If Czechia are to break their 16-year World Junior Championship medal drought in 2022, head coach Karel Mlejnek will need his bourgeoning stars to make a significant impact in Red Deer. After all, the Czechs arrive in Canada with low expectations, having finished seventh at each of the last three U20 WJCs.
However, there is pressure on Czechia’s current crop of prospects to deliver following the reintroduction of the relegation zone at this year’s tournament. If the Czechs finish adrift in Group A, they will contest a best-of-three playoff series against Group B’s bottom side — and they won’t want to do that.
Leading Czechia’s charge against the drop, 2022 NHL Entry Draft-eligible defenceman David Jiříček will play a key role. Having enjoyed a productive start to the season with HC Plzen, the 18-year-old lands in Canada with a rising draft stock and the world at his feet.
But what about the rest of Czechia’s roster? Has general manager Otakar Černý been able to assemble a roster deep enough for his players to start looking up the standings rather than over their shoulders?
Jan Bednar, Daniel Král, Jakub Málek
Heading into this year’s competition, Czechia’s boasts a strong goaltending ensemble. Jan Bednar and Jakub Malek are unsigned NHL prospects, while Daniel Král heads to Red Deer hoping to make a positive impression before this year’s draft. Although Nick Malík is a high-profile absentee (he opted to continue his breakout year in Finland’s Liiga rather than participate in the World Juniors), Bednar is more than capable of his making the starter’s job his own.
The 19-year-old Bednar, drafted in the fourth round by Detroit in 2020, is an impressive athlete. His ability to quickly move across his crease allows him to make highlight-reel saves, while his uncompromising attitude to net-front battles makes him an enjoyable watch for Acadie–Bathurst Titan in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).
Bednar will be backed up by Málek, whose .936 save percentage through 23 games in the Czech second division is a testament to his development of late. Král looks to be third in line coming into the tournament, with his .894 second-tier save percentage unlikely to get him into many games with the national team.
Michal Hrádek, David Jiříček (A), Michael Krutil, David Moravec, Jakub Šedivý, David Spacek, Stanislav Svozil, Jiri Tichacek
As noted, Jiříček is the Czech’s headline act on the blue line. He’s spent 2021-22 playing with such a high level of poise in the Czech Extraliga that the World Juniors are unlikely to faze him.
The 6-foot-3 defenceman has developed into a smooth two-way option of late, with his size and mobility amongst his key strengths. His skating could be improved — as could his level of concertation when defending the slot — but that doesn’t detract from the fact he has a huge role to play in Group A.
Moreover, Stanislav Svozil brings quality to Czechia’s defence on the left. The Columbus Blue Jackets draftee skates well — albeit while lacking overall footspeed — and is a fine puck handler. His shot can be hard or accurate — but is infrequently both.
Michael Krutil, Czechia’s other NHL prospect on the back end, has played 28 games in the American Hockey League (AHL) since being drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2020. The 19-year-old right-shooter is a creative stickhandler and isn’t shy when it comes to using his 6-foot-3 frame to protect the puck.
Jiri Tichacek is another intriguing prospect at Mlejnek’s disposal. Although the 19-year-old is only 5-foot-9, he makes up for his lack of size by covering every inch of ice. He’s agile, fast, and is a rush defence specialist. In 19 Extraliga appearances this season, he has one goal and two assists.
Jakub Brabenec, Tomáš Chlubna, Michal Gut (A), Ivan Ivan, Vojtěch Jiruš, Josef Kolacek, Jakub Konečný, Jakub Kos, Jiří Kulich, Sebastian Malat, Jan Myšák (C), Pavel Novák, Martin Ryšavý, Tomáš Urban
Team Czechia’s options up front are slightly less exciting than in defence.
Montreal Canadiens prospect Jan Myšák is a smart forechecker who knows how to light the lamp. The 19-year-old has 56 points (32 goals, 24 assists) through 47 appearances for the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Hamilton Bulldogs — adding to the two goals (in 22 appearances) he scored in the AHL the last term. Moreover, Myšák is a WJC returnee. He already has three goals and two assists to his name in the U20 competition and will have a substantial role to play as Czechia’s first-line centre this time out.
Fellow 2002-born NHL prospect Pavel Novak is also likely to feature on Mlejnek’s top offensive unit. A fifth-round pick by the Minnesota Wild, Novak has 31 points through 24 games in the Western Hockey League (WHL) this season. He’s a diminutive, pass-first winger — they tend to impress at the World Juniors.
It’s also worth drawing attention to 17-year-old centreman Jiří Kulich. Kulich, a left-shooter, has looked comfortable in the Extraliga this season, notching 11 points (seven goals, four assists) in 30 games for HC Energie Karlovy Vary. He forechecks intelligently, has very good hand-eye coordination, and is a dependable player on the man advantage.
Although Kulich isn’t a prolific scorer, it is significant that he has broken into Czechia’s top senior league so early in his career. NHL scouts will be watching him at this year’s World Juniors, especially if he wins a spot in Czechia’s top six.
Jakub Kos, a sixth-round selection by the Florida Panthers in 2021, is also in contention to play a big role in Red Deer. The 6-foot-2 left-winger has endured a tough start to this season (he’s goalless through seven appearances in the Finnish top flight) but remains a player of high potential because he always understands the assignment. With Czechia likely to spend a lot of time in their own zone against Canada, Kos is the kind of defensively responsible forward who will come in handy.
With centreman Jakub Brabenec (VGK) and winger Martin Rysavy (CLB) also rostered for the Worlds, there are plenty of reasons for NHL fans to tune in as Czechia aim to plot their path to the knockout phase.
Will Team Czechia Medal in 2022?
Although Czechia is relatively short on depth heading into this year’s World Junior Championship, Mlejnek can call upon several game-breakers. Bednar has amassed a reputation for making spectacular saves. Jiříček is in the midst of a season that could see him taken early in the draft. Myšák, although prone to attacking in straight lines, is a second-round pick that has found his scoring touch.
They also have the benefit of being on the “easier” side of the draw and are more than capable of overpowering Austria — who finished last in 2021 — and Germany — who are without Tim Stützle, John Peterka, and Lukas Reichel this time out.
In other words, Mlejnek and Co. should be aiming to finish much higher than seventh in 2022.
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Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from the UK, who covers the Washington Capitals for THW. He is a recent graduate from the University of Warwick and is currently studying a postgraduate degree in Newspaper Journalism at City, University of London. To stay up-to-date with Luke’s work, you can find his tweets via @LukeJames_32.