Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Around the Boards #3: Crisis in Zlín?

Welcome to Around the Boards, Velvet Hockey’s guide to the week that was in the Czech Republic and Slovakia hockey world. This week, Slovan picked up a new head coach, Zlín continued to struggle and Ryan Hollweg picked up a ten game ban.

Petri Matikainen named new Slovan coach
Former Avangard coach Matikainen takes the helm
Photo: hcslovan.sk
Despite all the Miloš Říha was due to return to Slovan, the club announced this week that former Avangard Omsk head coach Petri Matikainen would take up the post as Slovan Bratislava head coach. Matikainen, who was previously the assistant coach of the Finnish side for two years, joins after a disappointing year where he lost two jobs, one at Avangard Omsk and the other at EBEL club Graz 99ers. The 37 year old left Finland in acrimonious circumstances in 2012, after HIFK sent players to Espoo Blues in order to secure his services, only for Matikainen to jump ship to the KHL (Credit to Antti Laurila, @supermurs for that story).

Slovan’s website quotes General Manager Maros Krajči in saying: "From the group of candidates for the position of head coach, we have chosen Petri Matikainen based on excellent references. He is an experienced Finnish coach, an excellent motivator and strategist, with the added bonus of experience on the bench at Avangard Omsk. Our new trainer promises to bring us a more attacking style, especially at home. A strong Slovan support team is already at Matikainen's disposal today, ready to do all they can to help him adapt to our country as quickly as possible."

Matikainen will get his first taste of KHL action later on Wednesday, as Slovan host Medveščak Zagreb at the Slovnaft Arena.

Zlín in crisis?
Zlín currently prop up the Extraliga after four straight losses
Photo: Jiří Zaňát, hokej.zlin.cz
It has not been a good start to the year for last season’s champions PSG Zlín. Despite keeping nearly the exact same roster from last season, it seems that a cloud is hanging over the Moravian club at the moment. Losses to Extraliga newboys Mladá Boleslav and Olomouc in the opening few games of the Extraliga season have taken the stuffing out of the champions, who on Tuesday night, were battered in Sweden 8-0 by Djurgården in the Champions Hockey League.

Now, there were some mitigating circumstances for the loss in Sweden, as veterans Petr Čajanek, Petr Leška and Ondřej Veselý did not travel, but it is endemic of a side whose defence has gone from being feared to looking as porous as a colander. Luboš Horčička conceded 6 goals on 18 shots against Djurgården.

In an interview posted on Tuesday, Ondřej Veselý said: ‘It would be more useful if we regenerate and rest in order to prepare for Friday’s home game with Pardubice. The worst part is the travel. If we were playing at home it would be something else. When I woke up at eight am, I remembered the guys were already on the road for three hours. I felt sorry for them.’

Speaking about his team’s rotten start to the season, where they currently sit bottom of the Extraliga without a point, Veselý added: ‘Maybe we underestimated the first games we played against the newcomers. It may be that in the middle you lose four times in a row. For us it has happened at the start of the season, and we hope we can improve soon' (source).


Sparta thrash Slavia while Karlovy Vary get going
Delight at the o2 Arena for Sparta as they thrash city rivals Slavia
Photo: Pavel Draslar, hcsparta.cz
Sunday saw the first Prague derby of the season take place, and it was bad news for Ladislav Lubina, as his charges capitulated in the first period and went down 5-2 at the o2 Arena against a rampant Sparta side. Sparta chased Dominik Furch from the game in the first period, as they ended the first period three goals to the good. After a false start to get the season underway, it looks like Sparta are starting to fire on all cylinders, as they have climbed up to 8th in the table. Slavia’s ill-discipline cost them the points, as Sparta scored three times with the man advantage. Goaltender Adam Svoboda, said after the game: 'We did not skate. Sparta skated great. We unfortunately just stood there and then the guys have to take penalties. If we do not play a disciplined game at 100% for 60 minutes, then we don’t have a chance against a team like Sparta'.(source). 

Another team who had a good week after a rotten start to the season was Karlovy Vary. The unfancied side from the spa town picked up their first two wins of the season to get off the bottom of the table. A 4-1 win over Sparta in Gameday 4 was followed by a close fought 2-1 win over early season flyers Hradec Kralove. In both games, 23 year old Vladislav Habal was in top form between the pipes. In the two games this week, he made 75 saves on 77 shots. Habal spent most of last season in the 2.liga with HC Banik Sokolov.

At the top of the table, Litvinov continue to set the pace picking up two more wins to give them a one point lead over Vitkovice. A Jiří Gula goal with just 14 seconds left in the third period gave the Bohemian side a 4-3 victory over Mladá Boleslav, before thrashing Kometa Brno 6-1 on Sunday. Vitkovice also had two wins out of two this week, edging fellow contenders Třinec and basement dwellers Zlín.

It is starting to look a bit grim for Olomouc though, as the Moravian newcomers lost to Kometa Brno and Pardubice this week. With only four points through five games, they have slipped into 13th place in the early Extraliga table.

Six point night for Patrik Moskal
In Czech 1.liga news, Salith Šumperk forward Patrik Moskal made headlines last Wednesday, as he picked up six points (2+4) in his side’s 7-4 victory over Motor Češke Budějovice. Moskal currently has 13 points through 5 games as Šumperk sit 5th in the 1.liga table.

The current pacesetters in the Czech second division are Horácká Slavia Třebíč, who are undefeated through five games. Hot on their heels are Benátky nad Jizerou and Stadion Litoměřice, with the latter having a remarkable defensive record thanks to the early season performances of Tomáš Kral, who has a save percentage of 96.5% through in the four games he has played for Litoměřice.

Piráti Chomutov have continued their rotten form from last season in the Extraliga, as they currently sit in 10th place having lost their last game against Benátky nad Jizerou. The other relegated Extraliga side, Rytíři Kladno, are searching for consistency but currently sit in 4th place in the table with three wins from five games. A 5-2 win last Wednesday was followed up by a lacklustre 2-0 loss to Češke Budějovice.

Player of the week: Martin Ručinský (HC Verva Litvinov)
Ručinský celebrates with Viktor Hubl, who just recorded
his 550th game in a Litvinov jersey
Photo: hokej-litvinov.cz
The oldest player in the Czech Extraliga is currently the best, as 43 year old Martin Ručinský takes this week’s accolade. The former NHLer picked up six points in two games, including a goal and three assists in Litvinov’s demolition of Kometa Brno on Sunday. Still, the Olympic gold medal winner from the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano was coy about his resurgence, saying, ‘I don’t care that much [about points]. The only points that interested me today are the three points we got as a team.’ Ručinský almost retired during the off-season but was convinced to take the ice for one more season by coaches Radim Rulík and Miloslav Hořava, and the Most native has repaid their faith as Litvinov currently sit top of the Extraliga table and Ručinský is currently the Extraliga’s top scorer (source).

This week’s pick of the action:
Friday: Kometa Brno vs Sparta Praha (17:20 GMT)
Sunday: Plzeň vs Hradec Kralove (16:30 GMT)

Tuesday: Poprad vs Banska Bystrica (16:00 GMT)

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Plzeň’s Ryan Hollweg handed ten game ban

Another week and seemingly another ban for HC Škoda Plzeň’s Ryan Hollweg. The 31 year old American was handed the ban by the ČSLH (Czech Hockey Association) for his knee-on-knee hit on former teammate Tomáš Vlasák in the game against Slavia Praha at the o2 Arena on Friday. For Hollweg, it is another strike on his ever increasing Extraliga rap-sheet. An video of the incident can be found below:

video

With the speed that Hollweg barrelled into Vlasák, it is surprising that the Slavia forward didn’t come off worse for wear, and despite his lack of injury, Hollweg was still handed the maximum ten game penalty for a knee-on-knee hit. Quoting from the press release, the ČSLH ruled that Hollweg had intended to bodycheck Vlasák, but when the latter attempted to dodge the hit, Hollweg moved to make sure that he connected with Vlasák, with the result being a knee-on-knee hit.

This is not the first suspension for Hollweg this season, as he received a one match ban for an altercation in a game against Sparta Praha, where he gave Slovak forward Martin Reway a hiding in front of the Sparta bench (see below). This, along with Hollweg’s previous suspensions were taken into account by the ČSLH in deciding the severity of the ban.


video

It is interesting to note that in an interview after the game, Vlasák said, “He is not a malicious player. It was a penalty, but I do not think it was an attempt to injure”

Hollweg has truly made a name for himself
in the Czech Republic in his two seasons
Photo: Milan Podpera, hcskoda.cz
Hollweg, who has over 200 NHL games to his credit, moved to the Czech Republic in 2012, and has been taken to heart by the Plzeň faithful, who love his bang and crash style, which few have tried before in the Extraliga. In his first season with the club, Plzeň won the Czech Extraliga, and was given a relatively large amount of ice time by the club. Last season it was a different story, as a serious injury brought an end to the Downey, California native’s year after only 20 games, in which he tallied four points.

It is unfair to call Hollweg a loose cannon, as consistently through his Extraliga career, he has been physical but has largely toed the line. 180 penalty minutes through 60 games before this season is not what one would call excessive, and it seems that the ČSLH have thrown the book at him.

