Slovakia has only two medals to show from the World Junior Hockey Championships, and repeating the feat of a 2005 Bronze Medal performance seems out of reach barring any sort of holiday miracle.
One thing Slovakia will be striving towards is an improvement over the 1 win, 8th place finish in the 2019 tournament. Despite a tight game with the USA in their opening game of the 2019 tournament, a game in which they actually were leading 1-0 enter the final 20 minutes, Slovakia was not able to garner a win until the last preliminary game they played against Kazakhstan.
Team Slovakia will start the 2020 tournament against the only team they managed to defeat in 2019, Team Kazakhstan. This could be just what this team needs to gain confidence and momentum in what will be a challenge the remainder of the tournament. From here, Slovakia faces Finland and Switzerland before ending the preliminary round against the always skilled Team Sweden.
Slovakia should slot into a quarterfinals match-up. The question will be whether they go as the Pool A third or fourth seed. Slovakia should open the tournament with a win, creating a must watch December 30th tilt with Switzerland.
The foundation of any team starts with the masked man that stands between the pipes. A goalie can be a difference maker whether it be on the positive or negative end of the spectrum. For Slovakia to make a push for a quarterfinal appearance, they will need a solid performance from their keepers. Moving beyond this round will require games to be outright stolen.
The man that will undoubtedly get the nod is only one of two returnees from the 2019 tournament team. Samuel Hlavaj, the 6-foot-3, 213 lbs net minder is tops in the QMJHL with a 2.14 goals against average, .925 save percentage and three shutouts, playing the starter role as a rookie with the Sherbrooke Phoenix.
Backing up Hlavaj on the roster will be Jakub Lackovic and Samuel Vyletelka. Similar to Hlavaj, Lackovic is another big body standing at 6’3, 190 lbs. He has spent the majority of his time with the Slovakia U20 league, but has also dressed in the Slovakia 2 league this season. Lackovic did complete in the U20 Four Nations Tournament and posted less then stellar numbers. Samuel Vyletelka stands 6’2”, 194 lbs and opts to continue to play in North American in the NAHL with the Minnesota Magicians. Vyletelka has posted respectable numbers thus far in the NAHL and will make a strong case to be Hlavaj’s direct backup.
Marcel Dlugos will be the lone returning skater for the team and will be relied on heavily to provide leadership to this inexperienced group. Dlugos stands 6’4, 207 lbs and spends the majority of his playing time in Slovakia’s top league. He also put a strong performance in at the Four Nations tournament. Dlugos will be looked upon to bring another strong performance on the World Junior stage.
After Dlugos, Slovakia will carry an additional seven defenseman. Three of the remaining seven are 19 year old’s, two 18 year old’s and two 17 year old’s. You could see the younger brass on the back end competing for more ice time on the Slovakia team, particularly Samuel Knako. Knako plays in the Finnish Jr. A league where he has 22 points in 32 games. He also received the nod to play on the Four Nations team where he played top four minutes.
With the Slovakia style of play and systems, offense is tough to come by. One man they will be leaning on to put the puck in the net is Maxim Cajkovic. Cajkovic is the only drafted player suiting up for Slovakia. He was selected in round 3 number 89 overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Cajkovic only dressed in 16 games with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL this season. Despite this, the strong skating shooter has amassed 22 points in these games.
Helping Cajkovic on the offensive end will be WHL standout Oliver Okuliar. Okuliar is currently playing with the Lethbridge Hurricanes where he has put together 42 points in 32 games. This includes 23 goals which is good enough to be sitting second in WHL scoring. Although passed over in the NHL Draft, Okuliar is looking for a strong World Junior performance to prove his worth.
Like Okuliar, Martin Fasko-Rudas also laces up in North America, playing for the WHL’s Everett Silvertips. Although plagued by injuries much of this season, hindering him to only dressing in 17 games, Fasko-Rudas is expected to play a significant role up front.
Rounding out the forwards on Team Slovakia will be two additional 18 year olds in Michal Mrazik and Dominik Jendek. The remaining spots are filled with eight 19 year olds. The 19 year old forwards have played together in the Four Nations tournament and will hope to bring some chemistry into this tournament.
Can They Compete?
It should be safe to say Team Slovakia will be set to play in a Quarterfinal matchup, assuming Kazakhstan does not pull off any upset. This seems to be where they will once again run out of gas and settle for a similar result as last year. With an inexperienced squad and relying on the younger players to compete, a better outcome does not seem plausible. One man that could change this outcome is Hlavaj.
Slovakia Group A Schedule 2020:
Friday, December 27th: Slovakia vs Kazakhstan
Saturday, December 28th: Slovakia vs Finland
Monday, December 30th: Slovakia vs Switzerland
Tuesday, December 31st: Slovakia vs Sweden
Photo credit Slovakia Hockey.