The Czechs win (screen cap from official video stream)
The nation has been hurting at the junior levels for years now, but there is finally light in the wilderness. A surprise gold medal at the under-18 tournament they co-host with Slovakia brings promise for the future.
The Czech Republic has co-hosted the under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament for more than a decade, yet never won gold. That all changed on the weekend, when the squad beat Team USA 4-3 in a thrilling final that has shone bright light on a national junior program that hasn't found many victories of late.
I asked an NHL team scout from the Czech Republic what it all meant.
"Finally, the Czech team played pretty good," he said. "It was a good combination of lines. Hopefully (the success) won't just be this year."
Indeed, perhaps the most promising thing about the Czech gold is that some of the best performers were also the youngest. Goaltender Jakub Skarek and left winger Filip Zadina are both late birthdays, so they won't even be eligible for the NHL draft until 2018. Others, such as forwards Ostap Safin. Filip Chytil and Martin Necas, certainly put themselves on the radar for 2017, as did Ondrej Machala – who scored the winning goal in the third period on a one-timer blast from the slot. Machala has committed to the OHL's Niagara Ice Dogs.
Along with the talent, I saw some pretty good coaching that helped the Czechs. The team played a fast, aggressive style that kept opponents on their heels. When they were protecting their 4-3 lead late against the Americans, the Czechs gave up very few scoring chances, even with Team USA pulling the goalie for an extra attacker. That coach? None other than former NHLer Vaclav Varada, who has been helming benches back home at both the junior and senior level for a couple years now.
"The coaches and the teams in the Czech Republic have made progress lately," said the scout.
All of this is great news for parity in hockey. While the Czechs have produced some good young players lately – Ondrej Palat, Jakub Voracek and Tomas Hertl all come to mind – they haven't exactly clustered together, meaning that international squads, particularly at the under-20 level, have had a hard time of making any traction. The same could be said for Slovakia (which co-hosts the Ivan Hlinka), though a surprise bronze at the Toronto world juniors definitely helped morale.
In the past few NHL drafts, we haven't seen a lot of Czech or Slovakian names selected, especially up top. But perhaps things are turning around. The scout I spoke with noted that young players have come over to North America to take part in camps and other events, which has helped them overall. But credit also must go to the teams back home.
Players such as Skarek, Zidina and Safin have already played games against men with their club teams and surely will see more action in 2016-17, even if it's just for a spell. Playing up is a great motivator and eye-opener for prospects.
Here's a couple more players from the tournament to keep an eye on for the 2017 draft:
Klim Kostin, RW, Russia – The best prospect in the tournament, according to the Czech scout. Kostin is big, smart and super-dangerous when it comes to creating offense.
Sasha Chmelevski, C, USA – Led the tournament in scoring with five goals and 10 points in five games. Talented kid plays for the OHL's Ottawa 67s and was acquired in the deal that sent Travis Konecny to Sarnia.
Maxime Comtois, LW, Canada – An absolute beast for a disappointing Canadian squad, Comtois scored two shorthanded goals on breakaways against Sweden. Size, smarts and skill.
Timothy Liljegren, D, Sweden – He and Erik Brannstrom are both highly acclaimed defensemen with offensive upside. Liljegren is bigger than Brannstrom and that ultimately may factor into draft standing, but there's a lot to like in both Swedes.
Ryan Poehling, C, USA – Boy, was he trouble for other teams. Poehling is a big kid who moves well and his advanced play makes his decision to fast-track to St. Cloud State for 2016-17 seem like a prudent decision.