It hasn’t been easy for Slovakia at the World Junior Hockey Championship in the 30 years it’s been an independent nation. Nearly every year, the team fights just to stay in the Top Division, rarely rising from the lowest spots in the standings, but, critically, never ending up in last place and getting relegated. They’ve had remarkable consistency finishing around the seventh or eighth position in the tournament, perched on the fence between the top hockey countries in the world and those a step lower.
Improving their standing has been difficult with little funding available for the sport, and the end result has essentially been outsourcing the development of their young talent to other countries. Only seven members of the 28-player preliminary roster they selected play their 2021-22 seasons at home. There are eight who play in the Canadian Hockey League, and another six in U.S. Junior leagues.
Team Slovakia final roster
|#||Player||Position||League||Current team (NHL)|
|#||Player||Position||League||Current team (NHL)|
|1||Tomas Bolo||G||NAHL||St. Cloud Norsemen|
|2||Rastislav Elias||G||USHL||Green Bay Gamblers (2022)|
|30||Simon Latkoczy||G||USHL||Madison Capitols|
|5||Denis Bakala||D||Slovakia||HC 21 Presov|
|3||Simon Becar||D||USHL||Chicago Steel|
|6||Jozef Kmec||D||WHL||Prince George Cougars (2022)|
|12||Samuel Knazko||D||WHL||Seattle Thuderbirds (CBJ)|
|17||Simon Nemec||D||Slovakia||HK Nitra (2022)|
|7||Rayen Petrovicky||D||SM-sarja||TuTo Turku|
|16||Marko Stacha||D||WHL||Kamloops Blazers|
|4||Maxim Strbak||D||SM-sarja||Jokerit U20 (2023)|
|8||Martin Chromiak||F||OHL||Kingston Frontenacs (LAK)|
|19||Jakub Demek||F||WHL||Edmonton Oil Kings (VGK)|
|15||Dalibor Dvorsky||F||HockeyAllsvenskan||AIK (2023)|
|9||Roman Faith||F||IceHL||Bratislava Capitals|
|14||Maros Jedlicka||F||Slovakia||HKM Zvolen|
|11||Matej Kaslik||F||QMJHL||Chicoutimi Saguenèens|
|26||Samuel Krajc||F||Slovakia||HK Dukla Trencin|
|13||Jan Lasak||F||NAHL||Janesville Jets|
|21||Filip Mesar||F||Slovakia||HK Poprad 2022)|
|10||Oleksiy Myklukha||F||QMJHL||Blainville-Boisbriand Armada|
|18||Servac Petrovsky||F||OHL||Owen Sound Attack (2022)|
|20||Juraj Slafkovsky||F||Liiga||TPS Turku (2022)|
|23||Adam Sykora||F||Slovakia 2||HK Nitra (2022)|
|24||Pavol Stetka||F||Czechia U20||HC Dynamo Pardubice 2022)|
Several of those expatriates have gone on to improve their chances of playing in the NHL. Martin Chromiak used a good season with the Kingston Frontenacs to get drafted in the fifth round in 2020, while defenceman Samuel Knazko impressed the Finnish scout of the Columbus Blue Jackets enough to earn a third-round selection.
Chromiak has been a good playmaker in the Ontario Hockey League, and last year while playing back in Slovakia while the OHL was on pause. He knows he has a lot more to offer than the single point he managed at the World Juniors last year, especially given the level of offence he’d previously enjoyed in a Slovak jersey, so this will be his shot at redemption.
What the program would really like is a repeat performance from goaltender Simon Latkoczy one year later. Devon Levi and Spencer Knight grabbed all the headlines for how they played for the top two teams in the tournament, but Latkoczy was right behind them in save percentage, and five of the nine goals he allowed were scored while his team was short-handed. His numbers weren’t nearly as impressive in the USHL before that tournament, or since, but maybe a return to Alberta will rekindle that form.
Slovakia’s difficulty developing talent means they have to go beyond the typical range of 18- and 19-year-old players. They haven’t had the pool of talent to make a roster of the most mature, experienced players, and that youth could be the difference should they find themselves in the final minutes of a close game. There are 11 players on their preliminary roster who are in either their draft or draft-minus-one seasons, and while it could be from this group that the majority of the final cuts will come, there will be players who are a bit out of their depth in the lineup.
There is a group of players among those 11 who won’t be sent back home before the tournament starts. Juraj Slafkovsky, Filip Mesar, and Simon Nemec aren’t just going to ensure that Slovakia has the most prospects selected in the NHL Draft since 2018, but look very likely to make it three Slovaks taken in the opening round for the first time ever.
Mesar and Nemec are two players who didn’t head abroad to continue their hockey paths, but developed in their top domestic league. Mesar is a speedy, skilled forward who made the National Junior Team last year. Slafkovsky wasn’t only on the World Juniors squad in the 2021 tournament, but played in the World Championship later in the year. That double was also completed by Nemec, which is probably a more impressive feat for a defenceman. A great skater with a mind for offence, the 6’1”, right-shot blue-liner is expected to go very early in July.
All three of these players were part of the team that surprised a lot of people by claiming a silver medal at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in August, which they co-hosted in Piestany. Their top scorer wasn’t one of the mentioned group, but Dalibor Dvorsky, who had just turned 16, and had 12 points in five games. He’s also on the WJC squad this year, not eligible to be drafted until 2023.
That event was the first sign that Slovakia may be starting to turn its hockey fortunes around, starting at the grassroots level. All of these players are eligible for at least two more World Juniors tournaments after this one, provided that they’re not playing in the NHL before they hit 20 years of age.
The nation may have been flirting with relegation for much of its existence, but this tournament could be their chance to show they can compete with the major contenders. It shouldn’t be a shock if they finish significantly higher than eighth this time around, and perhaps for several years to come.