2023 World Junior Championship preview: Czech squad
On August 14, 2022, the Czech Republic suffered one of the most disappointing losses in recent history.
They lost 5-2 to a Latvian team that under normal circumstances would not have even taken part. Fast forward to August 17 and they managed to eliminate previously unbeaten Team USA 4-2 after an incredible performance by Tomas Suchanek in the crease.
The Czechs go into the 2023 tournament with a squad that any major power should be worried about. A gold medal seems unlikely, but after finishing fourth this summer they are confident that they can fight for a medal again this year.
Here’s a breakdown of what the Czechs will bring to Halifax in Group A:
Detroit Red Wings’ Jan Bednar was supposed to be “the guy” for the Czech Republic last year – until he wasn’t. Tomas Suchanek eventually took over and led the team to a shock win over the Czech Republic before Canada found it difficult. He’s back for a second go-around, with the Czech looking to build on a strong performance in August to make the difference for a team that often struggles to qualify for the quarter-finals. The uncollected keeper has by no means incredible stats in recent years. Still, he’s basically a workaholic everywhere he goes, and he’s no stranger to game-saving performance. He’s coming into the tournament in the middle of a five-game winning streak, so he’s confident.
Olivier Saty, a 19-year-old comrade, was to serve as the main substitute. He had a rough time with the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Eagles before joining the Czech Republic, but he leads all goaltenders with three shutouts. He works hard there after playing 21-3-4 with the Charlottetown Islanders last year. He’s competed in every international event he’s played for the Czech Republic, so his experience could come in handy.
The fight for the backup role will be 6ft 3in tall Daniel Kral, who played in different leagues in the Czech Republic this year. He had a great season in the Czech U-20 league and played even better in the Czech second division. He was part of the canceled WJC but hasn’t returned for the summer – he does have full national team experience though.
The Czechs don’t have an elite goalkeeper this year, but they have three capable of fighting for the top spot and that’s a good thing.
If the blue line looks familiar, it’s because five players are returning from the 2022 tournament. It starts with David Jiricek, who has been one of the best defensemen in the AHL this season regardless of age. The Columbus Blue Jackets had him simmering in Cleveland and he was excellent, so it’s only a matter of time before he vies for a role as first couple with the big club. It’s a big piece for the Czech Republic.
He is endorsed by Ottawa Senators Prospect Thomas Hamar, is currently in its first year in North America. He was one of the top attacking defenders in international U-18 competition last year and showed promise with OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. Hamara, a 2022 third-round pick, is expected to see an Ice Age extension from the 2022 tournament and is eligible to return in 2024.
You will have too Stanislav Swozil and David Spacek at your disposal. Svozil, another CBJ pick, is close to hitting the 80-point mark as a defender with WHL’s Regina Pats as a sophomore and should build on his two World Junior performances in big style. Spacek is one of the best attacking defenders in the QMJHL and could take his time on the power play with the Czechs.
With this core four, the Czechs should be able to assert themselves in the defensive zone. Add a new prospect for the Florida Panthers Mark Alscher, and it’s a group with a significant NHL affiliation. Regarding unconscripted talent David Moravec has started to adjust better to the smaller North American ice as ice weather continues to hit Halifax, which could help it early.
The Czechs will have drafted six candidates in the NHL, including the first-round Buffalo Sabers Jiri Kulich open the way. After leading the U-18s with nine goals in six games and then eight points at the Summer Worlds, Kulich has settled in well in his freshman year in North America with Rochester Americans in the AHL. It didn’t take long for him to get into his rhythm and had ample opportunity to flourish in the team system. After his race this summer, expectations are still high for Kulich this year.
The Czechs will be at the forefront with seven players who are at least 6ft 3in or taller. Yaroslav Chmelar, a New York Rangers prospect, thrived as a rookie at Providence College and will have a big role to play with the juniors after suffering three-game injuries in the summer tournament. He’s not someone to play with, both physically and offensively.
If you’re a Vegas Golden Knights fan, you’ll want to pay close attention Jacob Brabenec and Matys Sapovaliv. Brabenec has been one of Charlottetown’s top scorers in the last two QMJHL seasons and is poised to join the U-20 team after playing a couple of games last year. Sapovaliv is a returning player but is expected to play more after racking up a point a game with Saginaw.
Martin Rysavy is a steady name in the Czech national team’s ranking program and is back for his second start with the U-20 side. He’s had a quiet year with the Moose Jaw Warriors, but Columbus’ seventh-round pick is tough enough to knock down the puck and can take penalties.
There are also Peter houses, which the Devils won in the fifth round last year. If it aligns you physically, it can decimate you. He’s strong and has experience against the men with Praha this year, but his role will be more about playing tough.
Aside from the NHL-drafted prospects, Luke Pajer has put in a decent performance with the U-20 team this year. But most of all, if you were a fan of Ivan Ivan in the past, you will love it Marcel-Marcel – not only because of his name, but he hits hard and has a great wristshot too.
NHL draft watch
A projected top 10, all eyes will be on it Sale Edward. The striker, born in 2005, has spent the whole year in the top men’s league and cut a good figure despite his age. He has one of the brightest minds in the draft, especially when it comes to decision making. Add to this a quick release and a good work ethic and there’s a lot to love. Being a small prospect shouldn’t hurt him – Sale will play a bit.
The identity of this team is clear: they will be difficult to play against. They may not have the best depth at any given position, but they have size, a keen eye for goals and solid goalkeeping. I don’t think they’re favorites in the quarterfinals against Finland or the USA, but they’re definitely solid clashes for them and I wouldn’t be surprised if they win. They need strong goalkeepers, but this quarter-final game is their game for the gold medal regardless of their opponent.
December 26 c. Canada – 6:30 p.m. ET
December 27 vs Austria – 6:30pm ET
December 29 vs Sweden – 1:30pm ET
December 31 vs Germany – 1:30pm ET