Team Czechia Players to Watch at 2023 WJC

It has been over 20 years since Czechia took home the gold at the World Juniors. The 2001 team, which featured now-former NHLers Rostislav Klesla, Martin Erat, Pavel Brendl, Radim Vrbata and Tomas Plekanec, won their second of back-to-back gold after beating Finland in the final. Flash forward to this year’s tournament, and Czechia will once again look to recapture the magic and win third gold at the World Juniors.

2020 IIHF World Junior Championship Czechia
Czechia (The Hockey Writers)

Czechia had a strong showing at the 2022 World Juniors, finishing fourth after falling to Sweden in the bronze medal game. They are looking to win their first medal since a bronze in 2005 and have brought over a strong team that features 11 players that were drafted into the NHL. Here are four players to watch during the 2023 World Juniors.

David Jiricek

Returning for his third World Juniors, 2022 sixth-overall pick David Jiricek is expected to have a massive tournament for Czechia. Already pegged as a favourite for the tournament All-Star Team, the Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman will be expected to play big minutes in all situations, mostly beside fellow Blue Jacket pick Stanislav Svozil. He wore an “A” during the summer tournament, so expect him to once again be part of the leadership group in this year’s tournament.

Related: Blue Jackets Prospects Report: 2023 World Juniors Edition

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This season, Jiricek has featured mostly in the American Hockey League (AHL) but has played two games in the NHL. He is over a point per game, with the Cleveland Monsters collecting 20 points in 19 games with nine points in his last five games. He comes into the tournament as one of the hottest defencemen in the AHL and will look to continue his recent dominance at this year’s tournament.

Jiri Kulich

Returning for his second World Juniors, Jiri Kulich will be a key not just at even strength but also on the power play. He finished with two goals and eight points in seven games at the 2022 tournament but will be relied upon more as a shooter than a playmaker. Expected to play on a line with Matyas Sapovaliv and Eduard Sale, look for him to be among the leaders in goal and points at the end of the tournament.

Jiri Kulich Team Czechia
Jiri Kulich, Team Czechia (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

After being drafted 28th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the last draft, Kulich has had a good start to the season in the AHL. He is fifth on the Rochester Americans in points with 16 playing is improving as the campaign progresses. A strong World Juniors could be exactly what is needed for him to kick his game up a notch and maybe earn a call-up from the Sabres after the tournament.

Matyas Sapovaliv

After a tough 2022 tournament where he recorded just two assists in seven games, Sapovaliv will be looking to step up his game and deliver for Czechia. Drafted by the Vegas Golden Knights 48th overall in 2022, the big center will be relied upon to create opportunities in the offensive zone through his strong playmaking skills. Where he should do most of his damage is on the power play where he will be setting up his teammates for one-timers.

Related: 2023 Guide to the World Junior Championship

Sapovaliv is having a great start to the year with the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). He is a point-per-game player with 30 points in 30 games but does come into the tournament having failed to register a point in his last three contests. A defensively sound player, watch for him to not only contribute in the offensive zone, but be used on the penalty kill and late in games when defending a lead.

Eduard Sale

There is a lot of hype for Sale as the 2023 NHL Draft prospect will look to replicate his performance at the U18’s last season where he recorded nine points in six games. Most scouts have him ranked as a top-15 pick, but a strong tournament could be the difference between him being picked 15th and being selected in the top 10. He is a gifted prospect and will be given plenty of opportunities, especially on the power play.

The only concern around Sale is that he is entering the tournament having not registered a point in his last 16 league games. He is currently playing in Czechia’s top division with HC Kometa Brno but only has six points in his first 26 contests. This tournament is his chance to shine as he will be a key cog in Czechia’s offence.

Tough Challenge Ahead for Czechia

This tournament will not be an easy one for Czechia as they are in a group with Canada and Sweden. While a top two position in the group might be just out of reach, they are expected to make it to the quarterfinals and at that point, anything is possible. This might be the best team Czechia has assembled over the last 20 years, so do not be surprised if they end up on the podium with a medal around their necks come early January.

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