It was a nasty knee-on-knee hit, which could have been a lot worse. It definitely deserved some form of suspension, but I feel that ten games is somewhat excessive for Hollweg. In addition, Slavia’s Michal Poletín, who attempted to confront Ryan Hollweg, was handed a fine for his part in the fracas. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

Čada calls time on Slovan career

Hockey fans in Bratislava woke up to a shock this morning, as Slovan Bratislava announced on their website that the team and head coach Rostislav Čada had come to an agreement over the termination of the latter’s contract. For all intents and purposes it appears that Čada asked to be released from his contract rather than being fired by the club.

Photo from Rostislav Čada's last game in charge of Slovan
Photo: hcslovan.sk
Čada has had a mixed bag of success since joining Slovan Bratislava in 2012, upon their entry to the KHL. The Czech born coach had floundered with Avangard Omsk, but found his niche with a battling Slovan side, and whilst his brand of defensive hockey may have been dour at times, it did get results. Slovan’s first season in the KHL was an unmitigated success, as the team with one of the smallest budgets in the KHL made it to the Gagarin Cup Playoffs.

However, Jaroslav Janus and the rest of Slovan’s capitulation to Dinamo Moscow in the 2012/13 playoffs set the tone of things to come, and last season was one of frustration at the Slovnaft Arena. The sole Slovak team in the KHL toiled but could only finish 11th in the Western Conference, meaning it was the Nadezhda Cup rather than the Gagarin Cup they were playing for.

Despite this, Rostislav Čada’s time in Bratislava will be well remembered, as he managed to make what should’ve been a struggler, into a competitor. Slovan have consistently punched above their weight against the giants of Russian hockey, and Čada’s style of play has been an integral part of the club picking up historic victories over the likes of SKA St. Petersburg, Ak Bars Kazan and Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Over the past two seasons, Čada’s brand of counter-attacking hockey, relying on the speed of players like captain Milan Bartovič and Libor Hudáček has proven successful, especially when paired with the incredible performances of Jaroslav Janus, especially in 2012/13.

The announcement on Slovan Bratislava’s webpage is as follows:
“HC Slovan Bratislava thanks Rostislav Čada for the honesty and responsibility he showed during his 29-month tenure in Bratislava for our cub. We wish him every success in his future work and private life."

Without wishing to enter the realm of counter-factual reporting, Slovan’s recent turn in results may have convinced Čada that he had achieved all that he could have with his limited resources. After three wins out of three to start the current campaign, Slovan’s luck has turned, and most recently a toothless 3-0 loss on home ice to strugglers Severstal Cherepovets may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Slovan's fans have supported the team in their droves, yet
budgets remain tight at the Slovnaft Arena
Photo: hcslovan.sk
To try and give some context to Slovan’s financial battle, GM Maroš Krajči announced last week that Slovan’s budget for the coming KHL season would be €13million. Using figures compiled by sports.ru, for the 2013/14 season, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov make €8million and €5.8million respectively on their own. What’s more, no Slovan players featured in the top-90 paid KHL players according to the same website. According to official figures released by the KHL Slovan’s budget was the second lowest in the KHL last season, a startling seven times less than top spenders SKA St. Petersburg. Within this environment, it is a miracle that Čada was even able to get Slovan to the playoffs in the first place.

Vladimir Országh becomes Slovan's interim coach
along with Ján Lipianský
Photo: bystricoviny.sk/
Slovan announced that their interim coaches would be former NHLer Vladimir Országh and former Slovan fan favourite Ján Lipianský, who played for the club during their first KHL campaign before hanging up the skates. While this coaching pair will only have the job temporarily, it will be interesting to see how the team performs under the tutelage of the pair. Országh is being tipped as one of Slovakia’s best young coaches and will potentially be given the job when current national team coach Vladimir Vůjtek leaves the post. Országh had spent the last two seasons as head coach of Banska Bystrica in the Slovak Extraliga, and was named assistant coach of the Slovak national team in the summer of 2013 as a nod towards his potential. Still only 37 years of age, Országh has a lot to learn, but getting thrown in at the deep end may not be the worst thing for the former Nashville Predator.

It doesn’t get much tougher for Országh, Lipianský and Slovan as they look to break their three game losing streak against Alexander Radulov and his CSKA Moscow side at the Slovnaft Arena on Saturday. CSKA have won five games out of six so far this season, whilst a Slovan loss may see the team fall out of the playoff positions already.

I, for one, will miss Čada. I think he did a fantastic job with what he had before him, and has made Slovan into a competent and competitive KHL team. I’m going to miss seeing him on the bench at the Slovnaft Arena, where peculiarly he stood in front of his players, right at ice level. Who knows what is next for the Brno native, but Velvet Hockey wishes him all the best.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Around The Boards #2: Unlikely Leaders

Welcome to the second edition of Around The Boards, Velvet Hockey’s weekly digest giving the lowdown on all the biggest news from the Czech and Slovak hockey worlds. Both the Czech and Slovak Extraligas got underway over the weekend, and there are some unlikely faces at the top of both leagues. However, the weekend was a tragic one with Slovak hockey.

Slovakia still coming to terms with tragedy
Miroslav Hlinka
Photo: img.cas.sk
It is with great sadness that despite the great action on the ice this weekend, I begin this week’s Around The Boards dealing with events that have taken place away from hockey. The Slovak hockey world is without three major figures this week, as two former players and the long-serving Slovak national team doctor Vladimir Luptak passed away. Velvet Hockey discussed this in depth on Monday, following the details of the suicide of former Nitra player Miroslav Kováčík, two days after Miroslav Hlinka also took his own life. Hlinka, a World Champion with Slovakia in 2002, was due to take up the assistant coach’s role at Banska Bystrica.

The news has resulted in a large amount of soul-searching in both countries, as fans and officials alike attempt to come to terms and ascertain the reasons behind the tragedy. No news has been forthcoming since Velvet Hockey posted its reaction to the deaths on Monday. 

Slovan quickly unravelling
Slovan Bratislava got off to a fantastic start to their third KHL campaign. Velvet Hockey waxed lyrically about the KHL’s sole Slovak participant, after the won their first three games of the season. However, the wheels have come off somewhat this week, as losses to Ak Bars Kazan, Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod and Severstal Cherepovets, the latter of which was a dire 3-0 defeat on home ice.

Ladislav Nagy continues to lead the line, having scored five times in six games, but the likes of Michal Vondrka, Rok Tičar and Tomáš Surový have flattered to deceive in front of goal. Jaroslav Janus got his first action of the season in Slovan’s shootout loss to Torpedo, and acquitted himself well, but looked average in their capitulation to Severstal, which leads me to believe that Johan Backlund will start for Slovan’s next game against CSKA Moscow, which comes after a brief four game break. Slovan will be boosted by the return from injury of new defenceman Kurtis Foster, who played for Medveščak Zagreb last season.

Cancelled games cause problems in CZ and SK

Banska Bystrica got the game postponed, but
Zvolen were awarded the three points
Photo: TASR
The first weekend in the Czech and Slovak Extraligas brought some peculiarities, including two games that were postponed whilst in play. In Slovakia, Zvolen hosted Banska Bystrica on the first gameday of the season, but the game was postponed with only ninety seconds to go due to flares let off by the Banska Bystrica fans as Zvolen led 4-3. It was a miraculous comeback by Zvolen, who had been 3-0 down in the third period, and as tensions ran high in the Banska Bystrica fan section. The smoke from the flares which were set off covered the ice in smoke, and despite the officials giving an hour’s grace, the smoke would not dissipate. Vladimír Baluška, one of the referees, said in an interview, “We saw how the smoke spread and the situation is unusual and dangerous meaning we had to interrupt the game as we have to protect the player’s health. This is the first time we have encountered such a situation.” The SZLH ruled later that the result would stand, handing Zvolen the 3 points. (source)

Unplayable conditions at the Kajot Arena
Photo: Ivo Dostal
Lack of visibility was also the culprit at the Kajot Arena in Brno, as Kometa’s game against PSG Zlin, which was being broadcast live on the major sport channel in the Czech Republic (ČT Sport) was brought to a halt after just 13 minutes. A warm September in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia has made mist a problem in many arenas. The fog was especially bad at the end where Kometa were attacking, and Zlin’s goaltender Libor Kašík was notably animated. There was no score in the game before it was postponed.

Zlín still without a win
Libor Kašík hits the deck in Zlín's season opener
Photo: Jiří Zaňát hokej.zlin.cz
The cancelled game at the Kajot Arena has left Zlín in a rather sorry state, as the defending Extraliga champions currently sit in 13th place after three gamedays. The Moravian side started the season in perhaps the worst possible way, looking average as Extraliga new boys Mladá Boleslav humiliated them 5-2 at the Zimni stadion Luďka Čajky. It didn’t get much better on Tuesday, as other Extraliga newcomers HC Olomouc, defeated their Moravian rivals to claim their first Extraliga win under their belt. Zlín went 2-0 up in the first period through goals from Bedřich Köhler and new signing Roman Vlach, but Olomouc rallied back in the third second period to take an unassailable 3-2 lead. Defensively, Zlín look fragile, and that’s not something that you would have thought after they retained all of their defensive unit bar Petr Zamorský. Certainly more will be expected from last season’s top Extraliga goalie Libor Kašík, who has conceded eight goals in two games and a save percentage well below 90%

Litvinov and Mladá Boleslav impress, while Sparta splutter
The first three gamedays have left my Extraliga preview looking rather silly, as two of the teams that I had pencilled in to finish in the bottom four, are in first and third place respectively. Whilst Zlín’s goaltending has been a problem, current league leaders Litvinov have arguably the best goaltender in the Czech Republic. Pavel Francouz, who was Litvinov’s one shining light in a dreadful season last year, has continued his fine form, picking up three wins out of three. The 24-year old shutout bottom of the table Karlovy Vary in the first game, before shutting up shop in the shootout as the side from North Bohemia defeated both Plzeň and Třinec. Both victories are massive scalps for a side desperate to get back into the playoffs.

