a little bit. He could play on the second or third line.
Martin Hanzal So Hanzal won’t ever be the franchise center the Coyotes hoped he’d be. That’s OK. He’s a big, strong, effective two-way pivot. He could toil anywhere from the Czechs’ second to fourth line and do a good job in the process.
Ales Hemsky I’m not overly enthused by this pick, but Hemsky was one of the Czechs’ better forwards in Sochi, so he gets a seniority vote, though he likely won’t see prominent minutes.
Tomas Hertl Expectations would be much more realistic had Hertl not scored four goals in a game as a rookie in 2013-14. He regressed after that debut campaign but is still just 22 and is about to set new career highs in goals, assists and points with the San Jose Sharks. His natural goal-scoring ability should come in handy for the Czechs.
Jiri Hudler The snub can’t happen again for him, can it? The playmaking winger has shown too much since 2014 – even with the huge regression this year. Hudler is especially useful because he can play all three forward positions.
Jaromir Jagr Jagr publicly retired from international play after last year’s World Championship. Do you buy it? I don’t. Not yet. Not when he’s still good enough to make the NHL All-Star Game. I don’t scratch Jagr from the Czech roster until it’s official.
David Krejci It’s nice to see Krejci healthy and producing at the best per-game clip of his career with the Boston Bruins. He’s a deserving choice to center the Czechs’ top line.
Ondrej Palat The 2015-16 season has been one to forget for Palat, but he showed enough in his first two seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning to earn our trust. He can play on a scoring line while providing the defensive conscience.
David Pastrnak Pastrnak will ideally be a top-line producer by the next Olympics or World Cup. He’s still finding his way at the moment, and that’s totally fine, as he was the NHL’s youngest player last season. He has 16 goals and 43 points in his first 75 games, and he’s just 19. The Czechs have a dearth of natural left wingers, and Pastrnak is capable of playing either wing, so he slots in on the left side for the Czechs.
Tomas Plekanec Even with Jaromir Jagr on the team, Plekanec captained the 2014 Olympic squad. He’s a lock for the World Cup team. He can play in every situation, power play or penalty kill, shutdown center or scoring center. An important player for this team.
Vladimir Sobotka Remember Sobotka? He was maturing into a nice checking center before leaving the St. Louis Blues for the KHL. Between him and Plekanec, the Czechs may not lose a faceoff.
Jakub Voracek Voracek has matured into a highly skilled veteran and front-line NHLer. He’s the one Team Czech Republic will depend on more than any other to be ‘The Guy’ and generate elite offense.
On the bubble: Michal Birner, Patrik Elias, Radek Faksa, Tomas Fleischmann, Dmitrij Jaskin, Jan Kovar, Milan Michalek, Andrej Nestrasil, Jiri Novotny, Michael Repik, Jiri Sekac, Dominik Simon, Tomas Vincour, Radim Vrbata, Pavel Zacha
OTHER WORLD CUP ROSTER PROJECTIONS Feb. 17: Team Finland
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-finland/ Feb. 18: Team Sweden
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-sweden/ Feb. 19: Team North America
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-north-america/ Feb. 22: Team Russia
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-russia/ Feb. 24: Team Europe
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin