In continuation of PensBurgh's Olympic preview series, today we take a look at Slovakia. If you'd like to check out the previous articles in the series, here they are:
WORLD RANKING AND OLYMPIC HISTORY
The Slovak national team was formed following the breakup of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993. The Czechoslovakian national team was a hockey powerhouse that produced many of the great players of the 20th century. It was, however, completely dominated by Czechs. Following the separation, the Czechs also inherited the former country's IIHF rankings and stayed in pool A (top pool), while the Slovaks were jettisoned to pool C to start from the bottom. That relegation didn't last very long, and they were back in pool A by 1996. The Slovaks participated in every Olympic tournament since.
In the last 16 years, Slovakia has won four medals at the World Championships, including gold in 2002 in Sweden. In winter Olympic games, Slovakia's best result was 4th place in Vancouver 2010, where they beat favorites like Russia and Sweden, but lost to Canada in the semifinals and to Finland in the bronze-medal game. Here is a compilation of all their goals in Vancouver. They received an automatic berth for Sochi by virtue of being one of the top 9 countries after the 2012 WC in which they won silver, losing to Russia in the finals. They are currently #8 in IIHF world rankings.
The Slovakian Olympic jerseys are so far the best of the bunch. They are simple (but in the world of hockey sweaters less is always more) and very neat-looking. They feature the Slovakian flag and have horizontal pinstripes, which, if you look closer, are actually the words of their national anthem. Really nice touch.
Slovakia held their pre-Olympic orientation camp in early July in Vysoke Tatry. Of the 36 invited players only 27 were able to make it. Eight months later, here is my best guess of what their final roster will look like.
GOALIES: Jaroslav Halak, Peter Budaj, Rastislav Stana
The first two guys are locks. Halak was in net for all 7 games in Vancouver, backstopping them to their best Olympic finish ever, and will be their go-to guy in Sochi. The Canadiens' Peter Budaj will be his back-up. The third spot is up in the air and will come down to CSKA's Rastislav Stana or Slovan's Jaroslav Janus. Stana is having a better season of the two, posting a 2.33 GAA and .911 SV% in 23 starts. He will be 35 when Sochi rolls around and has a lot of experience, having played in the NHL, SEL and the KHL. Janus had a great season for Slovan last year and was a popular choice to earn a spot on the Olympic team, but this year he's cooled off considerably, with a 2.89 GAA and .892 SV% in 24 games.
DEFENSEMEN: Andrej Sekera (L), Zdeno Chara (L), Andrej Meszaros (L), Lubomir Visnovsky (L), Dominik Granak (L), Ivan Baranka (L), Peter Podhradsky (R), Kristián Kudroc (R)
Visnovsky's health is a huge concern for this team. He played in 8 games for the Isles in October before being placed on IR with a concussion. So far he's seen three specialists and still hasn't been cleared to skate, not at all a good sign. Meszaros is still horrible and has only dressed for 18 games so far, while being healthied the rest. Honestly he's the guy that should be dropped if they really want to take the 8 best guys. There are quite a few good Slovak defensemen in the KHL so there will be some tough decisions there. Granak, Baranka, Podhradsky and Kudroc (6'7") should make the team. Slovan's Michal Sersen and Martin Stajnoch, Vityaz's Branislav Mezei and Yugra's Tomas Starosta are on the outside looking in because there are only 8 spots available. If Lubo can't go, one of them will get the nod.
FORWARDS: Michal Handzus (C), Marian Hossa (RW), Marian Gaborik (RW), Richard Panik (RW), Tomas Tatar (LW), Tomas Kopecky (RW/C), Marcel Hossa (LW/RW), Milan Bartovic (LW/RW), Rastislav Spirko (LW), Tomas Zaborski (LW/RW), Tomas Jurco (RW/LW), Michel Miklik (RW/LW), Martin Cibak (C), Tomas Surovy (C/W)
Obviously the concern for the top Slovak line has been the injury to Marian Gaborik that limited him to 17 games so far. However, unlike Visnovsky, the news out of Columbus is good and Gaby is looking to suit up for the Blue Jackets early next week. Radivojevic and Satan are now both back with Slovan and, much as I love Miro, I think the time is for the Slovaks to look to the future and give youngsters like Jurco a chance to step up to the next level. Jurco's audition has just been moved to prime time, as he was called up last night to fill Abdelkader's spot on the Red Wings roster vacated courtesy of Deryk Engelland. He's been outstanding for Grand Rapids Griffins so far this year, posting 11g, 15a in 25 games, and I'll be excited to watch him against Tampa tonight. He'll get to play on a line with Pavel Datsyuk and Daniel Alfredsson. Not bad for your first career NHL game, eh? Marko Dano and Libor Hudacek are two other young and promising Slovan players who could get a chance at a spot.
MEET THE COACHES
Vladimir Vujtek is an experienced coach who's won the Russian Superleague twice with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in 2002 and 2003. He became head coach of the Slovakian national team in August 2011 and coached them to the silver medal at the 2012 WC, which was followed by a disappointing result this year.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Strengths: Goaltending is very, very solid. They have veteran leadership galore. This is not a team that will crumble when the going gets tough. They also have some excellent young players, and I think just the right combination of experience and youth.
Weaknesses: Lack of depth, especially at center. This team has some fantastic players up top, but the guys behind them aren't nearly as productive. For now they've been relatively lucky with injuries and of all their top players only Visnovsky may not make it. Also, their defense is not exactly the fleetest of foot (picture Chara and Mesz trying to chase down sexy Kessy).
Slovakia was drawn in Group A with USA, Slovenia and Russia (in that order of play). This is a really tough group and Slovenia will be their only clear chance to win, although both other games will probably be closely contested. They will be ranked 5-8 coming out of group play and will have to play a qualification game. They will make the quarters but not beyond, and will probably be in the running for 5th place. That said, neither the US nor Russia should underestimate them. The Slovaks are a good team, they have a real bond and they will leave their hearts on the ice before they accept a loss. If Halak is in top form, these guys could pull off a major upset.
That's it. My Cinderella team, Slovenia, is up next.