Friday, January 05, 2007
WJC: Slovaks Safe...for now...
Been there, done that, and have the media guide.
Like most Canadians, I haven’t been able to get much into the tournament, and can't watch the final game because it's on when we're AT WORK. Good job, IIHF, schedule the final game for when your prime TV audience is at work and can't watch the games. Even the NHL wouldn't be that stupid.
People have asked me to comment on the Slovaks' performance at this tournament, since every other blogger (except Greg) hates or doesn't give a rat's ass about Slovaks.
I picked the Slovaks to finish 7th, and the fact that they were in the relegation round was no surprise. The level of hockey talent has fallen drastically in the country since the fall of communism, and the Slovaks have had major troubles at this tournament in the past few years.
Going into yesterday's action, the Slovaks were in grave danger of being relegated, which is a fate I hadn't expected at all. I felt the Slovaks were a shoo-in to be safely in Pool A, and never thought they'd have to rely on another team to save their asses..
Thanks to a 9-0 beating over the fascist Belarussians, and a Swiss cheese victory over the Sauerkrauts, the Slovaks managed to save their Pool A lives by the slimmest of margins, finishing 8th overall.
Now, the decline of Slovak hockey has been fairly steep and I expect the country will struggle in the 2nd tier with the Germans, Swiss, and Belarussians for some time.
Look at the Slovak stars in the league. Most of them are in their prime or over 30. Marian Gaborik is the rare exception of a Slovak star produced after the Velvet Revolution. Demitra, Satan, Bondra, Visnovsky, Hossa, Chara, and Handzus were all products or partial-products of the 'old' system. Sure, there are some talented youngsters like Andrej Meszaros, but certainly nothing like the glory years.
Just to rehash some stuff I've probably already talked about...
After the 'fall', the Slovak government no longer pumped lots of money into the hockey programs and schools (Since most kids played hockey in elementary and high school in their city). The split of Czechoslovakia also left the Czechs with most of the rinks and resources, and left the Slovaks with a very weak economy.
Hockey has become a rich man's game, way more so than in Canada, Sweden, USA, and even Czechia. In relative terms, the average Slovak cannot afford to put their kids into hockey like the average family of most other big hockey countries. Many talented players never get a chance to play hockey, and a lot of the kids who do play hockey happen to be kids or relatives of former and current hockey players.
While the Slovaks will always continue to have a strong hockey culture, the level of talent is not likely to return to the high levels experienced in the 90s and early 00s for a long time. The Slovaks are basically a feeder service for many other European leagues, with the rare exceptional Meszaros type coming out of the woodwork once a year. The Slovaks will likely have major struggles at the senior level (WC, Olympics) when many of the current stars get old and retire.
Sure, Marian Gaborik is building a new rink on Trencin, but this won't help the average kid be able to afford expensive hockey equipment (in relative terms most equipment is priced higher in Europe than North America).
My Slovak friend, Daniel, also offered his take on why the Slovaks did so poorly at this tournament.
1. The development in Slovakia is poor. Plenty of kids leave to play in CHL and Czech leagues. All too often, it's a also case of stupid parents who think their kids are next Hossa, Gaborik or Palffy while they can't even skate.
2. Poor nominations. Richard Lelkes and Marcel Hascak are two regular Extraliga players who weren't nominated and Lukas Bohunicky is a WHLer who should have gone. You probably don't know who they are, but you'll have to trust me on this one.
3. Starting goalie Vladimir Kovac suffered an injury one week before the tournament and Branislav Konrad was forced into action as the #1 goalie.
4. Perhaps the most important reason: Coaching!
In Daniel's words:
Jan Jasko should get to the Guinness book of records as the worst coach in history. Count with me what he recorded during last 365 days:
He coached Zvolen but was fired during regular season 2005-06.
Several weeks later was signed to coach Slovan but after eliminated in quarter-final was fired again.
Just couple days later Nitra's GM fell in love with Jasko and fired Stavjana, during semi-series, to sign Jasko. Of course Nitra was eliminated soon and Jasko was fired again. Meanwhile he worked as assistant coach of Frantisek Hossa on the national team.
Of course this "amazing" duo recorded the worst result of national team in last 6 years on WC (Slovakia was 8th). And his last success was this WJC. If you want to relegate Canada from pool A in next season please sign Jasko ;-)
This whole WJC was disheartening for Slovak fans, but I feel that many future WJC's will be just the same. As long as the Slovaks keep producing a much lower level of talent than in the past, they'll keep struggling to maintain a Pool A presence in the face of increasing competition from the Germans and Swiss.
As for the Czechs... just a few thoughts
Put a decent goalie in the net, and the Slovaks will do pretty well. In 1999 they had Jan Lasak and they won a bronze medal. In 2002 they had Peter Budaj and they beat the Czechs, tied USA, and tied Sweden, finishing first in their group. In 2003 with Jaroslav Halak in net, the team defeats Ovechkin and Malkin on their home ice, and wins silver in the U18WJC. The same team underperforms in Grand Forks but still shutouts Finland, Germany, and Sweden for 125 consecutive minutes.
That being said, the state of hockey development in Slovakia is not great. However, the same could be written of Sweden. They won double gold last year on the backs of players in their mid 30s. No WJCU20 medal in 11 years. Their best team in a decade can do no better than fourth on home ice. In their weak years, they struggle in relegation, narrowly avoiding it a couple years ago. Sweden has a large immigrant population, and they are all interested in soccer and not hockey.
I think the future of the Slovak senior team is certainly not as bleak as you write. Depth on D is a particular improvement. In the 1990s it was Robert Svehla and pray for a television timeout. In upcoming years, Chara and Visnovsky will be joined by Andrej Meszaros (possibly the most complete D the country has ever produced), plus the blue chipper Andrej Sekera. Add to this solid players like Branislav Mezei and Milan Jurcina, and good prospects like Ivan Baranka, Boris Valabik, and Juraj Valach.
Marek Zagrapan is developing more quickly than Pavol Demitra did, and is a natural Centre. Stefan Ruzicka is also developing into a star winger. I also have a very good feeling about their three flying 18 year-olds Ondrej Mikula, David Skokan, and Julius Sinkovic.
Anyhow, just my two cents. Senior team is in good shape. The junior team will do well if they have a goalie that is worth a damn.
Most games were repeated on TSN and if not, there are devices such as TiVo, DVD-R, VCR?
You do realize, that when the games play in North America that Europeans have to stay up until the wee hours of the morning, also on weekdays, to watch this tournament. It works both ways.
Konrad's positioning looked good - if he could just work on those reflexes. C'mon, he wasn't the only reason that Slovakia faced relegation.
Yeah they should've played it at 1am so you could watch it live at prime-time. I'm sure the players would've really appreciated playing at that time in front of hardly no spectators in the rink...
For the first time during my WJC coverages I saw a Slovakian side which was trying to entertain people and was not playing te boring 'obligatory' hockey that saved their asses year after year but also never really got them anywhere. Thier main problem was their game was so ineffective I almost felt sorry for them.
On J.Valach: Mr./Ms. Anonymous may call him a future star on D. IMO he's amongst the worst players I've ever seen skating at a WJC. Perhaps he's doing better at smaller rinks, but he failed in all areas in Sweden. No speed, No acceleration, afraid to throw in big body. Can't shoot. The only thing he did do well was breaking up plays, although at 50% of the time it was his own teams'.
On S.Ruzicka: He might be a future star, but he better first show it on the ice before he gets star attitude in his head. Read final paragraph here: http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/sports/hockey/16379766.htm
The problem with the Czechs and Slovaks and their CHL players is that they can't play as a team. It's been this for years already and I do not understand why coaching staff keeps selecting te sqauds this way (15-16 players from CHL). On paper it looks dangerous but on the ice it simply doens't click. The Russians showed a solid team effort this year and were rewarded for it.
I'll see if I can add some more WJC inside info in the next few days. If questions, please don't hesitate to ask.
The criticism of Valach is also ridiculous. You know he is only 17 right? I thought he performed very well for a player his age. I can't wait until he captains the team two years from now.
If you think they were entertaining there instead of playing from their big tough defense and gamble on a few speedy counter breaks like Svatos' had several, then I'd love to discuss it at next years WJC in the Czech Republic, assuming you see all their WJC games.
Furthermore I did not mention Slovak league, Slovak style, Slovak hockey schools. I was primarily mentioning their play at recent WJC's, so perhaps I was mistaken there. They were probably one of the most attractic teams during the Olympics I admit as their mens team usually is.
Regadless of his age, I did not approve his play at this WJC. 16-year old Roman Josi did a better job than Valach I think. I saw over 220 players skating during recent WJC and Valach belonged to the poorest ones IMO. That isn't too say he is a bad player as he is picking up decent points in the CHL, yet primarily rated on this WJC I think he was the weakest player on the Slovak team. But as you said he's still young and has room to improve so I'll keep monitoring him throughout next season.
Anyhow, the changes the Slovak ice hockey federation today were quite interesting. Apart from firing the U20 coach Jan Jasko, they have formed a national U20 team that will play in the extraliga! USA, Switzerland, and Finland already have similar hothouse programs, but this is the first in the world in which the U20 team will play in the top league.
Ironically I discussed Valach's performance during the final game against Belarus with several scouts and their opinions about him were mixed.
Apparantly they found it funny I brought it up since they had been discussing this before and two NHL scouts of the same team sitting next to me were glad to hear I shared their opinion and didn't hesitate to show 'their right' to his other NHL-team colleague.
Sinkovic did not really catch my eye except for the final day when he got a nasty fdrustation high stick in the face from Kostitsyn (which cost the latter his best player fo the team award). Afterwards I met Sinkovic in the SVK hotel and asked him about his thoughts of the tourney and his injury. In the end things weren't that bad other than a swollen upper lip preventing him from eating properly, so we got soup.
Some Slovaks that impressed me were J.Mikus, V.Mihalik, T.Brnak, T.Marcinko (both positive and negative), D.Buc and J.Rumpel. Zabosky I expected a lot of but came out rather flat.
The Slovak U20 program looks promising and is surely beneficial for the players, however if the coaching staff continues to select players from overseas than this whole program has barely a function IMO.
I appreciate all of the banter going back and forth and I haven't been ignoring you. I have another post planned for early next week on the topic of Slovak hockey with the input of Daniel.
I hope I get to see Valach this year, cuz he's just been tearing up the WHL.
As for the game time, I'm well aware of the time difference. The solution? Put the game on a SATURDAY, when all audiences can have access to it.