Very little went right for Slovakia at the 2019 World Junior Championship. Stuck in the challenging Group B with USA, Sweden, and Finland, their only win came against Kazakhstan in the very last game of the round-robin stage. However, there are a few things that could give Slovakia a boost in 2020. Robert Petrovicky, an NHL veteran of eight seasons, will step behind the bench for his first head coaching job. They will also play their first game against the weaker Kazakhstan, which should give the Slovaks a much-needed boost of confidence as they go on to face the powerful teams.
Most importantly, Slovakia has proven time and time again that they cannot be underestimated. Both of their bronze-medal wins – 1999 and 2015 – were upsets over Swedish teams. More recently in 2018, despite finishing seventh, they shocked the crowds in Buffalo when they defeated the American team 3-2. Last year, they very nearly repeated the feat, falling by just a goal to the Americans to open the 2019 tournament. With just three players eligible to return from last year’s roster, the Slovaks will have a tough time to reach the podium, but who knows? They’ve surprised before, and they most certainly could do so again.
Slovakia’s success has often hinged on their dominant goaltending. In 1999, it was Jan Lasak who held the silver-medalist Canadians at bay in a 0-0 tie in the round-robin en route to their first tournament medal, and in 2015, Denis Godla slammed the door shut against the Czech Republic and Sweden, allowing just two goals combined against the two teams for Slovakia’s second bronze.
This year, it could be Samuel Hlavaj, the only returning goalie for Slovakia. He’s been incredible in his rookie season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he’s easily been one of the best goalies in the league. As the starter for the Sherbrooke Pheonix, he currently leads the QMJHL in save percentage (0.926), goals against average (2.05), and shutouts (3). It doesn’t hurt that he’s 6-foot-4 and nearly 200 pounds, either. For the Slovaks, their success will heavily rely on him.
Behind Hlavaj, however, the decision is a bit more difficult. 19-year-old Jakub Lackovic has the age advantage and is also the biggest (6-foot-3, 190-pounds) of the three invites to Slovakia’s World Junior camp. He has also already suited up for the Slovak’s at the U20 Four Nations Tournament but hasn’t looked outstanding. Instead, he’s been outshone by the younger and smaller Eugen Rabcan. The 2001-born goalie has split time between Slovakia’s second and U20 leagues, but posted some of the best numbers at the Four Nations tournament, despite being projected as the backup.
The final invite is Roman Rychlik, who is the only goaltender to have appeared in Slovakia’s top league this season, albeit briefly. He has good U20 league numbers, but unlike the previous two invitees, he has never appeared for Slovakia internationally. Despite his 2000 birth year, he is arguably the odd one out for this year’s squad.
The Slovakians have a unique habit of icing eight defensemen on their World Junior teams, while most other countries opt for seven. It’s likely they’ll continue that trend in 2020, too, as they brought in eight defenders for their Four Nations team. While no player invited to camp this year has been drafted to an NHL team, there are a few that could make a big jump in the rankings if everything goes perfectly.
The most intriguing option for Slovakia is Samuel Knazko. Selected by the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants, it was expected that the 17-year-old would join the team this season, but he instead decided to play in the Finnish Jr. A league where he currently sits top-ten in defensemen scoring with 17 points in 27 games. He was also selected to the Four Nations team, where he was fourth in minutes played with 58:24 – roughly 20 minutes a game – despite being one of the youngest on the roster.
Andrej Golian and Marcel Dlugos are the sole returning skaters from last year’s team and will be looked on to provide leadership. Golian generated some draft hype last spring, climbing up to 61st on the NHL’s Central Scouting list, but went unselected despite having good size and decent offensive instincts. The big-bodied Dlugos played a single game last season with the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies but returned to Slovakia soon after, where he’s been a regular in the country’s top league and was the highest-scoring defenseman at November’s Four Nations tournament.
Only three other 19-year-old defensemen were invited to camp. Martin Bucko, Boris Cesanek and Martin Vitalos have all dressed for Slovakia U20 teams this year, including the Four Nations tournament, but haven’t been standouts. They’ve often been overshadowed by younger players like 18-year-old’s David Mudrak, who’s been playing in Finland’s Junior A league, and Oliver Turan, who is 6-foot-5 and has played a season in the QMJHL before returning to Slovakia early this year.
