Beijing 2022 wasn’t meant to provide the backdrop for Juraj Slafkovsky’s breakout moment. The 17-year-old, already forecasted to be selected early in this year’s draft, was included on Team Slovakia’s roster with the future in mind. He wasn’t supposed to be the best performer on Craig Ramsay’s side. But that isn’t how the Winter Olympics have panned out for the TPS winger, who enters the qualifying round in joint-possession of the tournament’s goal-scoring lead (4).
Slafkovsky isn’t a flat-track bully either. He netted a brace on his Olympic debut against Finland, Group C’s strongest team, before following up his early success with goals against Sweden and Latvia. The 6-foot-4 forward, who shares a line with Pavol Regenda and Milos Roman, has outplayed his role in Beijing and underscored his credentials as Slovakia’s next offensive star.
“If someone told me before the Olympics that I was going to score goals here, I would just laugh,” Slafkovsky told reporters in China. “Now it’s happening and I’m pretty surprised. I came here with other tasks, but so far it has worked very well.”
Following his standout performances in Group C, the Kosice native has drawn praise from across the board.
“Unbelievable,” Ramsay said of Slafkovsky’s start to the tournament, “not only is he tall, he also has smart hands. I like his style of play; it is not slow like a snail due to his height. He has proven to everyone that he is a greater skater.”
Former Edmonton Oiler Tomas Jurco agreed: “He’s a great teammate and hockey player, we are very happy that he is here with us. He has a big advantage in how strong and tall he is, he covers the puck well [and] the young boys don’t show that often.”
Slafkovsky has proven himself to be worthy of Ramsay’s trust, unburdened by the pressure and expectation that comes with playing senior international hockey in a draft year. But his biggest challenge is yet to come. Slovakia face Germany, silver medallists four years ago, in the qualifying playoffs. The winners will move on to face Team USA in the last eight. The losers will go home.
From now on, Slovakia’s margin for error is zero. With that in mind, let’s assess what Ramsay’s team must do to secure their first quarter-final appearance since Vancouver 2010.
Team Slovakia Must Focus on Defensive Structure
Against Finland, Slovakia’s defense crumbled in the face of excellent forward play. Ramsay’s blueline fared better versus Sweden – but shot themselves in the foot by conceding thrice in ten minutes. They finally delivered against the Latvians.
“It’s great,” former Boston Bruin Peter Cehlarik said after Slovakia’s 5-2 win over Latvia. “I think we played well the last two games, but we had breakdowns that cost us goals against and it’s hard to comeback against teams like Sweden and Finland.
“But [against Latvia], we were on top of our game and just played better. I think the second period showed how well we can play, and we got it done in the third. I’m excited and I hope we can build on this.”
The 26-year-old, a standout forward in the Kontinental Hockey League for Avangard Omsk, summed up his team’s performances in Beijing perfectly. Slovakia conceded cheap goals against the Finns and Swedes, ending their hopes of a group stage upset. If Ramsay’s side are to beat Germany, they must avoid making trips to the penalty box and unnecessary turnovers.
Slovakia’s penalty kill was poor in the group phase, conceding three goals on nine short-handed assignments. Their .667 success rate, third-worst in the competition, must improve going forwards.
Simon Nemec Needs to Step Up on the Power Play
Team Slovakia’s other prospective superstar, Simon Nemec has the world in his hands. He was excellent at the World Juniors, adding to his impressive performances for HK Nitra in the Slovak Extraliga.
The 17-year-old is comfortable with the puck on his stick and plays in a cerebral style. He’s a right-handed shooter, stands at 6-foot-1, and has the foot speed to make an impact on the transition. However, Nemec hasn’t been a game-changer for Team Slovakia in Beijing. Despite his considerable talents, the Nitra blueliner only has one point to his name and is minus two through three appearances at the Olympics.
His assist, an intuitive pass to Slafkovsky against Sweden, could prove to be a turning point. “We had a great start,” Nemec said after Game Two, “but when we conceded the goal our game fell apart… I’m happy with the point, but it’s not important when we don’t win.”
Against Germany, Nemec will have another opportunity to shine on the world stage. In addition to his defensive duties, he must find success in his quarterback role on the power play. Slovakia are goalless through nine attempts on the man advantage in Beijing, a flaw the 17-year-old has to fix against the Germans.
Team Slovakia Should Look to Juraj Slafkovsky for Inspiration
Thanks to their regulation time win over Latvia, Slovakia enter the playoffs as the eighth seed – which is roughly where they were expected to figure at the start of the tournament. However, their playoff fixture is a coin-flip, the Germans are no pushovers and a decade has passed since the Slovaks last made it to the quarters.
As a result, Team Slovakia should look to Slafkovsky as a point of inspiration. The 17-year-old has exceeded expectations in Beijing and could yet come up clutch in the knockout phase. If he finds the net again, this time against Germany, he’ll place Slovakia on a collision course with the United States.
If Slafkovsky continues to produce and Team Slovakia’s blueline stands strong, they could break new ground on Tuesday.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals beat for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.