Sunday, March 8, 2009

2010 Olympic Preview Part III

The Velvet Sleeper #1

7. Czech Republic 

Just two Olympic tournaments removed from a Gold Medal in Nagano, the Czech team has, in my mind, moved to the bottom of the list of countries who are able to fill their rosters (at least almost) entirely with NHLers.  The Czechs will sleep on no one, having been considered among the elite in international hockey since that gold in ‘96, but they lack the top end talent that most of the other contenders have on their roster, and while they have good depth, it is not overwhelming, especially compared to that of the top end teams. 

Having said that, the Czechs certainly (and clearly) outclass any of the teams 8-12 in this list, and will likely be able to hang with most of the teams ranked ahead of them.  Young stars such as Erat, Krejci and Hemsky could very well step up and lead the Czechs into the medals, but I, for one, don’t see it as none of those three have legitimized themselves as top end NHL stars (even if Hemsky has the talent to), and they will need to carry veterans who will likely be behind the pace of play in British Columbia.

Line 1

Ales Hemsky (LW-EDM) – Robert Lang (C-MTL) – David Krejci (LW- BOS)

The first line for the Czechs is certainly not overwhelming considering that they will likely be considered a contender heading into Vancouver.  All three of these players are certainly potent scorers, but the Czech team lacks a headline scorer.  Hemsky is likely the most skilled player on the squad (and indeed one of the most skilled in the tournament), but he has been inconsistent throughout his career in Edmonton.  Hemsky will dazzle at times, seeming able to put the puck in the net at will, yet at other times he seems soft and disinterested.  Which Hemsky shows up in February 2010 will be a key question (possibly the key question) for the Czech team.

Placing Lang at center on the first line may actually be optimistic.  The Montreal star recently suffered one of the more gruesome and painful sounding injuries in recent memory when another player’s skate slipped between the heel of the skate and the back of Lang’s leg, slicing through his sock and severing Lang’s Achilles tendon.  Placing him here is assuming that he will recover fully and be the player he was prior to the injury.  If he is, Lang is a gifted scorer who should flourish with a talented

Krejci is also a question mark for the Czechs.  He has certainly put up numbers worthy of a first line spot in 2008-2009 (+31, 59 points through 61 games), but this greatly outstrips his career pace.  Krejci is young (22 years old), so it is only logical that his production will increase with successive seasons, but that is not to say that a 5 month tear guarantees that he is an elite talent in international play.  I am giving Krejci the benefit of the doubt here, and placing him with Lang and Hemsky, but the Czechs likely won’t know what they have in the Boston youngster until shortly before the tournament.

Line 2

Patrick Elias (LW- NJD) – Martin Havlat (C-CHI) – Martin Erat (RW-NSH)

The second line for the Czechs is still a formidable scoring threat.  Havlat is similar to Hemsky in that he is outrageously skilled, but sometimes lacks the grit and drive to make the most of his gifts.  Unlike Hemsky, who is young, and beginning to come into his own as a player, Havlat has been in the NHL for 8 seasons, and has only maintained point per game production (the most relevant figure, as injuries have kept him from playing a single full season) twice in his career (’03-’04 and ’05-’06), something that should come easily to a player with the natural ability of Havlat.  The fact remains, however, that Havlat is extraordinarily skilled and is capable of having a huge tournament.  By that logic, he would be capable of being a first liner (as he may have to be should Lang be unable to recover).

Elias has had something of a resurrection in New Jersey this year.  Through just 65 games, the left winger has 69 points, equaling the highest mark he has put up since the 2003-2004 campaign.  Appearing healthy for the first time in years, even at 33, Elias should be a key component on the Czech’s second scoring line.

Finally, Erat will round out the second line.  Erat has never put up top tier numbers (his career highs are 23, 41 and 57), but he has never played with elite talent either.  Erat could likely thrive on a team where he is not expected to create as much, as will be the case with the Czech team.

Line 3

Milan Hejduk (LW- COL)  – Milan Michalek (LW- SJ)  – Ales Kotalik (RW- EDM)

This line is the best example of the Czech’s strengths.  For a third line, it is extremely talented.  If the Czechs are to establish themselves as a top tier team in the Olympics, it will be because teams from the Germans to the Slovakians and even Fins cannot hang once they get into the third and fourth lines.

As for the actual makeup of the line, I would put Michalek, who plays wing in San Jose in the middle, mainly because I believe that he can complement these two, and he has the size and speed to be a good center, even in a tournament as chalked full of top talent as this.  Kotalik is a pure sniper who can shoot with the best of them, but has a limited game.  Putting him with a playmaker like Michalek should maximize his effectiveness.  (For a read on Kotalik, one is better going to YouTube than

Hejduk, is also extremely adept at putting the puck in the net.  He has scored 50 goals (in 2003) and has scored 24 through 65 games this year despite playing with one of the worst teams in the league.  Hejduk is also a consistent plus player (this season is the first time he has ever been a minus), something that is key for a third liner. 

This line could just as easily be a first or second.  Scorers like Kotalik and Hejduk on a third line is something that anyone (even the Canadians, Americans, Swedes, Russians etc) would love to have.  Despite not having a natural center, Michalek’s size and skating, and Hedjuk’s defensive ability should enable the Czech coaches to match them up with anyone.

Line 4

Petr Sykora (LW- PIT) – Jiri Hudler (C- DET) – Jaromir Jagr (RW- KHL)

Admittedly, it is doubtful that, should he chose to play, the most celebrated hockey player in Czech history will be relegated to the fourth line.  Having said that, the KHL is certainly not at the same level as the NHL (yet, at any rate), and Jagr isn’t getting any younger (he will turn 38 during the tournament.  Combine that with the fact that he registered just 71 points in his last year in the NHL (a solid number, but it will be two years ago by the time the tournament starts). 

The fact is, unless Jagr can turn back the clock, this is a fairly underwhelming line.  Sykora has decent numbers, but most of his production comes on one timers and rebounds from Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby.  Even if the Czechs had players of that ilk, they have more complete, better suited options to clean up (such as Krejci and Kotalik).  Hudler, the center on this line is fine, but uninspiring.  He has played well for Detroit (50 points in 66 games), but is really more of a very good third liner (he is in Detroit, and doesn’t see a lot of checking lines), whereas most of the contending teams will be made up of first and second liners

Defense 1

Roman Hamerlik (MTL) – Tomas Kaberle (TOR)

Defense 2

Michal Roszival (NYR) – Pavel Kubina (TOR)

Defense 3

Marek Zidlicky (MIN) – Filip Kuba (OTT)

This is a truly uninspiring group.  So uninspiring, in fact, that I can’t even bring myself to break them down pair by pair.  All of these guys are fine, and shouldn’t necessarily sink the Czechs, but none of them are really elite defensemen.   Kaberle and Hamerlik were both all-stars, but Hamerlik because of heavily skewed voting by the Montreal fans and Kaberle as the representative of a putrid Toronto team.  One through six they have viable options, but this really is neither a strength nor a weakness for the Czechs.


Tomas Vokoun (NSH) (starter) – Andrej Pavelec (ATL) (backup)

Vokoun is really the only option available to the Czechs.  Luckily for them, he is a good one.  Vokoun has been an important part of Florida’s turnaround this season.  Vokoun has posted a .926 Save Percentage, a 2.47 GAA for a Panther team that is 6th in the Eastern Conference despite registering just 2.79 goals per game.  If Vokoun goes down, the Czechs are in major trouble, Pavelec has only played in 11 games as Atlanta’s third string goalie, but he is the best option for the Czechs backup.  With him, however, they have a solid option at goaltender.

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