Without Jaromir Jagr, and with some blatant holes in the lineup, the Czechs need help from the hockey gods to contend.
THN is rolling out team previews, twice a day, for each of the eight teams taking part in the World Cup. We start with the Czech Republic.
- Saturday, Sept. 17 vs. Canada
- Monday, Sept. 19 vs. Europe
- Thursday, Sept. 22 vs. United States
IIHF World Ranking: 6th
THN's Prediction: 8th
If you're not old enough, this might be difficult to believe, but there was a time when the Czech Republic was the best hockey nation in the world. Really. From 1996 through 2001, the Czechs won an Olympic gold medal, four world championships (plus two bronze medals) and two world junior championships.
Since then, however, the Czechs have gone from stars to extras on the international hockey stage. The Czechs are the only ‘Big Six’ country that failed to medal in the past four world championships, and since winning it all in 2010, their average finish has been fifth. Since taking gold in the under-20 event in 2001, they have medalled just once and finished, on average, sixth. They surprised with a silver at the under-18s in 2014 but have never won the tournament.
In the span of two decades, the Czechs have shifted from expecting victory to hoping to be competitive. And that will be the case at the World Cup as the Czechs, without arguably the greatest NHL player they have ever produced, try to run with hockey’s big boys.
With Jaromir Jagr retiring from international competition, the Czechs are a team in transition. They have plenty of youth but little depth. In Detroit Red Wings stopper Petr Mrazek, they boast a goaltender who can steal games. At forward, they have considerable talent, though they've lost some players to injury, most notably David Krecji and Tomas Hertl.
As has been the case for the Czechs in recent years, depth is a weakness. This glaring hole is most prominent on defense, where five of the seven players on the roster are right shots and none would be considered a member of a top pair for any NHL team. In fact, all would struggle to even be a second-pair defenseman in the NHL.
That could make things ugly for this team, one that is decent but not great offensively and likely won’t be able to score its way out of trouble. And if it is relying on its goaltending to do the job, you know it will be because opposing teams are spending an awful lot of time in the Czechs’ defensive zone and not allowing their offensive players to be creative.
Almost everything would have to go right for the Czechs and horribly wrong for a number of other teams for this squad to even finish in the top half of the tournament. Without Jagr, the Czechs have much to prove and should have no problem motivating themselves for games. Winning them? That will be a lot more difficult.
DAVID PASTRNAK has battled inconsistency during his young NHL career in Boston, but he’s been as steady as they come on the international stage. In his past four appearances for his country, Pastrnak has four goals and 20 points in 22 games. The Czechs need a player to build around – particularly with Jagr stepping aside – and Pastrnak is the leading candidate. He’ll move closer to that role by making a statement at the World Cup.
Roman Polak and Zbynek Michalek are arguably the three best defensemen on the roster. In a tournament that is bound to be locomotive-fast, it could leave the Czech blueline sorely exposed. The key will be slowing opponents through the neutral zone and mitigating the rush. Coach Josef Jandac and his staff will be tasked with devising game plans that accomplish those goals and insulate the D-corps.