We continue our Olympic preview series with a look at Czech Republic. If you'd like to check out the previous articles in the series, here they are:
The Czechs are the world's heaviest consumers of beer. Hockey is in their DNA. Let's meet their national hockey team, currently #4 in the IIHF world ranking.
The design of the jerseys they will be wearing has been revealed, and they obviously sport the faux neck laces that Nike decided to bestow upon all of us, although the one on the right featuring the Czech flag looks otherwise really nice. It remains to be seen whether good-looking sweaters can help them medal, though.
OLYMPIC HISTORY AND WORLD RANKING
The Czech Republic as an independent country only goes back 20 years. Similar to what we've seen following the break-up of Soviet Union and Yugoslavia into multiple independent countries, one (larger or largest) territory has essentially inherited the slots of the former union in international sports federations.
The former Czechoslovakia was a formidable hockey power, founding member of the International Ice Hockey Federation dating back to 1908, and an Olympic participant since the first winter games in Antwerp in 1920, winning 8 medals (4 silver and 4 bronze) through its last participation in Albertville in 1992.
Following its dissolution and creation of Czech Republic and Slovakia, the world of hockey saw two great teams emerge from where once a giant stood, and the Czechs won their first and only Olympic gold in Nagano in 1998, which were the first winter Olympics to include NHL players. Since then, the Czechs have followed a pattern of winning a medal every other tournament: the gold in Nagano was followed by a whiff in Salt Lake City, bronze in Turin and a quarterfinals loss in Vancouver, so this would mean they are set to medal, right? Let's take a look.
PRE-OLYMPIC CONSIDERATION ROSTER
Unlike Canada, Russia, Sweden and the United States, the Czech Republic didn't hold an actual pre-Olympic camp, but they did at least release a list of players being considered for the Olympic roster.
Forwards: Roman Cervenka; Radek Dvorak; Patrik Elias; Martin Erat; Tomas Fleischmann; Michael Frolik; Martin Hanzal; Martin Havlat; Ales Hemsky; Tomas Hertl; Roman Horak; Petr Hubacek; Jiri Hudler; Zbynek Irgl; Jaromir Jagr; Lukas Kaspar; Jakub Klepis; Petr Koukal; Jan Kovar; David Krejci; Milan Michalek; Vaclav Nedorost; Petr Nedved; Jiri Novotny; Rostislav Olesz; Ondrej Palat; Jakub Petruzalek; Tomas Plekanec; Vaclav Prospal; Tomas Rolinek; Martin Ruzicka; Vladimir Sobotka; Jiri Tlusty; Tomas Vincour; Michal Vondrka; Jakub Voracek; Radim Vrbata; Petr Vrana
Defensemen: Michal Barinka; Miroslav Blatak; Petr Caslava; Radko Gudas; Jan Hejda; Tomas Kaberle; Jakub Kindl; Lukas Krajicek; Filip Kuba; Zdenek Kutlak; Tomas Kundratek; Radek Martinek; Zbynek Michalek; Tomas Mojzis; Jakub Nakladal; Ondrej Nemec; Filip Novak; Roman Polak; Michal Rozsival; Ladislav Smid; Petr Zamorsky; Marek Zidlicky
Goaltenders: Jakub Kovar; Petr Mrazek; Michal Neuvirth; Ondrej Pavelec; Alexander Salak; Jakub Stepanek; Tomas Vokoun
This is a tremendous list, with 45+ NHL players on it. Did you know there are more Czechs than Russians currently in the NHL? [By the way, ever since I started doing this series, I've been in love with QuantHockey. Aside from BehindTheNet, I spend more time on that site than on any other hockey site. They have incredible data - check it out!] But I digress. Let's see which of these guys make the team.
Goaltenders: Alexander Salak, Michal Neuvirth, Ondrej Pavelec
They won't have Vokoun, so this suddenly becomes a questionable group that doesn't fill me with too much confidence. The only NHL starter in this group is the struggling Ondrej Pavelec, who by February will have played in more than 50 games the way things are going. My guess is that Salak, who's having an excellent season so far for SKA St. Petersburg (1.70 GAA, .938 SV%), will be the starter, or perhaps Neuvirth.
Defensemen: Marek Zidlicky, Jakub Kindl, Radko Gudas, Jan Hejda, Zbynek Michalek, Ladislav Smid, Michal Rozsival, Andrej Sustr
This is a decent and experienced group, although I know Filip Kuba is missing (he's currently a free agent). For now, this is my 8. Nothing flashy, just solid.
Forwards: Centers - David Krejci, Jiri Hudler, Tomas Hertl, Tomas Plekanec, Martin Hanzal, Vladimir Sobotka; right wings - Radim Vrbata, Jaromir Jagr, Michael Frolik, Jakub Voracek; left wings - Tomas Fleischmann, Milan Michalek, Patrik Elias, Ondrej Palat
It was no easy task paring the list above down to 14. The Czechs are very well balanced position-wise, and Jagr is still producing very well so I think he gets a spot without a question, should he want it. In the end I cut Erat, Hemsky and Tlusty because they are currently producing less than the other guys. If someone else slows down or maybe an injury happens, some of these guys could make the team. As of right now, these are the most productive Czech forwards.
MEET THE COACHES
Following the 2010 Olympic and World Championships campaigns, the Czech have made a change at the top, replacing legendary former Oiler Vladimir "Rosey" Ruzicka with Alois Hadamczik. Hadamczik had previously coached the Czech national team from 2006-2008, including the bronze medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Strength: Speed and balance at forward, experience on defense
Weaknesses: Definitely goaltending. Their best and most experienced goalie is on long-term anti-coagulant therapy. Their best healthy goalie doesn't play in the NHL and will never have seen most of the players that will be shooting in his direction. It will be an issue for the Czech team.
The Sochi organizers are either oracles or have inadvertently stumbled on the most intrigue-filled Olympic opener ever that doesn't feature Russia or Canada. The Czechs were drawn in Group C, along with Sweden, Switzerland, and Latvia. They first play the reigning world champions Sweden at the Bolshoi Ice Dome to open the Sochi men's hockey tournament on February 12 at noon EST, then Latvia followed by the surprising 2013 world runners-up Switzerland. I don't think they can beat Sweden in the opener, although they have enough difference-makers on the team to defeat the rest of their group (although they'd better bring their A game for the Swiss, who are hell-bent on returning to hockey prominence). The Czechs will be ranked 5-8 after the group stage, will win the qualification playoff game against a 9-12 team, and in the quarterfinals will lose to a top 4 (bye) team, essentially repeating their 2010 outcome.
Even if they beat Sweden and go 3-0 in group play, I still don't see them plowing through to the semis backstopped by Salak/Pavelec/Neuvirth. Goaltending is paramount at the Olympics, and in the absence of Vokoun, who shut out Russia 3-0 in 2006 to burnish the bronze for the Czechs, I don't think they can repeat that success with their current goaltending lineup.
For the end, let's go on a little trip down memory lane and remember what I think was the greatest shootout ever: Canada vs. Czech Republic, semifinals in Nagano 1998. Dominik Hasek in one crease, Patrick Roy in the other. Canadian shooters were Theo Fleury, Ray Bourque, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros and Brendan Shanahan. The Dominator saved them all, paving the way to gold for the Czechs.
Thanks for reading. Next Sunday, our Olympic hockey train makes a stop in beautiful, cold, and fabulous Finland.