Mladá Boleslav yet to lose in the Extraliga this year
Photo: Jan Pavlíček, bkboleslav.cz
Despite all of their summer signings, it is the old boys at Mladá Boleslav who are leading the charge. The 1.liga champions have taken to the Extraliga like a duck to water, and have won two games out of three in what was an incredibly tricky start to their return to the Czech top flight. Their aforementioned win against Zlín was followed by a loss in Pardubice, but on Monday the side got their first win against Sparta at the Tipsport Arena in their history. Former Sparta captain Michal Broš had a goal and an assist and Tomáš Klimenta bagged a brace as Mladá Boleslav battled to a 4-3 victory. Tomáš Hyka and Dominik Pacovský have struggled to adapt to their new surroundings though, as Mladá Boleslav’s two major summer acquisitions only have one point between them so far.

Sparta’s loss to Mladá Boleslav sums up what has been a so-so start to the season. Despite sitting top of an extremely tight Group G in the Champions Hockey League, Sparta have already lost two games this season, with Mountfield Hradec Kralove picking up a solid 3-1 victory on home ice against last season’s regular season champions. The pieces are there but it doesn’t seem that Josef Jandáč has worked out how best to use his abundance of talent. As defenceman Michal Barinka said following the loss to Mladá Boleslav, “We have to start from zero. The results will come.” Sparta will be hoping that the results will come, especially with the first Prague derby of the season being on Sunday.source)

Zvolen leading the way
In Slovakia, the surprise league leaders after four games is Zvolen, who are the only team in both countries to still have a 100% record. In front of goal, Zvolen have been imperious, netting 13 times in the three games. Most remarkably, the team already has twelve different goal scorers to its name, as Andrej Podkonický is the only player to have found the back of the net twice. Despite their loss to Zvolen, Poprad are currently in second place, a remarkable achievement for a club dogged by financial uncertainty. The side from the Tatras has gone through a number of difficult years especially following the failed Lev Poprad project, are at least doing the business on the ice. Tomáš Sýkora already has three goals to his name. Defending champions Košice sit in third place after three games where they have only conceded eight goals.

Player of the week: 
Michal Hlinka
Photo: sportky.sk/SITA
Michal Hlinka (HK Dukla Trenčín)
Any other week would’ve been Litvinov’s goaltender Pavel Francouz, but special mention must go to Michal Hlinka, the son of Miroslav Hlinka. The 21-year old forward has dealt with the death of his father like a man far beyond his years, and continues to train and even featured for the club in Tuesday’s victory against Skalica. Richard Lintner, who plays for Dukla and was a national team teammate with Michal’s father for a number of years said, “We, Dukla, are Michal’s second family and we stand by him and will try to create the conditions to help him as a young male support his family.” All games in Slovakia were marked by a moment of silence before faceoff on Tuesday. (source)

Play of the week: Ladislav Nagy (Slovan Bratislava)
This week, we turn to the KHL and Ladislav Nagy’s beautiful coast-to-coast goal against Ak Bars Kazan. Sadly, Slovan couldn’t pick up the win, losing 4-3 in a close fought game, but this goal by Nagy will live long in the memory.



This week’s pick of the action:
Friday: Mladá Boleslav vs Litvínov (16:30 GMT)
Saturday: Slovan Bratislava vs CSKA Moscow (16:30 GMT)
Sunday: Slavia Praha vs Sparta Praha (17:20 GMT)

Monday, 15 September 2014

Deaths send shockwaves through Slovak hockey

The first weekend of a new season is where all the hope and optimism generated during four months without hockey comes together. Fans go into the year hoping for the best, and while for some it will be a season of success, for others, this may just be the only happy time during the whole season… Well until at least it ends.

However, Slovakia is waking up on Monday morning to the news that three people within the hockey world have passed away over the course of the weekend. The deaths of Miroslav Hlinka, Miroslav Kováčík and long-time Slovak national team doctor Vladimir Luptak, all before their time, has left a number of questions to be answered and has cast a sombre veil down on Slovak hockey. Hlinka and Kováčík took their own lives, whilst Luptak, who died following a long battle with illness. He was 50 years of age.

Miroslav Hlinka won gold with Slovakia in 2002
Photo: Imago/East News
Miroslav Hlinka was one of Slovakia’s premier European-based players during the first decade of the 21st century. The Trenčín native learned his trade with his home town Dukla, before movig first to the Czech Republic, and then on to the rest of Europe. He played for Sparta Praha for four seasons, before having a prolific career in Finland with Jokerit, Sweden with MODO and Russia with Dinamo Moscow. Wherever he went, Hlinka brought success, having won the Czech Extraliga in 2004, Finnish and Swedish silver medals in 2000 and 2002 respectively. Most notably, Hlinka was a member of the famous Slovak team which won IIHF World Championship Gold in Sweden in 2002. He scored two points in the tournament which is still down in the history books as Slovakia’s greatest hockey triumph.

Cousin of former NHLer and prolific forward Jaroslav Hlinka, Miroslav Hlinka was more than just an on-ice force. He was given the captaincy at Pardubice and Chomutov, and kept on playing into his 43rd year, as he spent last season in the Slovak 1.liga with HK Trnava, before hanging up the skates and taking an assistant coaching position with Slovak Extraliga team, Banska Bystrica.

In an interview with Czech press, Jaroslav Hlinka said that he found out about his cousin’s death immediately after Sparta Praha’s 3-1 loss to Hradec Kralove on Sunday. “When I heard the news, I began to remember our experiences. When I was younger, Miro was like a big brother. He played hockey and I looked up to him. We did not grow up together, but when I knew that he was a good hockey player…I guess, in public, Miro always appeared chilled, but probably was hiding something.”

Tributes came from other major figures within Slovak hockey. Hlinka’s teammate from his time with the Slovak national team, Ladislav Nagy, said, ‘I’m shocked. We were in contact when we [Slovan Bratislava] played in Banska Bystrica during preseason. He looked fine then. I don’t understand what happened.”

Additionally, HC Košice defenceman and also fellow national team teammate Martin Štrbák said, “When someone leaves the world who you know very well, it is very sad. I don’t know what was the cause, but he must have suffered greatly … Miro was my roommate at the World Championships when in 2002 we became the world champion and we got together three medals. It is difficult for me to talk about. I’m in shock. I do not have words.”

News of Miroslav Kováčík's death broke Monday
Photo: hokej.sk
Most recently, news broke on Monday morning about another Slovak hockey player taking his own life, as forward Miroslav Kováčík passed away at the age of 35. Born in Nitra, Kováčík had a prosperous career which saw him play in Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He also featured for Slovakia at three World Championships. Last season, he was part of the HK Nitra team who were beaten finalists in the Slovak Extraliga, with Kováčík scoring 20 goals during the regular season. The news was broken by MHK Dubnica, for whom both Hlinka and Kováčík both worked for in off-ice capacities.

This recent blow to Slovak hockey has left many asking the same questions which emerged following the deaths of Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien three years ago. It just may be that the timings of these deaths were coincidence, but the fact that hockey players continue to be plagued by ailments such as depression is something that still needs addressing.

More news will come in due course as investigations take place into all three deaths which have dealt a body blow to Slovak hockey this weekend. The words tragedy and saddening have been used in the Slovak press as adjectives to describe the deaths of Hlinka, Kováčík and Luptak, which perfectly captures the shock and grief that is now with Slovak hockey fans.

Quotes come from here and here

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Around The Boards #1: Time to play the game

Welcome to Around The Boards, Velvet Hockey’s new weekly digest out every Wednesday giving the lowdown on all the biggest news from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. With the hockey season in its embryonic stages, today’s ATB takes a look at Slovan’s scintillating start, Kladno’s new life in the 1.liga and a brief Slovak Extraliga season.

Slovan Bratislava flying high on the road
Three games, three wins. Slovan have started in top gear
Photo: metallurg.ru
It is fair to say that last season was somewhat of a disappointment for Slovan Bratislava. The team impressed in their debut season in the KHL, before crashing to eventual Gagarin Cup champions Dinamo Moscow, but last year Slovan struggled to gain any sort of momentum and missed out on the postseason. The team has strengthened, especially defensively, during the offseason, and it looks like a new lease of life has been given to Rostislav Čada’s team, as they currently sit third in the Western Conference with a 100% start.

Two of the keys to Slovan’s hot start have been new signings Ladislav Nagy and Johan Backlund. Nagy, who split last season with HC Košice and Jokerit in the Finnish Liiga, signed for the club after making his return to the Slovak national team after a three year absence. Somewhat of a journeyman since his return from the NHL, Nagy appears to be enjoying an Indian summer as the 35 year old has found the back of the net four times in three days. He had the best debut possible for his new team, scoring a hattrick at the Slovnaft Arena as Slovan defeated Medveščak 5-2 in their opening game.

Nagy would also score the game winner for Slovan against reigning Gagarin Cup champions Metallurg Magnitogorsk, an incredible result on the road for the Slovak side. Most recently, they scraped a 3-1 victory over Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg.

