By Samuel Dummer
“I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.”
That quote was lifted from the film 1970 film ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ and believed to have been said at one time by the commander-in-chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy, Isoroku Yamamoto regarding the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. But last week teams might have felt the same way at the Hlinka Wayne Gretzky Cup in Slovakia when facing off against the host nation, a once easy win for most in the eight team best on best U18 event.
While you may be hard-pressed to name all the NHL players with Slovakian roots, they are there.
While the nation went through a dry spell during the past 21 years since Y2K. The past couple seasons that trend has started a change.
Over the past couple of seasons, the numbers of high-end Slovakian draftees have begun to creep up once again. And if the most recent 2021 Hlinka Wayne Gretzky Cup tournament has anything to say about it, it should continue, and the tiny nation could be in for a breakout over the next couple seasons.
Going into the tournament, it would be expected to keep an eye on the usual suspects – Russia, USA, Sweden and normally Canada who this season decided to not participate due to the COVID19 pandemic.
While those teams held impressive talent as expected – for the most part – one teams became a “pleasant surprise.” Slovakia had scouts and other Hlinka followers fixated on what they could do from puck drop.
From the first game against Russia (exhibition), they left fans of the game both surprised and impressed. Their ability to maintain possession of the puck and hold the offensive zone was on full display.
While the Russians won the game by capitalizing on more scoring chances. The Slovakians controlled the play and kept the puck out of their own zone for long stretches of the game.
Top 2022 prospects like defenseman Simon Nemec, winger Juraj Slafkovsky, and winger Filip Mesar all looked like the top talents they are, but it was the depth of this team that really stood out.
The game drew attention to three particular players; Samuel Honzek, Adam Sykora and goaltender Ratislav Elias. These names quickly became the Slovakian shortlist as the tournament progressed. I only became more impressed as the games and tournament wore on.
The calm nature and dominating force residing in the small package of Adam Sykora was a pleasure to see. Due to his play, I raced to Google to look further into the background of the player looking so patient with the puck. I was even more astounded by what I uncovered.
While standing at a height of only 5’9” and carrying a weight of less than 170lbs, Sykora has consistently dominated against players his own age.
In the 2 seasons pre-pandemic, Sykora had put up 51 points in 38 games and 63 points in 31 games. His size may make it difficult for this young man to really make a demanding case for a high-ranked draft position. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as it is a known fact that the NHL tends to gravitate towards bigger, meaner players. If you can look past his size though, you will be both excited and giddy over his ability to play with the puck. Watching him skate around defenders and carry the puck with confidence was jaw-dropping.
Sykora’s ability to remain calm while doing the ol’ shimmy-and-shake with the puck – like it was his partner in a tango – had you searching for his number whenever his line touched the ice.
His elite vision of the ice and his ability to find line-mates for passes was showcased effectively. As was his desire to shoot the puck when the opportunity presented itself. He wasn’t afraid to make the pass on an odd-man rush, but he knew when the shot was more attractive.
He showed he was not afraid to have the puck on his stick and showed the patience of maturity past his years. His greatest downside, as is often the case with smaller snipers, is that he seemed to disappear when the puck went towards his own zone.
He is quick and should have no issues keeping up with the pace of the play. He is small, however, and can be pushed around when trying to engage the body. It can become clear that his desire to play the defensive game may not always be there. This is something he should work on if he wants to truly make a push to join the long list of Slovakian picks.
Another player on my hastily prepared shortlist, was that of Samuel Honzek (and not just because we share a first name).
He caught my attention early in the game. While he wasn’t the driving force of their offense, he loved to create zone pressure. The board play that Honzek brought to the table was effective and often worked out for him. He was hard on the puck and would chase down pucks like a hound released in the fall duck hunt. I seldom saw him lose a board battle, and on many occasions watched him come out of them with the puck. He was great at puck retrieval and always looked to feed a pass to a fellow teammate.
Pulling from the NHL, made me think strongly of Zach Hyman digging out pucks for his fellow teammates. Except, with his scoring history, he could be shaping up to be more like the outcome of mixing Hyman and Auston Matthews together.
In 2017-18, his first season for the U-16s, he finished with only three points in 17 games, his lowest totals on record. Coming back the following year, he would show the league what his style of play can do.
The season of 2018-2019 saw Honzek put up 45 points in only 33 games, enough to draw the attention of an older crowd.
At over a point per game, Honzek was quickly becoming a dominating name in Slovakian hockey.
In 2019-2020, while playing for the U16’s, Honzek followed his impressive sophomore campaign with an even one. Honzek put up 26 points in 13 games that season, before getting the call-up to the next level.
Honzek would finish the season with U18’s. He would put up 34 points in 36 games as a 16-year-old, and cement himself as a rostered player for the following year.
The Hlinka Gretzky Cup is just another continuation of this player’s stellar career. As the world becomes introduced to his abilities, a commitment to improving his overall game should be his main goal. He could also look to increase his tenacity on the puck to really put him over the edge of a draft pool.
