Happy St. Stephen's Day and happy Boxing Day if you live in a country that celebrates the day after Christmas. Today we continue PensBurgh's Olympic Preview Series with a look at Slovenia. If you'd like to check out the previous articles in the series, here they are:
WORLD RANKING AND OLYMPIC HISTORY
Slovenia is currently ranked #17 in IIHF 2013 men's world ranking. It is a small Alpine country of 2 million people and covering < 8000 square miles that became independent in June 1991. Their national sports are Alpine skiing and ski jumping, and they have produced many famous Olympians in those sports. They have just about 150 professional players, about 850-900 junior players (fewest in the world top 25 aside from Lithuania) and only 7 ice rinks. They have one professional hockey team, Telemach Olimpija, which competes in Austrian EBEL league.
These are the first-ever Olympics for the Lynx. I wish I were able to adequately describe just how big a deal it is for them to have qualified. Top 9 countries in the world after the 2012 WC all received automatic berths, and only three were left to qualify for. For Slovenia to grab one of those spots, winning all 3 games against Denmark, Belarus and Ukraine - without Anze Kopitar no less - is their own Miracle on Ice. This is a highlight video of their qualification run in Vojens, Denmark, after which they were headed to Sochi.
Only five Slovenian-born players have ever been drafted by NHL teams, and only one is currently playing for an NHL team: Anze Kopitar, the LA Kings' best player and top-line center. Hockey is a family affair for the Kopitars, as Anze's father Matjaz is the head coach of the national team, and brother Gasper also has a chance of making the team.
Unlike most of the top countries, Slovenia has neither held a pre-Olympic orientation camp nor released an expanded list of players who are candidates to make the team. Here, then, is how I see their roster shaping up.
Slovenian starter will almost certainly be Kristan. He carried them through qualifyers with an excellent 1.50 GAA and is currently sporting a 2.00 GAA and a .930 SV% in 22 games for Nitra. Backing him up will be talented 20-year-old Gracnar - check out his player profile. The third spot will go to a veteran like Hocevar although he's a clear level below their top two goalies.
DEFENSEMEN: L Blaz Gregorc (HC Pardubice, Czech), R Ziga Pavlin (Troja-Ljungby, Allsvenskan), R Klemen Pretnar (Villacher SV, Austria), L Ales Kranjc (Kölner Haie, DEL), L Mitja Robar (Krefeld Pinguine, DEL), R Sabahudin Kovacevic (Sary-Arka Karaganda, VHL), L Andrej Tavzelj (Rouen Dragons, France), R Miha Logar (EC Salzburg II, MHL)
The first seven players comprise the core of Slovenian defense and will eat up the minutes. The 8th spot may be given to a more experienced player such as L Jakob Milovanovic (doubtful, as he last played for Slovenia in 09/10), or they'll bring one of their talented youngsters such as 18-year-old Logar. We'll see.
FORWARDS: C Anze Kopitar (LA Kings), RW Jan Mursak (Amur Khabarovsk, KHL), RW/LW David Rodman (Oskarshamn, Allsvenskan), LW/RW Tomaz Razingar (Troja-Ljungby, Allsvenskan), C/W Jan Urbas (EHC München, DEL), RW/LW Robert Sabolic (ERC Ingolstadt, DEL), W/C Ziga Jeglic (ERC Ingolstadt, DEL), C Rok Ticar (Kölner Haie, DEL), C/RW Marcel Rodman (Schwenninger, DEL), RW Luka Basic (HK Astana, Kazakhstan), Ziga Pance (Olimpija, Slovenia), LW/C Ales Music (Olimpija, Slovenia), W/C Gasper Kopitar (Mora, Allsvenskan), LW Anze Kuralt (Les Dauphins Epinal, France)
Most people expect for Anze Kopitar's younger brother Gasper (profiled here) to make the team, although I honestly think he's on the bubble with players like C Gal Koren (Olimpija, Slovenia), RW/C Rok Pajic (HC Bolzano, Austria) and LW Bostjan Golicic (Briançon, France). Anze Kuralt is a pretty talented 22-year-old winger playing in France who's having a really good season, and I have penciled him and the younger Kopitar in for the last two spots. The status of Jan Mursak is questionable, although his talent isn't. He is a sniper and a scorer, but he's a total defensive liability as well, so I'm not at all certain he'll get a spot.
MEET THE COACH
Anze and Gasper Kopitar's dad Matjaz has been the head coach of the Slovenian national team since 2011. Here is a very recent interview with him. Obviously he's guided the team to their greatest feat yet, and I for one will be very excited watching him coach the Slovenian team, with Anze centering the top line, in their first-ever Olympics.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Strengths: They have one of the world's most elite players centering their top line. If Kopitar and the Rodman brothers get hot, they could score quite a bit for Slovenia. Offensive talent is definitely there. Also, they have absolutely nothing to lose. Slovenia will be playing with house money.
Weaknesses: Slovenians don't have nearly enough top talent on defense compared to any of the top teams. They also ended up in the toughest group, so they will really struggle to keep the puck out of Kristan's net.
Slovenia was drawn in group A with Russia, Slovakia and the United States (in that order of play). It will be the first game for Russia at the Olympics, so they will come at them with staggering force. Slovakia is an incredibly steady team, they are strong throughout, and Slovenia won't really have a chance against the US as they have enough top defensemen to rotate against the Kopitar-Rodman line and shut them down. So no, they realistically don't stand many chances of winning against any of these teams, but don't let that diminish the strength of their achievement. They will be free of any grand expectations and they will give it their all, so it will be fun to watch them take the ice and compete against the best players the world has to offer. Also, a note of caution to all overconfident teams: this year at the World Championships they actually lead Canada 2-0 and 3-2 late in the game, taking them to OT and losing 4-3 on a Stamkos goal so, you know, NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE. Go Lynx go!