Key to all three of these victories has been the performance of new Swedish goaltender, Johan Backlund. After two seasons, Slovan finally realised that they had to spend some money in order to get a quality backup for Jaroslav Janus, who has been prone to suffer from burnout due to his heavy workload during the regular season. Backlund was given the start against Medveščak and has kept his place in Slovan’s other two games so far. Whilst not the most convincing goaltender, and prone to conceding a soft goal such as Metallurg’s opener on Sunday, Backlund has been on the whole stellar, and a 93.2% save percentage is nothing to sniff at. I will admit that when his signing was announced, I was rather wary following his disappointing numbers for Vityaz Podolsk last season, but the 33 year old Swede is proving both me and other doubters wrong with his play so far.



Slovan will be looking to keep up their good form today as they face Ak Bars Kazan in the final game of their opening three game Russian road trip. The side from Bratislava should enter the game with little fear though, as they have a good record over their Tatar opposition, however, one should bank on the game going to overtime, as all of the games over the last two years between the two teams have ended equal after 60 minutes.


Drop that puck
HK Poprad kicked off the SK Extraliga
season with a 4-2 win over HK Orange 20
Photo: hokejportal.net
League action is finally underway in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Slovak Extraliga kicked off with a game between HK Orange 20 and Poprad, who just about managed to gain entry back into the league after another summer of financial problems. They were given an extension to apply for their Extraliga licence, and fortunately the club from the Tatras managed to complete all their obligations in time. Poprad ran out 4-2 winners with Tomáš Sýkora bagging a hattrick. Marquee summer signing Luboš Bartečko, Lev Poprad’s captain back in 2011/12, added two assists on his return to the Slovak Extraliga.

It has been somewhat a stranger summer in the Slovak Extraliga, and a number of veterans have returned to their native land. Dukla Trenčín, rebuilding after a disasterous year where they finished ninth last season, picked up former Slovak national team regular Branko Radivojevic, as well as signing former Extraliga winning goaltender, Branislav Konrád, looking to get his career back on track after Slovan had to leave him behind in their jump to the KHL. Richard Lintner also returns after splitting last season with Dukla and Dinamo Minsk.

Other big signings in the Slovak Extraliga this summer include Milan Kytnar moving to Banska Bystrica, Radoslav Illo returning from seven years in North America to sign for Martín and Žilina’s signing of Jaroslav Kristek.

Košice look favourites to win the Extraliga, although one would be remiss to ignore Nitra. Jozef Stümpel was in fantastic form last season, scoring 67 points and leading Nitra to the Extraliga finals, where they eventually lost in seven games to Košice. Now 42 years of age, Stümpel signed on late in the summer for another season with his hometown club, with the hope of delivering Nitra its first Extraliga title.

Kladno start off life in the 1.liga with a win
Jaromir Jágr behind the bench at Most
Photo: Tomáš Kostečka, hc-kladno.cz
There has been a lot of soul searching at Kladno over the summer, as the Knights (Rytiři) have been licking their wounds following their relegation from the Extraliga in rather calamitous circumstances. Team owner Jaromir Jágr was on the bench as Kladno began their promotion campaign in Northern Bohemia, where they took on Most. A third period brace from Jan Eberle helped Kladno secure a 5-1 victory on the road.

It has been a summer of change for Kladno, not least as captain of seven seasons, Pavel Patera, left the club to keep his Extraliga career alive with new boys HC Olomouc. Tomáš Kaberle’s return to the NHL also leaves a massive void in the defensive unit, as does Třinec’s signing of the Doudera brothers.

News in Brief:
In some of the least surprising news ever, Slavia today announced that top scorer and all round good guy Jaroslav Bednář will be the team’s captain for the coming Extraliga season after Petr Kadlec left for Plzeň. The 37 year old forward, who angered the Sešívani whilst still a youngster after making the cross city switch to Sparta, will start his ninth season with Slavia with the C on his jersey after being an alternate captain last season. (source)

ŠHK 37 Piešťany president Jaroslav Lušňák announced this week that the EBEL was now a “closed door” for the club. Piešťany are the Slovak Extraliga’s newest club, having joined the Slovak top tier two seasons ago and have taken like a duck to water, reaching the playoff semi-finals twice in two years. Whilst still plugging away in the 1.liga ŠHK 37 attempted for three seasons to gain entry to the EBEL, only to be denied permission by the Slovak Federation. “It certainly would not have been a bad thing that we would have represented the whole of Slovakia, but what happened, happened, and we are happy we can play in the Extraliga”, added Lušňák. Piešťany also felt the financial pinch over the offseason, and budgets look to be lower there for the coming season. (source)

HC Olomouc have strengthened once more following my preview three weeks ago that pencilled them in to finish bottom of the Extraliga table. Petr Fiala's team have just announced they have penned a deal with Slovak forward Martin Cíbak, who split last season with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk and Vityaz Podolsk of the KHL, scoring 15 points in 54 games. Cibak has represented Slovakia at two World Championsips and was a member of the 2010 Olympic roster. (source)

Finally, all signs are pointing towards Martin Ručinský signing on for one more season with Litvinov. A number of Czech journalists on Twitter today have confirmed Ručinský's signing. The 43 year old played 45 times for Litvinov last season, scoring 27 points. He looks set to join Jiří Šlegr on the North Bohemian team's roster. (source)

Watch the Czech Extraliga live…For free!
The Czech Extraliga is arguably the best for live free streaming in the whole hockey world, as every Extraliga game is streamed live, for free on their media platform (http://www.tvtipsport.cz/elh/). The quality of the live picture has improved year on year, and there are commentators present at every game. It is already the best hockey in the world, and it is a bonus that they provide such a good service for fans. These streams are not locked geographically and no sign up is required!

This week's pick of the action
Wednesday: Ak Bars Kazan vs Slovan Bratislava (16:30 GMT)
Friday: Třinec vs Pardubice (17:20 GMT)
Sunday: Nitra vs Piešťany (16:00 GMT)
Tuesday: Slovan Bratislava vs Severstal Cherepovets (18:00 GMT)

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Rebuilding from the wreckage. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl's resurgence

September 7th 2011. 

It is a date that will strike a nerve in hockey fans from now until the end of time. When Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s chartered Yak-42 careered into the ground yards from the runway, time seemingly stood still. I can still remember exactly when I was when I first saw the news appear on my Twitter feed, and then I spent most of the day glued to Russia Today to get any updates in the vain hope that at least one Lokomotiv player would survive from the crash. The heart-breaking tale of Aleksandr Galimov, who was rescued from the wreckage only to succumb five days later to his injuries is one that will live forever in my memory.

Vitaly Anikeyenko, Yuri Bakhvlov, Mikhail Balandin, Aleksandr Belyaev, Gennady Churilov, Pavol Demitra, Robert Dietrich, Alexander Galimov, Marat Kalimulin, Alexander Kalyanin, Alexander Karpovtsev, Andrei Kiryukhin, Nikita Klyukin, Igor Korolev, Nikolai Krivonosov, Yevgeni Kunnov, Vyacheslav Kuznetsov, Stefan Liv, Jan Marek, Brad McCrimon, Sergei Ostapchuk, Vladimir Piskunov, Karel Rachůnek, Ruslan Salei, Maxim Shuvalov, Kārlis Skrastiņš, Pavel Snurnitsyn, Daniil Sobchenko, Yevgeni Sidorov, Ivan Tkachenko, Pavel Trakhanov, Yuri Urychev, Josef Vašíček, Alexander Vasyunov, Alexander Vyukhin, Artem Yarchuk, Andrei Zimin.

37 men. 37 families torn apart by tragedy. As fans, we remember the great pieces of play that these players were responsible for, but we are simply unable to quantify just how much of a tragedy this crash was for the families. For me, the loss of Pavol Demitra was the one that hurt the most, as just a few months earlier, I remember ‘Palo’ in tears on the ice of the Slovnaft Arena in Bratislava after he announced his retirement from the Slovak national team. Demitra, who had been Slovakia’s talisman at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, had sent the whole country into raptures after scoring Slovakia’s famous shootout winner over Russia, one of the country’s biggest hockey achievements since winning World Championship gold in 2002. On the first anniversary of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash, I happened to be in Trenčín in Slovakia, where I paid my respects in front of the now renamed Zimný štadión Pavla Demitru. I watched Dukla play Žilina in a pre-season game and in the 38th minute, the whistle blew, Dukla fans threw roses onto the ice and both teams and both sets of fans observed a two minute’s silence.

However, the impact that these players had off the ice was arguably greater than their impact off of the ice. Stories emerged such as the tale of former Russian national team forward Ivan Tkachenko, a Yaroslavl native and Lokomotiv’s prospective captain for their 2011/12 KHL campaign. Tkachenko had donated one million rubles anonymously to a cancer victim in the nearby city of Voronezh. His gratitude was only made public following the Lokomotiv plane crash due his wish to remain anonymous.

Thousands paid their respects in Prague as the news reached
the Czech Republic of the deaths of Karel Rachůnek
Josef Vašíček and Jan Marek
Photo: idnes.cz
The start of the KHL season was delayed for a week, and a touching ceremony at the Minsk Arena, where Lokomotiv were meant to be flying to start their season, was put on by Dinamo Minsk with portraits of the dead displayed on the ice. All across Europe, memorials were constructed to honour each country’s lost heroes. In Prague, Old Town Square (Staromětské Náměstí) was full of candles as fans paid their respects to the three Czech players who were involved in the tragedy.

Talk quickly turned to simply where Lokomotiv could go from here. Would the franchise fold? Could they rebuild a team for the current KHL season? All the teams in the KHL discussed the possibility of loaning players to the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl franchise to help the club back on it’s feet.