The next one was a surprise player. Not originally making the list, and left as a surprise for you too. At only 16, he is not even eligible for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. But watch out, he could be one to keep a close eye on for 2023. Call it my ignorance of the Slovakian Jr Hockey pool, but Dalibor Dvorsky, No.15, hit me like a sack of bricks. He took this tournament as his means to show the hockey world that he is here, and he means business.
While in the first game against Russia he didn’t seem to be very noticeable, Dvorksy opened the tournament with a game that demanded respect. Dvorsky scored a hat-trick in the opening game and made it look easy. Slovakia saw this as an opportunity and took it. They were going to take every advantage of his early developed shot and body.
Dvorsky is only 16, but he stands at 6’0” and weighs almost 190lbs. At his size, Dvorsky is already in the body of an NHLer and we aren’t even sure if he’s done growing yet.
He appears to love scoring and has a knack for it. The goals of the Hat-Trick weren’t the only goals he scored during the tournament. I would expect him to continue to fill the net as he only ages and develops more. I would expect to see his name called in the first half of the 2023 NHL Draft. His physical stature, offensive abilities, and nose for the net should make him hard to pass up for most teams looking to solidify their young depth.
Another noteworthy name to mention on the Slovakian team is that of Ratislav Elias. As a former goalie myself, I always tend to gravitate towards the position. I have a love of breaking it down. I love pausing the video and trying to imagine how the puck would look from the goalie’s position, or what they could have done differently.
His early showing was less than spectacular.
Partially because of this writers own goaltending experience, partially because he shares the name “Elias” with my own brother (pronounced differently but spelled the same), partially because I was a fan of “Patrick Elias,” and in no way because of any actual prior hockey knowledge of his play; I went in with high hopes.
I was a little disappointed and my high hopes were quickly reduced early on, but he showed his worth by the end.
I found Elias to be a bit of a rollercoaster to watch. On one hand, his athleticism is there, and he can come up with some spectacular saves. His glove hand was strong when he was given the chance to see the puck. His side-to-side movements were respectable, and his butterflies were consistently clean. His rebound control and aggression are where Elias’ game began to unravel.
Watching Elias in the tournament, one could often be left wondering “How did that one make it through?” or, “What happened there?” Elias seemed to go from making incredible stops, to letting out a plethora of juicy rebounds.
Let’s get real, a goalie making big save after big save is always an exciting game for the fan. But, the lack of rebound control only makes it more difficult than it needs to be for the goaltender. This was capitalized abundantly by Russia in the exhibition game. It was even seen in Slovakia’s own 12-2 demolition of the German team.
Their 5-2 win against the USA, showcased Elias’ other apparent major flaw; his lack of aggression for his own space. It would appear that the young Slovakian has a little more to learn when it comes to the value of “Real Estate” on the ice. It can be a flaw found in a lot of young goalies. It can be adjusted, and that small adjustment can bring surprisingly good results. It seems basic and fundamental in a sport like hockey, yet so many goalies fall prey to the lack of its use.
Aggression. Fight for space.
Players are always actively trying to take space away. A goalie should be just as aggressive – if not more so – than the players in front of them. Elias often found himself behind the traffic and left pining for his own space. He succumbed to hanging back further in his blue paint than he should have been. In doing so, he allowed the net behind him to open up for the shooter. He was beaten too many times from the blue line throughout the tournament due to this “small” play.
As the tournament progressed, Elias seemed to find his groove. He continued to play better each game and though Russia seemed to have his number, he can leave with his head high. Elias played a heck of series, and it would be expected that he may have garnered himself a few extra looks.
If Elias can improve on just a few parts of his game, I think there may be a diamond in the rough, looking for a good polish. Otherwise, he may fall to his local leagues and his NHL aspirations may become too far gone to grasp.
Like the players that came before them, it is only with the right combination of skill, determination, hard work, and a love of the game, that prospects find themselves on the path to the NHL.
All in all, Slovakia had a great showing; there is a lot of young promise seeming to make its way through their system. It may only be a matter of time before we see a new wave of Slovakian superstars. New faces to be plastered across the billboards of North America or finding their way into the latest video game.
Slovakia as a country has seen enough adversity to ensure their players are battle-tested and mentally prepared for the nuances of the game. The question becomes whether they really have the impenetrable DNA.
Do they have that first-round DNA of so many great Slovakians in recent memory and beyond?
Maybe these players will continue to carry the torch of their predecessors, maybe they continue to add to the long list of fellow countrymen, jumping onto a plane and joining the best hockey league in the world or, maybe they fall to the wayside, left battling for ice-time on their own local teams.
It is only a matter of time before all our questions are answered.
I, for one, will be excited to see where their names fall on the board in the coming year(s).
While they may have recently taken a light nap, you can no longer sleep on Slovakia.
They might just surprise you.
For more check this video on Slovakia’s talent created by DraftPro contributor Kai Farenholtz.
Photos: Jakub Homola / Sportnet.sk / Lukas Grinaj / Hockey Slovakia