Finally, two 17-year-olds were invited along with Knazko, which guarantees at least one draft-eligible defender will make the team. Marko Stacha and Oliver Fatul will make strong cases to be on this year’s team, as they have both played in Slovakia’s top league this season and have the size and talent to outplay some older players. Stacha is the better of the two, drawing some scout’s interest at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup earlier this year.
With no returning forwards from last year’s team, the Slovakians will have their work cut out for them to generate offense. Maxim Cajkovic, who was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning last summer, is the only drafted player on the team and was a late cut from last year’s World Junior team. This year, he’ll be expected to come up big for the team. Thankfully, he has a good track record at the international level; at the 2018 U18 World Junior tournament, only Jack Hughes had more than Cajkovic’s 11 points. He’s had some injury struggles but is still over a point-per-game in the QMJHL.
Oliver Okuliar is another who will be expected to be a big part of the offense. Playing in his first season with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, he currently leads the WHL in goals. Everett Silvertips’ forward Martin Fasko-Rudas has also struggled with injuries this season but has proven that he’s one of the best players on the team. He’s in his third season with the Silvertips and was a force in last year’s WHL postseason. Both were passed over in last year’s NHL Draft but will hope to change some minds at the World Juniors.
Then there’s right-winger Martin Chromiak, another 17-year-old who will likely make a significant impact this year. He’s already playing in the nation’s top league and has four goals on the season so far, and also led Slovakia in scoring at the Hlinka Gretzky Tournament earlier this year. Last season at just 16 years old, he led the U20 league in goals with 22 and led the league in playoff scoring with 17 points, which earned him and his team the championship. He’s currently projected as a second- to third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, but a strong tournament could boost those rankings considerably.
Daniel Tkac is the final North American-based Slovakian invited to the World Junior camp. Based in the Junior A British Columbia Hockey League, he’s been nearly a point-per-game this season and is tied for the team’s point lead. The rest of the offense will come from a group of European-based prospects, many of whom have also played in the Four Nations tournament, which is often a good indicator if they will make the World Junior team. Marek Minarik and Jakub Minarik, although not related, have been two of the hottest players in international games this season and have a good chance to both make the team.
Kristian Kovacik and Adam Pauliny are also good bets for the team, as both centers are 19 years old and played at the Four Nations tournament, where they were two of the best centers on the ice. They could be joined by other Four Nations’ teammates Robert Dzugan, Nic Ferenyi, Marek Mrazik, Viktor Durina, Jakub Nespala, and Dominik Jendek, where they tied for wins with Switzerland and Germany.
The final two forwards invited are Filip Cenka and Dominik Sojka. Cenka is another 19-year-old in the top Slovakian league, where he hasn’t scored yet this year. Sojka is a giant, standing 6-foot-6, but is only 18 years old. Neither played at the Four Nations tournament, but Sojka was team captain at last years’ Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
The Bottom Line
Slovakia is going to have a young team this year, with the potential to play several 17-year-olds in prominent roles. In a tournament often touted as one for 19-year-olds, it will likely be a growing year that will hopefully contribute to success in the future. It also won’t help that the Slovaks will play in Group A with Sweden, Finland, Kazakhstan and Switzerland, all of whom outmatch them on paper. It will be a challenge to improve on their eighth-place finish in 2019.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have the talent to compete. If Hlavaj comes out strong, this team has the potential to steal some games against stronger nations. The majority of the hockey world hasn’t seen much of Chromiak and Knazko, either, and they could prove to be much better than anticipated. The Slovaks will be a team to watch, to be sure, and the better a tournament they have this year, the better they will be for 2021.
Here is THW’s prediction as to who makes the final 23-man roster for Slovakia:
Goaltenders: Samuel Hlavaj, Eugen Rabcan, Jakub Lackovic
Defence: Andrej Golian, Marcel Dlugos, Samuel Knazko, David Mudrak, Martin Bucko, Marko Stacha, Oliver Turan, Martin Vitalos
Forwards: Maxim Cajkovic, Adam Pauliny, Oliver Okuliar, Martin Chromiak, Kristian Kovacik, Martin Fasko-Rudas, Marek Minarik, Jakub Minarik, Dominik Jendek, Michal Mrazik, Dominik Sojka, Robert Dzugan
All the 2020 World Junior Championship Team Information:
*Links to come throughout December