It's no secret that Slovakia has had a rough go-around internationally for quite some time.
The nation won gold for the first time in 2002 and backed that up with a bronze medal effort. In 2008, they barely avoided relegation but took silver in 2012. Ever since, the team has made the quarter-finals just once and were lucky to avoid relegation over Italy in 2017.
But there's finally some optimism. Slovakia has had three players drafted in the top 100 over the past three drafts and has crafted some good young players in Tampa Bay Lightning defender Erik Cernak and Washington Capitals prospect Martin Fehervary, among others.
But there's a real youth movement happening right now. Nine players on the men's World Championship team are 21 years or younger, and Simon Nemec and Juraj Slafkovsky are potential top 10 picks for the 2022 NHL draft. At an average age of 24.75 years old, Slovakia is bringing its youngest roster they've ever had in tournament history. Earlier this season, Slovakia's world junior outfit had an average age of 18.68 years old - the youngest of the 10-team brigade.
At this point, Nemec has a strong shot at going in the top five of the draft next year. The 6-foot-1 blueliner played heavy minutes with HK Nitra in the top Slovak league and got some top-pairing opportunities with Slovakia's men's team in recent exhibition contests.
"He's a bit undersized, but the skating, hockey sense, mobility and two-way play... he's a jack-of-all-trades," a scout told The Hockey News. "He brings that offensive element, he gets back on pucks quickly, and he's not soft by any means."
Standing tall at 6-foot-4, Slafkovsky had a notable performance with Slovakia at the world juniors in Alberta. Slafkovsky only had 13 points in 16 games, but his .81 points-per-game average was second among 2004-born players in the Finnish U-20 league behind fellow 2022 draft prospect Joakim Kemell. Slafkovsky should take his game to new heights as a 17-year-old next season, especially if he adds some mass and continues to improve his abilities away from the puck because, with it, he's tough to slow down.
"Big kid, but could fare to add a bit of upper-body strength," a scout said. "But he has the ability to dominate a shift in a way nobody has done from Slovakia since Marian Hossa. Will he get to that level? We'll see, but there's something really special about him.
Samuel Knazko is hoping to be the next top defenseman from Slovakia. Just 18, the Columbus Blue Jackets prospect is the only blueliner on the team that currently belongs to an NHL organization.
The absence of NHL defensemen at the tournament – namely Erik Cernak and Andrej Sekera – means Knazko could be relied on a bit more than in a normal year, despite not playing any pro hockey at this point in his career. Knazko's only real competition outside of the U-20 age bracket is his eight games with the Slovaks against the Czechs, Latvia, Germany and Austria over the past month.
"He's not a lock to make the NHL by any means, and I wish we got to see him more against men, but in his own age group, he has shown many promising signs," a European scout said. "I liked him on the second pairing against the Czechs in friendly play, but I feel like he's just missing the true offensive side of his game that would make him more valuable."
Realistically, it's expected that Knazko will start the tournament on the bottom pairing, and potentially gravitate his way up the lineup as the event goes on. The fact that he isn't going to start with a ton of ice time right away isn't a knock on his game – he's just 18. Nemec should get more ice time, but he's a phenom compared to the rest of the blueline. Nemec is going to be a star for this national team for a long time, and Knazko hopes to be a mainstay himself.
With three players – Peter Cehlarik, Marek Hrivik and Marian Studenic – combining for all 72 games of NHL experience on this team, the opportunities for the young stars to make a name for themselves are apparent. Slovakia isn't a favorite to win gold by any means, but after spurts of hope over the past few years, there's something really exciting for Slovakian fans to cheer for: the future.
And that future is looking mighty bright.