Although 2019 was disappointing for Slovakia, expect more of the same for the 2020 World Junior Championship. Placed in Group A with Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Kazakhstan, they will have their work cut out for them. Additionally, with only two players returning from last year, and with only one NHL-drafted prospect, they will have little experience to draw on to prevent another eighth-place finish.
Of course, there is a chance that Slovakia emerges as a dark horse at the tournament. They will have arguably one of the best goaltenders in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) as their starter and several of their young players have shown the potential to be top-tier talent. They also have a new coach in Robert Petrovicky, a former World Championship assistant coach, and has played in both the NHL from 1992-2001 and won a World Championship gold medal in 2002.
As one of the top hockey nations in the world behind the Big Six, Slovakia always has the potential to surprise. The Hockey Writers takes a look at who made the team and who could be difference makers in 2020.
Samuel Hlavaj, Jakub Lackovic, Samuel Vyletelka
There was never any question that Samuel Hlavaj was going to be the starter for Slovakia. Before leaving for the Czech Republic, Hlavaj led the QMJHL with the lowest goals-against average (GAA) (2.14) and highest save percentage (SV%) (0.925) among goalies who’ve played at least 10 games. As one of the only members of the 2019 team eligible to return, he’ll provide much-needed veteran leadership, even though he’s still just 18 years old.
Samuel Vyletelka will most likely serve as Hlavaj’s backup. He was a late addition to the World Junior roster, joining from the North American Hockey League’s (NAHL) Minnesota Magicians after the initial invites were released. In three international games this season, he’s posted a 1.67 GAA and a 0.929 SV%, some of the best numbers of any Slovakian goalie. He was also selected as the team’s best player in their 4-2 loss to the Czechs in a preliminary World Junior game.
The final goaltender for Slovakia is Jakub Lackovic. The big-bodied goalie has been one of the best in Slovakia’s U20 league, sitting sixth with a 0.925 SV% over 19 games. In his international appearances, though, he’s struggled, posting a 3.73 GAA and a 0.657 SV%. It’s unlikely he’ll see any playing time, as Slovakia will rely on Hlavaj as much as possible and giving Vyletelka a couple starts just to give their starter a break.
Marcel Dlugos, Samuel Knazko, David Mudrak, Martin Bucko, Marko Stacha, Oliver Turan, Martin Vitalos, Boris Cesanek
Marcel Dlugos will be the lone returning defenseman from the 2019 team and will be expected to play a big role for Slovakia in 2020. At 6-foot-4 and 207-pounds, he has the size and experience needed to shut down the tournament’s best forwards, but also has the skill to break out offensively. In Slovakia’s top league (Tipsport), he has scored seven goals so far this season, and at last year’s tournament he had the most goals among Slovakian defensemen.
Although young, 17-year-old Samuel Knazko could end up playing a significant role for Slovakia. In the Finnish Jr. SM-Liiga, he’s been consistently one of the highest-scoring defensemen despite being one of the youngest in the league. He’ll be joined by fellow 17-year-old Marko Stacha, who has been playing important minutes in Slovakia’s Tipsport. The two draft-eligible defensemen have been some of the best players for Slovakia in pre-tournament games, combining for nine goals and 15 points in 14 contests. With several teams icing younger rosters this year, the duo could shine at the World Juniors.
David Mudrak, a teammate of Knazko’s in Finland, will also join the team. He’s scored 18 points in 32 games this season, but hasn’t been much of a factor in pre-tournament games, appearing in just three contests and failing to register a point. However, he looked promising against the Czech Republic in a World Junior preliminary match, scoring the team’s first goal. He’ll likely end up on the third pairing.
Oliver Turan is a giant, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing in at 209-pounds, and will be used in a shut-down role. Martin Vitalos is another solid defenseman who can play both ends of the ice and has a goal and three assists in Sweden’s SuperElit league. Boris Cesanek and Martin Bucko are 19-year-olds who will likely provide depth and leadership for the young stars.
It was a big surprise for me to see Andrej Golian cut. As one of only three players eligible to return from the 2019 World Juniors, I had him as one of the locks to make the team. However, he didn’t look great in his eight pre-tournament matches, registering just three assists, and the IIHF preview didn’t include Golian in their returnees. Draft-eligible Oliver Fatul was also somewhat surprising to see cut, as he had an excellent pre-tournament, scoring four goals and seven points in 11 games. But it seems coach Petrovicky didn’t want to add too many 17-year-olds to his roster, and Fatul was the odd man out.