However, it was quickly announced that Lokomotiv Yaroslavl would be given special dispensation to play in the VHL, the second tier of Russian hockey. The team would comprise largely of players from Lokomotiv’s youth team which played in the MHL. The Western Conference standings were reworked so that places in the playoffs would be determined by points percentage, to account for the fewer games that Lokomotiv would play in the VHL. The club made its VHL debut on the 12th December, defeating Neftyanik Almetevsk 5-1 on home ice. Dmitri Maltsev scored the first goal for the ‘reborn’ Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.


In their only VHL campaign, Lokomotiv would finish third in the Western Conference, defeating HK VMF in the first round of playoffs. Dizel Penza were too tough an opponent in the Western semi-finals, and Lokomotiv bowed out of the VHL with their heads held high. It was a fantastic project to help rebuild hockey in Yaroslavl, using the youngsters who formed the basis of Lokomotiv’s youth program. A number of players used the experience to help their junior development, and it is fitting that the likes of Kirill Kapustin, Ilya Lyubushkin and Yegor Yakovlev currently feature on Lokomotiv’s KHL roster after helping the team rebuild. Yakovlev made his World Championship debut for Russia in 2014, at the tender age of 22.

The summer of 2012 saw Lokomotiv truly rebuild as they put together a strong looking roster. Vitali Kolesnik and Curtis Sanford signed as the team’s two goaltenders, while the likes of Staffan Kronwall, Sami Lepisto, Vitali Vishnevski, Alexei Kalyuzhny, Oleg Petrov and Niklas Hagman all signed for head coach Tom Rowe. The former Carolina Hurricanes coach would get just over a year in charge before being fired. In their two seasons since returning to the KHL, Lokomotiv made the playoffs. In 2012/13 they lost to Severstal Cherepovets, whilst the club made it as far as the Western Conference finals last season, before losing in five games to the now defunct HC Lev Praha.

Former Team Switzerland coach Sean Simpson is now at the helm in Yaroslavl, and the club enters the 2014/15 with a sense of optimism. Sanford and Kolesnik remain between the pipes whilst hometown hero Ilya Gorokhov enters his second season with the C on his jersey after an incredibly successful spell with Dynamo Moscow. This summer has seen both Martin Thornberg and Jiří Novotný join from Lev Praha, and Sergei Plotnikov remains at the club, as the 24 year old is fast becoming one of the premier Russian forwards in the KHL.

Lokomotiv shocked SKA St. Petersburg in the 2013/14 playoffs
Photo: Yaroslav and Julia Neelova, hclokomotiv.ru
The way that Lokomotiv Yaroslavl has been able to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of disaster is testament to the strength of the people in the city of Yaroslavl and is endemic of how proud they are of their franchise. The team was consistently able to sell out their VHL games, and now the Arena 2000 is packed every game. The Lokomotiv jerseys are still emblazoned with a black ribbon, with the date 07.09.11, as a testament to how despite the crash, the current crop of players still represent that same Lokomotiv Yaroslavl that those fallen heroes did.

Bouncebackability is a word commonly used in football terminology, but never has it been so apt than in the case of Lokomotiv.


Локомотив. Вечная памиать. Мы помним. Мы скорбим.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Stained Steel: HC Košice's next step

Seven straight finals appearances. Four championships between 2009 and 2014. Like it or not, HC Košice Steel are the definition of a dynasty. A barren decade between their title win in 1999, Košice looked to rebuild, and with the help of major sponsor U.S. Steel, who run the gigantic steel plant in the city, a new arena and new success followed. Košice won three straight titles between 2009 and 2011, humiliating their cross-country rivals from the capital, Slovan Bratislava.

All would seem to be going well in Košice, as the reigning Slovak champions head into the 2014/15 campaign looking to repeat their success from last season, where they defeated HK Nitra in the finals, romping to a 6-0 victory in game seven at the Steel Arena. However, one look at their preseason and Champions Hockey League campaigns, and it is clear that something is not quite right in the Steel City.
All smiles five months ago. But pre-season has not been kind to the Slovak Champions
Photo: František Iván, teraz.sk

Košice currently sit bottom of Group A in the Champions Hockey League, having lost all three games so far. If there is any consolation to be had, all of the losses have been by a one goal margin, but seeing the Slovak champions losing to German outfit Kölner Haie, and Czech also-rans Bilí Tygři Liberec is somewhat surprising. Another mitigating circumstance may be that they simply did not travel well, as both of those losses came away from the Steel Arena, but is it a true representation of the current level of Slovak domestic hockey?

In 2011, the news broke that both Slovan Bratislava and HC Košice were looking to become part of the Czech Extraliga. However, their neighbours to the east vetoed the move, with 13 out of 14 Extraliga clubs citing the additional travel costs as the major factor in denying the formation of a ¨new¨ Extraliga featuring clubs from both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Following this and Slovan’s departure to the KHL in the summer of 2012, the Slovak Extraliga has struggled desperately financially, leading to a major drain of talent. Teams such as Poprad, Martín and most recently HK36 Skalica have made public their financial problems and look set to no longer be Slovan’s farm team. (link)

Three years ago, personally, I believe that both Slovan and Košice could have been welcome additions to the Czech Extraliga, and the quality that both teams possessed would have seen them easily be competitive. This summer, however, Košice have consistently struggled against teams from Czech Republic. In the Steel Cup, played in the middle of August, Košice took on HC Oceláři Třinec and HC Vitkovice Steel from across the border, and both games saw the Czech teams run out winners, 4-0 and 4-2 respectively. In fact the only success that Košice have had in pre-season so far has been in their most recent game, where they got revenge on MHC Martín, who won at the Steel Arena in early August, as Adam Lapšanský scored in overtime to end Košice’s non-competitive pre-season program with a win.

It’s only pre-season, I hear you say, and that may be true. However, comparing this season’s Košice roster to last season’s title winning side makes for grim reading. Rastislav Staňa joins Sparta Praha after leading Košice’s playoff charge with a 94.4% save percentage in the postseason.  Defensive anchor Radek Deyl and solid two way centre Tomáš Marcinko also head to the Czech Republic, joining Karlovy Vary and Pardubice respectively. Last season’s top scorer, Peter Bartoš is now 41 years of age, and not to be ageist, but time is not on his side.

Coming into the side is Radek Philipp, from Sparta Praha, but the 37 year old defenceman’s career is now on the downturn. Marek Zagrapan was signed from Třinec, but was released along with Tomáš Klouček in the last few days (link).

If one compares Košice’s present roster with their team of 2010/11, which won the last of their trio of consecutive titles, it is clear how Slovakia’s domestic downturn has taken hold. Július Hudáček cut his teeth with Košice, and he has yet to be truly replaced at Košice. Alexander Hýlak will tend goal for Košice for the coming season, but the Czech netminder never made it as a Czech Extraliga starting goalie before signing with Košice in 2011. Ján Tabaček and Michel Miklik both left to join Slovan and have not looked back since leaving Košice. Additionally, Vladmir Dravecký, Marcel Haščak and Jaroslav Kristek both tried the KHL and have moved onto bigger and better things. Crucially, what this highlights is that in the time between 2011 and the present day, Košice has not been able to replace the quality they had three years ago. Bartoš and Richard Jenčik remain, but the supporting cast is significantly weaker.

Erik Černák, Pride of Košice's junior system
Photo: sport.sk
If there is one crumb of comfort for Eastern Slovakia’s finest, it is that quality as a whole in the Slovak Extraliga has dropped along with Košice’s loss of talent. The best of Slovakia’s domestic talent is flocking not only to the KHL, but more so to the Czech Extraliga than ever before. Consequently, teams are turning to younger, Slovak talent, which may in fact be a positive step for Slovak hockey. Adam Janošik has been getting big minutes in pre-season since signing from Liberec in the Czech Extraliga, whilst Slovakia U20 graduate Milan Kolena has been centreing the top line. Additionally, Slovakia’s best prospect for a number of years, defenceman Erik Černák will look to bounce back from a rocky year and will likely play a greater part in Košice’s Extraliga team than last year. The Košice native played at the World Junior Championships at 16 years of age, and reflects the good work that Košice has been doing in producing quality talent. Černák will more than likely join Martin Marinčin and Tomáš Jurčo as top-60 NHL draft picks when he is eligible in 2016.

All in all, what started out as a rather scathing critique of Košice and the Slovak Extraliga as a whole seems to end on somewhat of a positive note, especially when at the time of writing, Košice are currently Liberec in their CHL game played at the Steel Arena. Two years ago I reflected on what I called Slovakia’s ‘long summer’, following Slovan’s departure, and once again I am left with mixed feelings. All of the negatives I have listed could also be interpreted as positives in one way or another. What I think is objective, however, is that Slovak hockey’s domestic strength is not what it was, and for better or worse, this is something that will have the head honchos at the SZLH questioning which step to take next. The HK Orange 20 project, which has seen the best of the domestic talent younger than 20 join as a team and play as part of the Extraliga until the World Junior Championships is entering its eighth season, and the results are less than tangible, yet the SZLH continues with the project. Even going back an age group, Slovakia once again finished the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament winless on home ice.

