Perhaps the most underrated team in the Men’s Olympic Hockey Tournament, the Czechia opens play today against Denmark. With the addition of David Krejčí and several other former NHLers, they should be an exciting team to watch. But there are some interesting storylines to follow that will play out over the next couple of weeks.
Šimon Hrubec Starts in Goal, For Now
Today, Czechia announced on Twitter that Simon Hrubec will start game one against Denmark, with Roman Will and Patrik Bartošák waiting for their shot. The 30-year-old Hrubec is the oldest of the three goalies yet has the least experience playing in North America. Both Bartošák and Will have played in the American Hockey League, and Will managed to get into one NHL game but only faced three shots, making two saves.
It will be interesting to see what head coach Filip Pesan will do if Hrubec falters. Will has the better numbers this season, with a 2.20 goals-against average (GAA) and a .929 save percentage (SV%) for Traktor Chelyabinsk of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), compared to Bartošák’s 2.80 GAA and .911 SV% for Amur Khabarovsk, also of the KHL.
Some readers might remember Bartošák from his stint within the Los Angeles Kings organization. He was suspended without pay indefinitely by the team due to his arrest on domestic assault charges on Nov. 18, 2015. He allegedly attempted to strangle his then-girlfriend, amongst other allegations.
In addition, due to some COVID-19 and border-related issues, the Czech’s have had to practice without all three of their goalies for some time. Equipment Manager Petr Sulan has been strapping on the pads in their absence. Forward Lukáš Sedlák said that “He’s doing a good job. Hopefully I think tomorrow we’re going to have our goalie. I usually score more goals on the regular goalie(s), so I will be happy,” (from ‘Czechs rely on equipment manager in net for Olympic practice,’ The Seattle Times, 2/1/22).
Will Jeřábek Lead the Way on Defense?
At forward, there is plenty to like about this Czech team. They have several former NHLers, and some have had long careers, like Krejčí and Michael Frolík.
But on defense, there are a few questions. There simply aren’t any players with the amount of NHL experience that some other teams have. That being said, they aren’t razor thin on the back end either, so there’s some healthy competition for the top-four and power-play time.
The 30-year-old veteran Jakub Jeřábek might seem like an obvious choice for a significant role. He was the captain of the Czech National Team at the World Junior Championship in 2011 and played for the Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals, and St. Louis Blues, although he only got into a total of 37 games. He may not be the number one choice because his offensive numbers this season have been lackluster, with only three goals and seven points in 39 games in the Kontinental Hockey League.
27-year-old Libor Šulák of the KHL’s Admiral Vladivostok might be the most well-rounded defenseman on the team. He is the current captain of his team in the KHL and played in a handful of games for the Detroit Red Wings without any points. He put up solid offensive numbers this season, with eight goals and 26 points in 49 games. He has an excellent shot to stake his claim on the top pairing.
26-year-old Lukáš Klok is having a career year in the KHL. He finished the season tied for fourth in scoring amongst defensemen, with five goals and 31 points in 44 games. He hasn’t spent any time in North American professional leagues but has been the hot hand this year. He has a shot to quarterback the power play, and if he continues his stellar play, he could end up being their best defenseman at the tournament.
Can Červenka or Špaček Provide Secondary Scoring?
Krejčí will certainly be a focal point of the Czechia offense during the tournament, but teams can’t rely on one or two players to provide all of the offense. There are some questions about who could provide some secondary scoring, aside from obvious options Frolík and Vladimír Sobotka, who might play on the top line along with Krejčí.
The Czech captain, Roman Červenka, might be the go-to next option. Although he’s already 36 years old, he still packs some scoring punch, with 16 goals and 55 points in the Swiss National League this season. Calgary Flames fans might remember him from the 2012-13 season, where he was destined for a top-six role in his North American debut. Sadly, he sputtered out to a 17 point season and returned to Europe the following year. Regardless, he’s a veteran who’s been around and can put the puck in the net.
24-year-old Michael Špaček might be the youngest player, but he’s on the team for a reason. He played three seasons in the Winnipeg Jets organization and likely did enough to earn a call-up, but it never happened. This season, he has six goals and 33 points in 34 games in the Swedish Hockey League. Look for him to bring some speed and energy in a middle-six role and hopefully chip in on offense as well.
Experience Versus Youth
Teams like the USA and Canada brought several NHL prospects and recently drafted players to play in Beijing. On the other hand, Czechia brought no NHL prospects or players playing in North America at all.
Part of the reason is that there haven’t been many top prospects drafted recently from Czechia. Over the past two NHL Entry Drafts, only one player has been taken in the first two rounds. This means there simply aren’t any prospects to pick from.
One player that could have been selected for the team is Canadiens prospect Jan Myšák. Standing six feet tall and weighing 181 pounds, he shouldn’t have had any issues playing in a veteran-heavy tournament. In addition, he has AHL experience from last season, and 25 goals and 44 points in 33 games this season in the Ontario Hockey League.
24-year-old former Ottawa Senator Filip Chlapík could have been selected to the team. He leads the Czech Extraliga in points with 24 goals and 50 points in 41 games. The only reason I can think of for leaving him off the team is due to his age.
Given the Czech General Managers’ choices, it seems that they valued experience over youth and speed. It will be interesting to watch matchups between Czechia and some of the younger teams to see whether their instincts paid off.
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Writer and hockey addict from the GTA, covering the Ottawa Senators. Leafs fan from birth, moved to BC to explore the mountains and find the strength to keep cheering. Love talking prospects, potential, and coaching strategies.