Maxim Cajkovic, Adam Pauliny, Oliver Okuliar, Kristian Kovacik, Martin Fasko-Rudas, Marek Minarik, Jakub Minarik, Dominik Jendek, Michal Mrazik, Robert Dzugan, Viktor Durina, Nicolas Ferenyi, Daniel Tkac
After just missing out on playing in the 2019 World Juniors, Maxim Cajkovic comes into 2020 as one of Slovakia’s best players. In his second season with the Saint John Sea Dogs, he has 22 points in 16 games, a pace that would make him the team’s top scorer if he hadn’t missed significant time with an injury. In international play, he’s been outstanding in years past, leading both his 2018 and 2019 U18 teams in scoring, and has been over a point per game so far in 2019-20.
Joining Cajkovic on the top line will likely be Kristian Kovacik, a powerful center playing in the Tipsport, and Oskar Oskuliar, who has been nearly unstoppable while playing with the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes. In just 32 games, Okuliar has scored 23 goals and 42 points, putting him seventh in league scoring before the Christmas break. He’s also tied for second in team points in pre-tournament contests, scoring 2 goals and 10 points in just 7 games.
Slovakia has plenty of secondary scoring options that could break out in 2020. Marek Minarek, who plays in Slovakia’s second-tier league, tied Okuliar’s scoring pace over 11 pre-tournament contests. Adam Pauliny has also been very strong for Slovakia leading up to the World Juniors, scoring six goals in eight contests, and could see himself on the second line along with Viktor Durina, who has five points in 11 contests for Slovakia.
Michal Mrazik is an intriguing option for Slovakia. At 6-foot-4 and 192-pounds, he’s the biggest forward the Slovaks have on the roster. NHL Central Scouting ranked him 96th for the NHL Draft, but wasn’t selected. He’s been playing in Sweden’s SuperElit since 2018-19 and had 22 points in 27 games this season before earning a call-up to Linkoping of the SHL. In pre-tournament action, he been a bit slower but still solid, scoring three points in eight games. It seems he’s currently being used as more of a defensive forward, but could break out with the right linemates.
Daniel Tkac hasn’t skated in any pre-tournament games, but has been decent in the exhibition matches, chipping in an assist in a 4-2 loss to the Czech Republic on Dec 22. Martin Fasko-Rudas is expected to be an important part of the offense but hasn’t been much of a factor in two exhibition games, possibly due to recovering from an off-season surgery that caused him to miss the beginning of the season. He has eight points in 17 games with the Everett Silvertips this season. Both players will need to elevate their games in order to give Slovakia a fighting chance in 2020.
Nicolas Ferenyi has shown dangerous offensive instincts in the Slovakian U20 circuit and could slot into a top-six role, as he’s scored twice in four international games this season. Jakub Minarik and Dominik Jendek could also make a strong case to be offensive contributors, but have shorter resumes to back them up. Robert Dzugan will likely accompany Mrazik in a bottom-six spot, as he’s played a grinding role so far for Slovakia.
Prior to the World Juniors, none had been more impressive than 17-year-old Martin Chromiak, which is why it is so surprising to see he was one of the final cuts for Slovakia. In pre-tournament games, he led the team with 15 points over 14 contests, but was strangely scratched for both preliminary World Junior games. He’s excelled at every level he’s played, prompting many in the Slovakian hockey circuit to dub him a prodigy, and could see himself drafted in the second or third round in the 2020 NHL Draft. Seeing him left off a roster lacking top-tier offensive talent is confusing, to say the least.
The Bottom Line
Slovakia’s success will ultimately come down to their goaltending. Hlavaj has proven that he is one of the best undrafted goalies right now, and as one of the only Slovaks with any World Junior experience, he’ll be relied on heavily. Slovakia has a history of riding a hot goaltender to capture a medal, and Halvaj could very well follow in the footsteps of Dennis Godla and Jan Lasak.
Beyond Hlavaj, however, the outlook isn’t promising. Cajkovic, Okuliar, Knazko and Stacha have potential, but could be outworked by the talented Finns, Swedes and Swiss. Thus 2020 will be more of a growing year, as eight players (including Cajkovic and Hlavaj) will be eligible to return, and several top prospects will be competing to make the team.
Slovakia is always a team to keep an eye on, but will likely finish in the same vein as last year — good enough to avoid relegation, but not strong enough to upset a medal hopeful.
Slovakia will play their first game against Kazakhstan on Dec. 27, then face Finland on Dec. 28, Switzerland on Dec. 30 and close out the round robin against Sweden on Dec. 31.
All stats retrieved from eliteprospects.com and hockeyslovakia.sk