The puck is set to drop for the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship on December 26 in Ostrava and Třinec Czech Republic. With their country hosting the tournament for it’s fourth time, Team Czech Republic will look to make a bigger push into the medal rounds after last year’s finish.
Last year’s tournament saw the Czech Republic go 1-1-0-2 for 5 points in pool play, before their run came to an end in Victoria, British Columbia in a 3-1 defeat by Team USA in the quarterfinals. Finishing outside the medal rounds extended a streak for the Czech Republic they would definitely like to turn around in front of their home crowd. The country has not won a medal since they captured the Bronze back in the 2005 tournament. But to do that they will have to contend with their group consisting of the United States, Canada, Russia, and Germany.
Goaltending looks to be the strongest position going into the tournament. Top goaltender and Anaheim Ducks prospect Lukas Dostal returns between the pipes, Dostal posted a 1.25 goals against average (GAA) and .957 save percentage (SV%) in four games in 2019. Behind Dostal, it still has yet to be determined who will occupy the backup spot, although Los Angeles Kings prospect and current Spokane Chiefs goaltender Lukáš Pařík is in the lead. However, 2020 NHL Draft prospects Jan Bednar and Nik Malik are poised to make names for themselves this year. Bednar and Malik have both represented the Czechs in the past two Hlinka Gretzky Cup tournaments, with Bednar posting a 4.47 GAA and .828 SV% last year, while in 2018 Malik’s numbers included a 3.85 GAA and .875 SV%. If Dostal is able to duplicate his performance from last year, and one of Parik, Bednar, or Malik can solidify their place as the number two, the Czechs are sure to have a formidable tandem in net.
A big boost for the Czechs will be a healthy Jakub Lauko, who is set to join the team after receiving permission from the Boston Bruins. Lauko will be making his third appearance in the Czech uniform in the World Juniors this year, and has combined for two goals and one assist in his previous two tournaments. He has recently been cleared to play after a significant injury earlier this season, which has limited him to just four goals and four assists in 18 games played with the American Hockey League Providence Bruins. However, if he can use the tournament to rejuvenate himself as the Bruins organization hopes for, Lauko could be a real thorn in the side of Czech opponents this year. A pair of Ontario Hockey League products are also projected to lead the way offensively for the Czech club, including Arizona Coyotes prospect and current Hamilton Bulldog Jan Jenik who has 22 goals and 36 assists in fifty games with Hamilton this season. While Matej Pakar of the Barrie Colts, selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the fourth round of the 2018 NHL Draft has notched 16 goals and 13 assists in twenty-six games this season, Pakar also tallied the lone goal in the Czech Republic’s pre tournament game 5-1 loss to Sweden. 2002 born forward Jan Mysak played in the team’s game against Sweden and is another player to watch as he continues putting himself in position to make the team ahead of the 2020 NHL Draft.
Defense looks to be an area where the Czechs are going to need some players to step up this year. Martin Hugo Has is projected to anchor the blue line for the team as he returns to Czech lineup from last year’s squad after hearing his name called in June by the Washington Capitals 153rd overall in the fifth round of the NHL Draft. A duo of Western Hockey League prospects, Simon Kubicek of the Seattle Thunderbirds, and Saskatoon Blades Radek Kucerik, will be a few of the other names to watch on the Czech Republic defense as they look to make an impact before hearing their names called in Montreal this spring at the NHL Draft.
Having the home crowd on their side will be a huge boost for the Czech Republic, with a tough field of competition ahead of them in pool play. The team has one more remaining pre-tournament game against Slovakia on December 22 before the preliminary round gets under way. The games for the Czechs are as follows:
26 December 2019: Czech Republic – Russia (9:00AM EST)
28 December 2019: Czech Republic – Germany (9:00AM EST)
30 December 2019: USA – Czech Republic (1:00PM EST)
31 December 2019: Canada – Czech Republic (1:00PM EST)
Photo credit Czech Ice Hockey Team (Twitter).