Petr Mrazek was left of the Czech roster last year, but he's there for the goalie-starved club this time around. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
Someone always has to stay home. It’s a fact of life a team can only have so many members and those talented enough to play outnumber the spots available. So with rosters for the World Junior Championship either set or getting pretty close, I just hope teams take the players they want and don’t discount anyone for political reasons.
The two countries that get brought up the most when this issue arises are the United States and the Czech Republic.
Starting off in the Czech Republic, the issue usually revolves around the talent drain leading players to major junior hockey in North America. This has been a serious problem for the Czechs, whose under-20 program has been flagging for years now. Top prospects leave for North America and the local teams don’t get the financial compensation they’re looking for in return – plus they’ve lost a marquee player that might attract some attention from Czech fans. In response, the Czech federation seems to have punished certain players who have jumped overseas.
“There’s the same chance it will happen again this year,” said one Czech scout. “They’re trying to keep the kids over here and they’ll do anything to stop them.”
Last year, Ottawa 67’s goaltender Petr Mrazek was left off the roster, despite being a Detroit Red Wings draft pick and one of the better netminders in the Ontario League, particularly in the playoffs the year prior. He’s there this year, but I have to wonder if it’s because the Czechs are in very serious danger of actually getting relegated and that would be worse than proving a point to a teenage eloper. The Czechs did, however, leave Patrik Bartosak off their preliminary roster. Bartosak happens to be one of the better netminders in the Western League this season and was even named Canadian League goaltender of the week in mid-October. Maybe the Czechs felt they only needed Mrazek for the tournament and Bartosak will get his shot next year. But wouldn’t Bartosak benefit from just being at the tournament? Curious.
With the Americans, there has long been the perception that Team USA punished kids who went the major junior route instead of the national team development program or college after that. Winnipeg’s Zach Bogosian, who played for the OHL ‘s Peterborough Petes, didn’t crack the 2008 squad, then promptly went third overall in the draft and straight to the NHL after that.
These days, it cannot be said the Americans discriminate. Nine players out of 30 on Team USA’s preliminary roster are from the CHL and both goaltenders are guaranteed to be OHLers in Jack Campbell and John Gibson (Andy Iles of Cornell has already been established as the emergency third-stringer). On top of that, both Campbell and Gibson famously dropped their commitments to the University of Michigan in successive years.
But one name that keeps coming up is Jared Knight of OHL London. Knight turned down the NTDP in 2008 to play for London and it seems to have haunted him ever since. This was his last year of eligibility for the world juniors and he is an integral member of the best major junior team in the nation. A high second round draft pick of the Boston Bruins, Knight seemed to have earned at least a shot at camp, but no invite came. For at least one NHL scout, there’s no conspiracy.
“There’s a lot of choices now for the U.S.,” he said. “It’s not like 20 or 30 years ago. Now there’s a larger pool, that’s just the reality. I’ve seen their staff at CHL rinks extensively. They don’t discriminate.”
Which I hope is the answer. Too much talent, only so many roster spots. The world juniors are something a player only gets a short window to participate in and then it’s gone forever. I hope politics don’t enter the equation when those tough decisions are made.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.