Košice will go into the current season favourites, and rightly so, but while they still remain a powerhouse in Slovak hockey, what is clear is that they are anything but a European powerhouse. What Pavol Zůbek, Anton Tomko and the rest of the backroom staff have to do to turn this around remains to be seen.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Slovan Bratislava still on the Handzuš trail

Each year as summer turns to autumn, there are always one or two European veterans who seemingly fall off the face of the earth as their NHL contracts expire and no news is forthcoming of there whereabouts. More often than not, this is the signal of a return home to Europe. This summer, the likes of Rostislav Klesla and Mikael Samuelsson have moved back to their respective native lands in order to prolong their careers by a few more seasons with HC Oceláři Třinec and Djurgården respectively.

At 37 years of age and over 1000 NHL games to his credit, Michal Handzuš has been one of the most understated NHLers in his fifteen season career in North America. After starting out with the St. Louis Blues, Handzuš played for six teams in total, with the pinnacle of his career being the Stanley Cup victory with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2012/13.

Handzuš was a major part of the Slovakia
team that won silver at the 2012 IIHF
World Championships
Photo: SITA, nhl.sk
However, the Banska Bystrica native is now a free agent, and with few NHL offers on the table after a disappointing 16 points in 59 games, it looks like Slovakia’s KHL representative, HC Slovan Bratislava, may be in the market for the big bodied centre. Handzuš is a player respected by many in Slovakia, not least due his commitment to the national team. Slovakia has been plagued in recent seasons with many of the now few Slovaks in the NHL refusing to attend the World Championships, but when situations have allowed, Handzuš is a regular attendee.

The news of Slovan’s pursuit of Handzuš was reiterated by Slovan General Manager Maros Krajči. Sport.sk quotes Krajči, who said that “with each passing day, the chance of Handzuš playing for Slovan increases“. (link)

Krajči goes on to reiterate that the option of an NHL team coming in at the eleventh hour to snatch Handzuš remains a possibility, it would be a major coup for Slovan to add a player of Handzuš‘ experience. Furthermore, especially following rumblings of financial difficulties towards the end of last season, a signing of Handzuš‘ calibre would go a long way to generating marketing interest in the team, as well as the necessary ¨bums on seats¨.

The way is perhaps paved somewhat for Handzuš, as Krajči announced to the press that Slovan had released defenceman Tomáš Mojžíš and forward Martin Bakoš (link). Since being signed from HC Lev in 2013, Mojžíš had been a solid contributor for Slovan, adding 13 points from the blueline in his one full season with Slovan. However, Slovan have spent a lot of money upgrading their blueline this summer, adding Ivan Baranka and most recently Tomáš Starosta. One would assume that financial considerations were at the heart of Mojžíš‘ release, especially while Vladimir Mihálík remains on the roster.

With the Miroslav Šatan ship now seemingly sailed into the port of retirement, the importance of Slovan adding Handzuš is not to be underestimated, especially in terms of what he adds off the ice more than anything. On the ice, Slovan kicked off the 2014/15 season in style, as new summer signing and Slovakia national team veteran Ladislav Nagy had a hattrick in his debut for the club. Check out his marvellous second goal below (play develops from 1:50 onwards), where Nagy made former Canadiens second rounder Mathieu Carle look like a beer leaguer with a lovely piece of skill.



If Handzuš is to join Slovan, I can’t imagine he will don the eagle crest for a couple of weeks at least. However, with the team now flying out to Russia for a three game road trip where they will face Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg and Ak Bars Kazan, presumably Krajči and the rest of the backroom staff in Bratislava will have less distraction in order to tempt Handzuš to join the Sky Blues (Belasí).

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Extraliga Preview Part Two: Revealing the contenders

Last week Velvet Hockey brought you part one of it's 2013/14 Czech Extraliga preview, looking at the teams who (in the author's opinion) will make up the bottom half of the league. A week on, and it is time to turn to the contenders. From the tradition of Sparta Praha to the youthful Hradec Králové franchise, read below for all the summer news and line-up discussion.


HC Sparta Praha – Is this the year?
Last season: 1st
Last season’s top scorer: Petr Ton (40yo, 50GP 35+32 +27)
Last season’s top goaltender: Tomáš Pöpperle (44GP 1.61GAA 93.6%)

Oh Sparta. Another season where they looked invincible in the regular season, only for it to unravel in the playoffs. It has now been seven years since they last won the Extraliga title, and the Tipsport Arena faithful are starting to get restless. Coaches have come and gone, and one must imagine that Josef Jandáč is on a short leash and the bosses will not be forgiving if results don’t go their way.

Will Jaroslav Hlinka thrive without Ton?
Photo: Atte Rissanen, CHL
There is a new dawn at Sparta. Gone is long time hero Petr Ton, Tomáš Rachůnek has moved to Metallurg Novokuznetsk and Tomáš Pöpperle will no longer tend the Sparta net after he signed with KHL newcomers HK Sochi. Joining from Slovak champions HC Košice is Rastislav Staňa. The veteran shot stopper was in inspired form with Košice, posting a 94.4% save percentage in the playoffs. Staňa has never played in the Czech Extraliga before, but has a wealth of SHL and KHL experience and will surely be an asset at this level.

Sparta have taken the adage of offence wins games but defence wins championships, as they have assembled what looks to be the best defence in the Czech Republic. The signings of Marek Ďaloga, Michal Barinka and Juraj Mikúš are a sign of shrewd recruitment, and means that it is going to be very difficult to score goals past Sparta this coming season. Karel Pilář, Jan Svrček and Jan Piskaček remain from last season’s roster, forming an incredibly promising top six.

Up front, the task has been to replace the goals lost by the departure of Petr Ton. Sparta look to be doing this by committee rather than the signing of one star player. Imports Robert Sabolic and Zack Torquato will add some welcome scoring touch, while Martin Réway, one of the most hyped Slovak prospects in recent years, joins Sparta at the tender age of 19 instead of returning to the QMJHL.

37 year old Jaroslav Hlinka may notice a downturn in his form with the loss of top line partner Petr Ton, but look for the former Karlovy Vary pair of Petr Kumstát and Lukáš Pech to add more points than they did last season. 6‘6‘‘ forward Kumstát tallied 18 goals in 2013/14, edging closer to the 27 goal career high he posted in 2011/12 with Karlovy Vary, which made Sparta so adamant to bring him and Pech to the Czech capital. Tomáš Rolínek will captain the side, the former Metallurg Magnitogorsk forward finally settling back in the Extraliga, while Jan Buchtele and new signing Lukáš Cingel will be on task to add further scoring depth. Buchtele scored 35 points in his first season with Sparta in 2013/14

With a number of top players entering their second seasons with the club following the rebuild in 2013, I can see Sparta being even more dominant this season, and with a strengthened back end, it could very easily be their year.

One to watch: Martin Réway (Forward. Last season – Gatineau Olympiques: 43GP 20+42 +13)
Martin Réway will look to impress with Sparta
Photo: Vaxjo Lakers, CHL
The former Sparta Praha junior has returned ¨home¨ as the Montreal Canadiens draft pick has put pen to paper to sign with Sparta and get his first taste of professional hockey. At 19 years of age, Réway still has a number of years of development ahead, and the raw skill that the Prague born forward has is off the charts. He may need a few years to truly make the jump from junior to professional hockey, but his prolific junior career is sign that Réway is one of the top European prospects at present. 10 points in 5 games at the World Junior Championships went a long way to earning Réway a call up to the Slovakia senior team for the senior World Championships, where he scored three points in seven games. He has made a positive start to his Sparta career, tallying two assist in the club’s first two Champions Hockey League games.

Predictions:
Position: 1st
Top scorer: Jan Buchtele

MVP: Rastislav Staňa


HC Oceláři Třinec – New arena, same goal
Last season: 2nd
Last season’s top scorer: Martin Růžíčka (28yo, 52GP 26+29 -8)
Last season’s top goaltender: Šimon Hrubec (43GP 2.15GAA 92.5%)

Třinec celebrate winning the Steel Cup.
Photo: Marian Ježowicz, hcocelari.cz
Třinec come from one of the smallest markets in the Extraliga, but have consistently produced Extraliga contenders for a number of seasons. A true hockey town, the new Werk Arena was presented to the team this off-season, and is a brand new facility to replace the crumbling old rink.

It is a new look team for the new rink as well, as it is out with the old and in with the new. Martin Růžíčka, who broke Ziggy Pálffy’s Extraliga playoff points record on the way to the 2011 title, leaves after signing a two year contract with Traktor Chelyabinsk. Radek Bonk, Jan Peterek and Václav Varaďa have called time on their careers, while David Květoň has signed with Mladá Boleslav.

Goaltending is the only area where there is some stability, as Třinec will put their faith in Šimon Hrubec, who impressed in his first season as an out and out starting goaltender. You have the sense that it is Peter Hamerlík’s last chance to prove himself at the Extraliga level this season, as the 2011 championship winning goaltender really struggled last season.

Will the grass be greener on the other side for Žejdl?
Photo: Marian Ježowicz, hcocelari.cz
Třinec have crafted a whole new forward line-up for the 2014/15 season, headlined by the Extraliga return of Zbyněk Irgl. The 33 year old Czech national team regular has not played in the Extraliga for seven years, after leaving Vitkovice, and moves to Třinec after scoring 20 points with Dinamo Minsk last season. Irgl still has plenty of gas in the tank, and while I think he will be a key part of Třinec’s success next season, fans will have to be patient as veterans returning to the Extraliga have often needed a season to become re-accustomed with the league.

