By Samuel Dummer

We came, we saw, we left. Unfortunately for the young Czech’s they were but a mere blip in this year’s Hlinka tournament. Not performing at the level that many of them may have believed they could have, although some showed flashes of high-end talent during stretches of their games.

After winning their first against Switzerland, the Czech’s went on to lose the rest of their remaining games. They finished 1-3-0 and in sixth place. Not quite at the bottom of the standings but far from where they would have desired to be, or where previous editions expected to finish.

The Czechs created scoring chances and capitalized on their fair share of them, even scoring first against the dominating Russian team. But the Czech Republic team seemed to come apart on the defensive side of the ice. 17 goals against in just four games, including a shutout against a weak Switzerland team, would just go to show that the Czech Republic could have used more effort in their defensive zone.

Time and time again the team was left scrambling after a weak clearing attempt, or an errant pass. Teams such as Russia and the USA were able to effectively turn over the puck and get clean looks on goal. Goaltender Jan Spunar did his best to keep the young team alive but quickly found himself losing steam in most games.

The team would generally start each game with a strong opening period. Even a high-scoring team such as Russia couldn’t seem to break the streak. It was not until the Czech Republic’s final game that the USA was able to beat Spunar in the opening frame. Despite the strong starts, the team would find themselves crumbling as the games wore on. Crumbling until they were left chasing and watching as the games moved further and further out of reach.

Despite the general lack of urgency that the team seemed to have, as well as their overall average play, there were still a few names on the roster worth a deeper look.

Matyas Sapovaliv was one of the Czech’s most noticeable players. While not lighting the lamp too much himself, he was regularly seen dishing off the puck to fellow line-mates. Whether it was tape-to-tape on-ice passes, or adding a little sauce to get it over opposing sticks, Sapovaliv showed he was more than willing to let someone else take the glory.

At 6’4” and 190lbs, Sapovaliv is a large body that still has room to develop. Sapovaliv had a strong defensive stick and was able to use this to his advantage by taking away passing lanes.

He was also used regularly on the draw in his own end, doing so in a very respectable manner. His legs could do with more strength as he seemed to be shaken off the puck from time to time, and his crossovers could be worked on to add speed. His desire to feed the puck was eminent throughout the tournament as was his puck reception while in stride.

He is a strong player but could be even more powerful in his stride with more muscle growth and workouts, adding to his explosiveness on his first steps. His agility could be better, but at 6’4” and 17 there could still be some bodily adjustments happening there.

Simon Slavicek, “He’s hard-working, constantly battling and asserting himself into battles to retrieve pucks back. He’s a great skater with great posture in his linear stride,” says Jared Brown, Head Scout at DraftPro Hockey.

The young Czech player showed he came to for a fight. The team was regularly outmatched throughout the tournament, but Slavicek was seen bumping bodies and making defenders look behind them as he came flying into a corner.

“I was impressed by his versatility and ability to play in critical situations for the Czechs” Brown also said of the player.

Slavicek understood his role on the team, and he did it without hesitation. Slavicek is usually first on the ice on the penalty kill, which only goes to show the amount of trust his coaches have in his defensive abilities. He always seemed to make the right play. Whether it was flipping the puck, high and out of his end, or sending a stretch pass up the neutral zone, Slavicek seemed to make the right decisions often. His skating was strong as his strides were smooth, long, and balanced. He knows how to use his legs and body to get the most out of his skating.

Slavicek could work on his hands and finishing ability. It was clear throughout the tournament that Slavicek was a role-player and not one they were looking to for putting pucks in the net. He was able to get one in during the tournament by banging home a rebound, but Slavicek seemed uncomfortable carrying the puck and wasn’t quite quick enough with his hands to create enough space for himself to be dangerous. If he continues to play the game the way he does, look for Slavicek to be a hard-nosed, battle for every puck kind of player.

Jiri Kulich was the driving force behind this year’s Czech team. He was usually looked to, to make plays happen and on breakout passes. His high offensive IQ regularly put him in a position to set up for a strong one-timer or tic-tac-toe opportunity. His teammates were not always able to make the pass or hit it in time, but Kulich was there and waiting patiently.

His skating was impressive as he seemed to hit top speed within only a few strides. “Strong footwork and technical skills, mixed in with edgework and balance create space as he finds the soft spots on the powerplay so he can display his potent shooting,” says DraftPro scout Joseph Peters.

Kulich was able to put some points up for his team, as well as show his heart when the team needed him most. As the Czech team didn’t particularly play their best hockey, some of their emotions began to run high. It was up to Kulich to find the middle ground. “Kulich played like a leader, tallying points and showing a feisty side to his game standing up for his teammates and engaging in scrums after the whistle. Kept a positive attitude towards his play when his team needed a leader to step up and lead a comeback”

Jan Spunar, the goaltender for the Czech team, gave me flashes of a younger version of Frederik Andersen. His butterfly and body technicals were almost spot on. He had great control of his legs and pads, was able to quickly come to a stop and reverse when needed, and kept his head throughout the tournament. His calm demeanor could be felt from where I sat, and his attitude showed that he didn’t let the bad ones get to him.

Spunar was able to use his stick to disrupt plays. He did this quite a bit. It was almost enlightening to see as a lot of young goalies have not yet developed the confidence to do so. By using his stick, Spunar was able to help his defensemen catch up to a play and cover a cross pass, or give the puck a bounce to jump over the opposition’s stick. He may not have the third defender style of play like Martin Brodeur or Mike Smith, but his active stick definitely makes a difference in his zone.

Despite his active stick, Spunar needs to develop his confidence in handling the puck. Whether it was his rebound control or puck-on-stick handling, Spunar seemed to struggle with the puck. It was almost as if he was fighting it off, instead of treating it as an old friend, holding in an embrace. While he was usually able to stop a puck and leave it for his defenders, he should stay clear of trying to make the big play until he develops a little more confidence in that area.

Spunar could also work on his angles more as he tended to overcommit and leave parts of his net overexposed. He also allowed two shootout goals in the same low-mid glove area, indicating there could be a hole in his stance. His puck tracking was normally decent, but at times he did seem to lose it. This led to a couple of goals against him through his time in Slovakia. Spunar isn’t the most athletic and flexible of goalies, so he must rely heavily on keeping his eye on the puck and reading a play before it happens.

With the right goalie coaching and work ethic, Spunar has the raw goods to make a good experiment. As with any goalie, it is hard to say exactly where his ceiling may be. For now, he seems to a be late “flyer” pick. Low-risk, low round, but high potential if he can find the right fit.

In the end, the Czech Republic didn’t bring enough with them to the tournament. Some players came to play, others appeared to be out of their league and overwhelmed. While Slovakia took this moment to step up and show the world they meant business, the Czech Republic took a step back. They allowed their close geographical neighbor to take center stage and draw the eyes of the local fans.

Photos: Jan Beneš