Canada has been very good to Slovakia since it first entered the IIHF World Junior Championship back in 1996. In fact, the young Slavonic nation’s best results include a bronze medal in Winnipeg (1999) and a fifth-place finish in Halifax (2003). Outside Canada, things haven’t been so good. In the eight tournaments not in the great north, the best Slovakia has done is sixth in Switzerland (1997) and Finland(2004). The Slovaks will look to emulate the 1999 result with a roster that resembles the 1999 one. There’s a flashy number one centre, a goaltender most people haven’t heard of, and overall, a team that comes in with low expectations.
Coaching: Branislav Sajban faces a special kind of uphill battle as he assumes control of thisWorld Junior team, and it’s about getting familiar with his own players. Sajban serves as an assistant coach with Trencin in the Czech Extraleague, but most of his key players have spent the past year plying their trade in Canadian major junior hockey. If he hasn’t achieved the necessary cohesion before Slovakia’s tournament gets underway December 27, it could backfire. Sajban likes to build a team around unity and mental toughness, and in a tournament like this, that could prove to be the difference between, say, beating the arch-rival Czech Republic or losing to the upstart Latvians in Group B.
Goal: If you haven’t heard much about goaltender Michal Valent, you aren’t the only one. Playing for HC Berounsti Medvedi in the Czech Republic’s second league, Valent hasn’t garnered the attention of hockey pundits in the same manner as, for instance, the Czech starting goalie, Marek Schwarz. But that doesn’t mean this 2004 fifth-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres should be underestimated. Like the defence in front of him, Valent is bigger than most at his position. He stands 6-2 and weighs in at 180-pounds and is an athletic goalie. And his statistics are nothing to sneeze at either. He comes in with a 2.18 GAA and a .929 save percentage.
Defence: Defencemen seemingly grow as big as trees in Slovakia. Boris Valabik, the 6-7, 225-pound Kitchener Ranger and Vladimir Mihalik, the 6-8, 245-pound Red Deer Rebel, are following in the footsteps of Zdeno Chara of the Ottawa Senators, at least in terms of size. Valabik’s presence on the ice will not go unnoticed. He plays with a mean streak and proved it at last year’s IIHF World Junior Championship, where Valabik co-led Slovakia in sin bin time with 20 PIM. Mihalik is bigger, but doesn’t take the same punishing approach as Valabik. The Tampa Bay first-rounder is more of a technical, well-rounded defenseman (think Marek Malik), preferring to pokecheck rather than bodycheck. He’ll have to watch his tendency to pinch deep in the offensive zone, or he could be susceptible to getting caught out of position. These two giants will log a lot of ice time for Sajpan.
Forward: Led by the dangerous Chicoutimi Sagueneens centre, Marek Zagrapan, this group of forwards could do some damage. Zagrapan’s numbers in North Dakota last year were underwhelming (one goal and two assists), but he will be asked to take on an expanded role this year. The 6-0, 195-pound centre is a solid mix of speed, stickhandling and emotion, and will need to bring all three elements to British Columbia for his country to show well. He will need help, though, and that could come from Juraj Gracik. Not a typical European-style player, the Tri-City Americans’ power forward plays best down low, causing havoc around the opposing goalie. His game is based on scoring off rebounds, and on a North American ice surface, he’ll complement the slick Zagrapan. Another player to watch might be the Vancouver Giants’ Mario Bliznak. If Slovakia reaches the Final Round, Bliznak will have extra motivation playing in front of his adopted hometown fans, and it’ll be a great chance for him to impress the Vancouver Canucks, who drafted him in the seventh round in 2005.
Projected Results: The Slovaks can’t be considered a medal favourite. They’re starting off in Group B, which features tough opponents like Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic. That doesn’t bode well for a team looking to improve on its typical lower-end finishes. But coming in seventh like last year should not be acceptable. If the goaltending is solid, the defensemen don’t get caught out of position, and Zagrapan can do what Ladislav Nagy did seven years ago, this squad has an outside shot at making it to the bronze medal game.