Tomáš Plihal signs after a successful spell in Finland, while Vladimir Dravecký and Kamil Kreps will be looking for some stability in their careers with Třinec. Dravecký is a player I rate highly, and believe he should’ve got more of a chance at Slovan than he did. He was over a point per game with Swiss NLB side Ajoie last season, and he can really contribute up front. Another major summer signing is Lukáš Žejdl, from Slavia Praha, who I think is one of the best young forwards in the Extraliga.

Despite all the signings, it could be 32 year old centre Jiří Polanský who is the vital piece of the Třinec puzzle. Two straight seasons of 46 points show that he is truly in the prime of his career, and 5 points in the opening 2 games of the Champions Hockey League season show that the Brno native shows no sign of slowing down.

On the blueline, Rostislav Klesla makes his return to Třinec calling time on his 654 game NHL career. Klesla looked rather uninspired when he played for Třinec during the 2012 lockout, so the Steelers, who won the apt-named Steel Cup in August against Košice and Severstal Cherepovets, will be hoping for better things from their marquee blueline signing. Klesla will join the likes of Marek Trončinský, who gained notoriety during pre-season for scoring this goal during pre-season.



With the addition of Klesla, Třinec have a very strong defence on paper, and Lukáš Galvas, Tomáš Linhart and young gun Vladimir Roth all have the experience and quality to deliver another title to Moravia.

One to watch: Lukáš Žejdl (Forward. Last season – Slavia Praha: 47GP 6+20 +2)
Maybe it’s the Slavia fan in me, but Žejdl, in my opinion, is a top quality young forward who should be getting first line minutes this season. After scoring 26 points with Slavia last season, the big bodied physical forward made the move to the east to play for Třinec, where I think if given top six time, he’ll top 30 points, although that will change if he is forced onto the third line by the log jam of forwards.

Predictions:
Position: 2nd
Top scorer: Jiří Polanský
MVP: Jiří Polanský



PSG Zlín – Looking for the illusive repeat
Last season: 3rd (But won the Extraliga playoffs)
Last season’s top scorer: Petr Leška (38yo, 52GP, 6+38 +8)
Last season’s top goaltender: Libor Kašík (24GP 1.88GAA 93.6%)

Pre-season has been kind for Zlin so far
Photo: Jiří Zaňát, hokej.zlin.cz
Ten years after the Moravian club won their first Extraliga title, PSG Zlín reclaimed the Czech crown in style, mauling Kometa Brno in the 2014 Final. Captain Petr Čajanek lifted the Masaryk Cup to the delight of the Zimni Stadion Ludka Čajky, and capped what was a majestic year for the team that plays in blue and yellow.

It is perhaps unsurprising given Zlín’s devotion to developing home-grown talent, that only a few players have left the club during the summer months, and most have moved on to better leagues. Antonin Honejsek has earned himself a contract in Finland, whilst the New York Rangers signed young defenceman Petr Zámorský, who at 22 years of age, made his World Championship debut for the Czech Republic this year. Zlín moved quickly, penning a deal with veteran defenceman Tomáš Žižka. The 34 year old former NHLer has consistently been one of the top two way defencemen in the Czech Republic for a number of years. Radim Tešařík, after three seasons with Zlín, retires from the game on a high after winning his fifth Extraliga title.

Jiří Marušák will therefore anchor the defence, and his veteran presence will be necessary to help the next generation of Zlín blueliners. Martin Matějiček, Dalibor Řezníček, Patrik Urbanec and Tomáš Valenta are all in their early twenties and have the potential to form a true dynasty of Czech hockey. What makes it all the more special, and what makes Zlín such a likeable club, is that all of these defencemen are from the Zlín region and most were products of Zlín’s youth system.

Also a Zlín junior, Libor Kašík was voted the Czech Extraliga’s best goaltender after posting a 93.6 save percentage in the regular season, which he almost matched in the playoffs. The 22 year old goaltender, who had only played a handful of senior games before last season, truly shone in his first full senior season. Like Plzeň’s Matěj Machovský, Kašík may suffer a sophomore slump, but the ever reliable Luboš Horčička is arguably the Extraliga’s best backup goaltender. People thought Zlín would be in trouble following the departure of Jakub Sedláček to the KHL, but in Kašík, they may have uncovered an even better goaltender.

Libor Kašík was voted the Extraliga's best goaltender last season
Photo: Pavel Hrabovský, hokej.zlin.cz
Up front, what would a Zlín team be without Petr Leška and Jaroslav Balaštík. Now 38 and 34 respectively, these two have been the first names on Zlín’s team sheet for nearly a decade, bar Balaštík’s sabbatical with Mláda Boleslav. Leška, who continues to top 40 points each season, is the true face of Zlín hockey, and while the goal scoring touch is starting to leave him, he is still one of the premier playmakers in the Czech Republic. Petr Čajanek returns, and last season’s top playoff scorer has finally become the Extraliga player Zlín needed him to be following his return from the KHL in 2011. Ondřej Veselý, Petr Holík and Bedřich Köhler provide an ample secondary scoring touch, while the signing of Roman Vlach, the son of head coach Rostislav Vlach from Karlovy Vary should easily cover the goals lost by the departure of Honejsek.

All in all, I don’t think Zlín will be able to consistently win enough games to finish top of the regular season table, but I think they have an incredibly good chance, come playoff time, to challenge for the repeat.

One to watch: Petr Holík (Forward. Last season: 51GP 7+16 -4)
 Now 22 years of age, Holík may be small in stature, but his high skill level certainly makes up for any deficit in height. The Zlín native dropped off slightly following his 35 point 2012/13 season, but still tallied 23 points and made his Czech senior debut in the Euro Hockey Tour. If paired with sharpshooter Roman Vlach, look for Holík to be pushing 30, if not 40 points this season.

Predictions:
Position: 3rd
Top Scorer: Petr Leška
MVP: Petr Leška



HC Pardubice – Charging up the table
Last season: 7th
Last season’s top scorer: Tomáš Nosek (21yo, 52GP, 19+25 +44)
Last season’s top goaltender: Július Hudáček (28GP 2.39GAA 92.3%)

What has gone wrong at Pardubice? The 2012 Extraliga champions have been simply awful in the last two seasons, and it’s up to head coach Zdeněk Venera to turn the tide and make Pardubice championship contenders once again. It has been a rough few seasons for Pardubice in the transfer market, as the likes of Petr Koukal, both Jan Kolářs and Robert Kousal have all been snapped up by KHL teams, and it has happened again this offseason. Last season’s top scorer Tomáš Nosek, still only 21 years of age, has been signed by the Detroit Red Wings after going undrafted in the last few seasons.

Tomáš Halasz has big skates to fill at Pardubice
Photo: hcpce.cz
Fortunately, Nosek is the only big time player to be leaving Pardubice, as they have managed to retain a strong core of young forwards now entering their prime. Lukáš Radil, Tomáš Zohorna and Radoslav Tybor are three great players to build around, whilst retaining the services of (forward) Jan Kolář was vital after the 33 year old failed to crack the KHL. Radovan Somík also remains, now entering his 8th season with Pardubice. Look for Radil to continue his development into one of the leading scorers in the Extraliga, as the 24 year old tallied 32 points and earned his Czech Republic national team debut last season.

Tomáš Marcinko is Pardubice’s big money forward signing, with the Slovak national team forward, who played at the Olympics, joining the club to provide a solid two way centre who works hard at both ends of the ice. Pardubice don’t need Marcinko to be a 30 goal scorer, they simply need him to be a solid pivot, which Pardubice have somewhat lacked over recent years.

Pardubice will go into the 2014/15 with a brand new tandem in goal though, as Tomáš Halasz and Slovene national team goaltender Robert Kristan join from Olomouc and Nitra respectively. Halasz, who helped Olomouc gain Extraliga promotion last season, has already impressed in a Pardubice jersey, especially after his miraculous performance in the Champions Hockey League against Linkoping.  Kristan, the definition of a journeyman joins after a very solid season with Nitra in Slovakia. This new look tandem should certainly do better than the trio of Hudáček, Salfický and Martin Růžíčka. The latter, who backstopped Pardubice to the 2012 title, will look for pastures new following his release after over a decade with his home-town club.

I think the losses of Jiří Vašiček and Marek Ďaloga will be a big blow to Pardubice’s blueline, but with Aleš Píša, Václav Kočí, Václav Benák and Blaz Gregorc returning, the Bohemian side should still be in good hands, and that’s before we even mention the return of one of Pardubice’s favourite sons, Petr Čáslava. The 34 year old defenceman has spent the last four seasons in the KHL, and returns after a pretty poor season captaining Severstal Cherepovets. The mammoth blueliner will not only be a rock on the blueline but will add some necessary scoring on the powerplay

Player to watch: Radoslav Tybor (Last season: 44GP 16+8 +11)
Slovak forward Radoslav Tybor. One to watch
Photo: hcpce.cz
At 24 years of age, Radoslav Tybor will enter into his second full season with Pardubice, and the Slovak forward who earned a spot on the World Championships team this year will look to improve as he carves out a niche as one of the Extraliga’s most feared snipers. The Trenčín native brings speed along with his deadly accurate shot, as Linkoping found out in the CHL. I think he’ll break 20 goals this season if he stays injury free.

