The Slovakian hockey program has always punched above its weight, turning in some of the more memorable performances at the World Junior Hockey Championships. They went from the third division in 1994 to being a mainstay in the Top Division in 1996.
They have had their relegation scares, including twice in their first five years at the top level. In what is emblematic of their history of this tournament, those two scares just happened to be bookended around their first bronze medal.
Slovakia’s medal history has been historically tied to star players and great goaltending. Their bronze in 1999 came from a team of Marian Hossa, Ladislav Nagy, Marian Gaborik, and Jan Lasak. Their 2005 tournament saw the team fight in the relegation round despite a 4-2 record from Jaroslav Halak. In 2009, Tomas Tatar tried to almost single-handedly take home a bronze, but the Slovaks fell in the third-place game despite his seven goals and four assists in seven games. In 2015, Martin Réway and Denis Godla were behind the nation’s second medal at the WJHC.
This year, the team will likely look a lot younger than usual. Without the threat of relegation (the same 10 teams will be back next year), the Slovaks have three skaters born in 2004 on their extended camp roster. All three of Simon Nemec (D), Filip Mesar (F), and Juraj Slafkovsky (F) have a chance to make the final roster.
Likewise, they only have 14 2001-born players at camp, three of whom are goaltenders. One 2001-born player who was a curious omission from the roster was Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick Maxim Cajkovic, who was removed from the team’s camp due to a “gross violation of sports and human values”. It has been reported that Cajkovic had several dirty hits at camp during scrimmages.
Team Slovakia final roster
|#||Player||Position||League||Current team (NHL)|
|#||Player||Position||League||Current team (NHL)|
|29||Samuel Hlavaj||G||QMJHL||Sherbrooke Phoenix|
|30||Simon Latkoczy||G||Tipos Liga||HK Dulka Tencin|
|1||Eugen Rabcan||G||Tipos Liga||HC Banska Bystrica|
|3||Simon Becar||D||Tipos Liga||HK Dukla Tencin|
|24||Andrej Golian||D||Tipos Liga||HC Detva|
|20||Simon Knazko||D||Finland U20||TPS Turku U20 (CBJ)|
|4||David Mudrak||D||Tipos Liga||HC Kosice|
|5||Simon Nemec||D||Tipos Liga||HK Nitra|
|12||Rayen Petrovicky||D||Finland U20||TUTO Hockey Turku|
|16||Marko Stacha||D||Tipos Liga||HK Dulka Tencin|
|23||Oliver Turan||D||Tipos Liga||HC Detva|
|8||Martin Chromiak||F||OHL||Kingston Frontenacs (LAK)|
|27||Juraj Elias||F||Tipos Liga||HC Kosice|
|9||Roman Faith||F||ICEHL||Bratislava Capitals|
|22||Maros Jedlicka||F||Tipos Liga||HK Zvolen|
|19||Simon Jellus||F||Sweden U20||Karlskrona HK|
|14||Dominik Jendek||F||Tipos Liga||Slovan Bratislava|
|11||Matej Kaslik||F||QMJHL||Chicoutimi Sagueneens|
|13||Jakub Kolenic||F||Tipos Liga||HK Zvolen|
|15||Filip Mesar||F||Tipos Liga||HK Poprad|
|25||Michal Mrazik||F||Sweden U20||Linköping HC|
|10||Oleksiy Myklukha||F||QMJHL||Rouyn-Noranda Huskies|
|18||Juraj Slafkovsky||F||Finland U20||TPS Turku|
|7||Dominik Sojka||F||Tipos Liga||HC Banska Bystrica|
|17||Artur Turansky||F||USHL||Youngstown Phantoms|
The strength of this Slovak team may very well be in goal. Their expected starter is Samuel Hlavaj, who has the experience of being the team’s starter at the last two World Junior tournaments, which is almost unheard of at an age-based tournament such as this one.
Hlavaj had a great season with the Sherbrooke Phoenix of the QMJHL last year, earning All-Rookie Team and Second All-Star Team nods, and was named the league’s defensive rookie of the year. He also earned a call to play in the CHL’s Top Prospects Game, but wasn’t selected in the NHL Draft. He was 33-3-2 with a 2.25 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in his rookie QMJHL season.
They will have some help on the defensive side of the puck with Samuel Knazko, a 2020 third-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Rayen Petrovicky. Petrovicky also happens to be the son of the team’s coach and former NHL player, Robert, but has been very successful in Finland’s Junior league.
Offensively, Martin Chromiak may be their top player. The 2020 fifth-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings had over one point per game for the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs last year.
The major strength of this Slovak team may be the lack of pressure. With no relegation, their group of Canada, Finland, Germany, and Switzerland doesn’t seem as daunting, and they do have a chance to steal a win in the group.
While Hlavaj has experience at the World Juniors, he has struggled in his first two years at the tournament. He has a 2-5 record with a goals-against average of 4.63 and save percentage of .860. That isn’t entirely his fault, as his team finished eighth in both of those years.
Offensively, the roster is a bit thin, which is made worse by the absence of Cajkovic. There aren’t many drafted players on this Slovak team, so being without one is a significant blow. You have to wonder whether he would have been there despite his actions at camp in a normal situation.
This team can match up with Germany, Switzerland, and Austria in a potential battle for the final spots. The fact that they have had no positive COVID-19 tests in camp or in the bubble means that they don’t have to deal with any of those issues and can concentrate on putting their best foot forward on the ice.
This Slovak team will go nowhere if Chromiak, Hlavaj, and Knazko don’t perform well, but if they want to really make noise at the tournament some of the supporting cast will need to step up.
Oleksii Myklukha, a 2002-born player who played 21 games with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL, is eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft. He has Ukrainian ancestry but grew up and played hockey in Slovakia, similar to one of the legends of Slovakian hockey, Peter Bondra. He is also a product of the Red Bull Salzburg academy. He had 12 points in 12 games at the U-18 level internationally a year ago.
Another player to watch should he make the final roster is Juraj Slafkovsky. Despite being 16 years old, he is already 6’4” and 218 pounds. He is in the TPS Turku program, and has four goals and four assists in 13 games in Finland’s Junior league. He isn’t eligible for the NHL Draft until 2022, but is coming off a season in which he had 22 goals and 30 assists in 39 games at the under-18 level.
Patrik Bexell contributed additional reporting to this preview.