Czech Republic has been given a legitimate reason to be considered the dark horse of the 2016 World Junior Championships.
Starting goaltender and Washington Capitals prospect, Vitek Vanecek, has been the most impressive netminder midway through the round robin of this year’s tournament.
It seems each year, one country outside of the big five (Canada, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the United States) creates havoc among the expected turnout of the tournament. Last year, it was Slovakia, who upset Czech Republic in the quarterfinals to earn a berth in the semi-finals. After losing against Canada, they would shock the defending gold medalists, Sweden, to capture the bronze medal. That would be just their second medal in tournament history, with the first being a bronze from 1999.
In 2016, that team could very well be Czech Republic. As with Slovakia and Denis Godla last year, goaltending becomes an enormous part of any country’s success, and the Czech’s have that area covered this year.
Vitek Vanecek has been almost perfect through the team’s first two contests, against the powerhouse Russian squad and reigning bronze medallists, Slovakia. With games against Belarus and Finland remaining, the Czech’s are in great form to capture a strong position in the quarterfinals.
Who is Vitek Vanecek?
Vanecek is, of course, a Czech prospect who was drafted by the Washington Capitals in the second round, 39th overall, in the 2014 NHL Draft. He played his minor hockey for Bili Tygri Liberec U20, in the Czech U20 league during his draft year, posting a 2.64 GAA and a .924 SV% in 38 games.
Now, he is playing in his first North American season, in the ECHL. For the South Carolina Stingrays, Vanecek has allowed two goals a game while stopping 91.7% of the shots he has faced. As a 19-year-old, he should expect to play out this season in the ECHL before hopefully making the jump to the AHL in 2016-17.
What you will not get from Vanecek is a huge goaltender who uses his size to stop the puck. Standing at 6’1 and 181 pounds, he uses his lateral movement and reflexes to find success. He is very quick with the glove and blocker, but can sometimes give out dangerous rebounds. Of course, there is still lots to work on, but Vanecek certainly has the raw talent to become successful.
How Great Are Czech Republic’s Chances?
Considering Czech Republic drew the easier of the two divisions, playing alongside recently promoted Belarus, they should reach the quarterfinals without a problem. However, to be able to avoid one of the big three in Group A, Canada, Sweden, or the Unites States, they would almost certainly need to finish first in their group.
Unfortunately, after losing in a shootout to Russia, and with the Russians remaining opponents being Slovakia and Belarus, that is unlikely to happen. So, odds are that Czech Republic will face one of Canada, Sweden, or the United States in the quarterfinals.
With that said, the Czechs are going to need to pull off an enormous upset. But, they will always have a fair chance of winning with Vitek Vanecek in their crease. Through two games against two strong opponents, Vanecek has allowed just one goal while posting a .974 SV%.
All in all, what do I list Czech Republic’s odds at earning a medal this year? Probably around 40-1. But, the major idea to take away is that the Czech’s are, without a doubt, the favourite to upset one of the big five countries in the 2016 WJC. And that opportunity would never be possible without the outstanding goaltending of Vitek Vanecek.
Contributor for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Prospects. Scout with the Oakville Blades of the OJHL. For questions, concerns, or comments, contact me at email@example.com or on twitter @SlawsonTHW.