Predictions:
Position: 4th
Top scorer: Lukáš Radil
MVP: Petr Čáslava




HC Kometa Brno – Ensuring stability
Last season: 6th
Last season’s top scorer: Vojtěch Němec (28yo, 50GP, 20+18 +6)
Last season’s top goaltender: Marek Čiliak (36GP 2.14GAA 91.3%)

The team from the Czech second city has come a long way in the past five years. Replacing Znojmo who sold their Extraliga licence in 2009, Kometa have been the one team in recent memory which has come up from the 1.liga and truly shown itself to be competitive. Kometa have made it to the Extraliga final twice in the past three seasons, but have fallen both times at the final hurdle. It has been agony for some of the most passionate fans in the Czech Republic, but a sign of how far hockey in Brno has progressed over the past decade.

Brno's home-town hero in pre-season
Photo: Vladimir Koláček, hc-kometa.cz
Last season saw Kometa lose in the final to Zlín, once again beating Sparta Praha on their march through the playoffs after finishing in 6th place. It was a strange season, as while Kometa’s big names really struggled to find any sort of scoring form, a number of players had their breakout seasons. Most notably, Vojtěch Němec, who at 28 years of age, had previously only managed to score 8 points in a season. However, the Češka Lipa native, more accustomed to spending time in the 1.liga, truly shone scoring 38 points as well as a further 14 in the playoffs.

Alongside Němec was Vilem Burian, who was also another 1.liga regular before tallying 21 points last season. Up front, Kometa have one of the deepest forward line-ups on paper, as Tomáš Svoboda and Jan Hruška have provided ample secondary scoring to the likes of Jakub Svoboda and Hýnek Zohorna over recent years. Last season was one to forget for the latter two forwards, as Svoboda only managed 25 games in an injury plagued season, whilst Zohorna could only muster 13 points last season. If Svoboda and Zohorna can turn things around, Kometa may be on to a winner, and that is even before we have discussed Kometa’s two big money summer signings.

Petr Ton crashes to the ice during the Rona Cup
Photo: Vladimir Koláček, hckometa.cz
Firstly, following his bust up with head coach Josef Jandáč, where the Sparta coach benched his top scorer in Game 7 of the playoff semi-finals, Petr Ton has added insult to injury by joining Kometa Brno. Ton, who was the Extraliga’s top scorer after racking up a massive 67 points in 50 games last season, will fit right in on Kometa’s top line, alongside other new signing Tomáš Vincour. The native Brňák struggled to match the high expectations placed on him at Ak Bars Kazan last season, and leaves the KHL to sign for his hometown team. If he stays for the whole season (he has KHL and NHL out clauses in his contract), look for Vincour to be top of the scoring charts. Vincour scored three goals for Kometa as they romped to victory in the Rona Cup in Slovakia a few weeks ago. The team scored fifteen goals in three games to take home the famous pre-season tournament. Most recently, a 2-2 draw with Slovan Bratislava certainly highlights Kometa’s credentials.

Kometa’s forward line-up is as good as any in the Extraliga, but unfortunately, their defence just does not stack up to the other top contenders. Tomáš Žižka has moved to Zlín but has been replaced by Františk Ptáček, and while Jozef Kováčík and Petr Kuboš provide a strong back line, it just lacks the defensive quality needed to lift the Extraliga title. Another area where Kometa will falter will be in goal, and not just because they have Martin Falter. Marek Čiliak was the starter last season, and a 91.3 save percentage will simply not cut it if Kometa want to raise the Masaryk Trophy. At 24 years of age, it is a make or break season for the Slovak netminder.

Player to watch: Michal Kempný (Defenceman. Last season: 51GP 7+8 +10)
At 23 years of age, Kempný, in my opinion, is one of the elite offensive defencemen in the Czech Extraliga. I saw a lot of him during his loan spell with Slavia in 2012/13, and in all honesty he impressed me more than Petr Kadlec, and his booming shot is a vital asset on the powerplay. With the added firepower Kometa have added up front, look for Kempný’s point totals to increase further.

Predictions:
Position: 5th
Top scorer: Petr Ton
MVP: Tomáš Vincour




HC Škoda Plzeň – The rebuild continues
Last season: 3rd
Last season’s top scorer: Radek Duda (35yo, 47GP 17+24 +6)
Last season’s top goaltender: Matěj Machovský (36GP 1.67GAA 93.6%)

Jozef Balej powers away in pre-season
Photo: Milan Podpera, hcskoda.cz
A couple of teams each year notice a significant drop off in performance in the Czech Extraliga. Last season, Litvínov fell from 6th to 11th, while Kladno were 7th placed finishes in 2012/13, before being relegated last season. Plzeň, who were champions in 2013, had a strong season in 2013/14, finishing in 3rd place with an aging roster. Head coach Milan Razym, who won the Extraliga in his first season with Plzeň, has a lot of work to do to prevent what I predict will be a tougher season this time round.

It is definitely a case of out with the old and in with the...still quite old. Radek Duda, Martin Straka and Tomáš Vlasák have all left the club in one way or another this summer, with 37 year old defenceman Petr Kadlec being one of the Plzeň’s major summer acquisitions. Kadlec has over 1,000 games to his credit with Slavia Praha before leaving in June. The signing of Lukáš Pulpan from Chomutov may also turn out to be a shrewd piece of business.

In the wake of these losses, Plzeň’s forward line up looks decidedly weakened. The elder statesmen, Václav Pletka and Ondřej Kratena remain after positive seasons for both, but at 35 and 37 years of age respectively, one might assume their performance will start to wane. Pavel Kašpařík and Tomáš Sýkora are also entering the twilight of their careers, but may still have one or two good seasons left in them. Additionally, the defence has taken a blow, as Tomáš Frolo, Tomáš Slovak and Jiří Hanzlík have all left, leaving Kadlec as the only defenceman over the age of 30.

Plzeň celebrate a victory over Nurnburg in pre-season
Photo: Milan Podpera, hcskoda.cz
Razym has worked to add immediate replacements, bringing back Nick Johnson who impressed in his first spell with the club, as well as veteran Slovak forward Jozef Balej, but the bulk of recruitment has been focused on younger players. Dominík Kubalik and Matěj Beran both join Plzeň upon completion of their Major Junior careers, whilst the signing of former Sparta Praha forward Dominík Simon, who scored a beautiful penalty shot at the 2014 World Junior Championships to beat Canada, may turn out to be one of the signings of the season.

The true wildcard in Plzeň’s lineup will be 21 year old goaltender Matěj Machovský. The Opava native joined Plzeň after a three year spell with the Brampton Battalion in the OHL, and in his debut season in the Extraliga was simply faultless, finishing the season with the Extraliga’s top save percentage. Machovský backed up Patrik Bartošák at the 2013 World Juniors in Ufa, but took to the Extraliga like a duck to water. I think Machovský will struggle to replicate his numbers from 2013/14, and with Lukáš Mensator as his backup, any poor form will have direct consequences on the team’s result.

One to watch: Dominík Simon (Forward. Last season – Sparta Praha: 47GP 7+4 +5)
Simon is one of a number of young, exciting Czech forwards who have somewhat gone under the radar but look set to have great European careers. The 20-year old Prague native, a product of the Sparta system, has represented the Czech Republic at every youth level, and was the second top scorer for the Czech Republic at the 2014 World Juniors with 4 points in 5 games. Most notably, he scored this to beat Canada at the 2014 World Junior Championships



Watch for Simon to be one of the breakout stars in the Extraliga this season if he can get quickly accustomed to Milan Razym’s system.

Predictions:
Position: 6th
Top scorer: Vacláv Pletka
MVP: Matěj Machovský




HK Hradec Králové – Sophomore Slump
Last season: 5th
Last season’s top point scorer: Jiří Šimánek (35yo, 47GP 25+17 +19)
Last seaon’s top goaltender: Pavel Kantor (45GP 1.80GAA 92.4%)

Rastislav Dej made the move from Karlovy Vary last summer
Photo: Stanislav Souček, hkmountfield.cz
The MOUNTFIELD franchise upped sticks in summer last year, moving their franchise from Češke Budějovice to Hradec Králové in the wake of financial issues. While it left a void of hockey in CB, which thankfully was replaced by the Motor franchise, for HK it was a great move for a city which has been looking for top level hockey for a number of years. Last season’s fifth placed finish was a remarkable achievement, helped by an incredible defensive effort which saw the side have the second best defensive record in the Extraliga last season. A quarter-final loss against eventual champions PSG Zlín was unfortunate, with Zlín winning three of these games in overtime. In fact, HK went to overtime 17 times in the regular season alone in 2013/14.

Captain Jiří Šimánek was the symbol of HC MOUNTFIELD’s resurgence last season, and showed what a fresh start can do, as the 35 year old veteran centre scored 42 points and earned himself a spot back in the Czech Republic national team after an absence of three years. Jaroslav Kudrna also turned back the years last season, scoring 34 points in just 35 games after a disappointing year in Liberec last season. Both Šimánek and Kudrna return and are joined by new summer signings Dávid Skokan and Roman Kukumberg. Skokan impressed last season for Slavia, scoring 18 points and being a reliable two way player, and Kukumberg joins HK after a three year spell with Slovan Bratislava, two of those being in the KHL. However, behind these four and Tomáš Mertl, I think HK are a little light up front. Rastislav Dej is a solid two way player, but is never going to be troubling the top points scorers.

Slovak NT regular René Vydarený impressed last season
Photo: Stanislav Souček, mountfieldhk.cz
Therefore, it is integral that HK continue playing their defensive brand of hockey instilled by coach Peter Draisatl, father of 2014 NHL Draft first rounder Leon. The Slovak trio of Peter Frühauf, Peter Mikuš and René Vydarený were in top form last season, providing a solid backbone to which protect Pavel Kantor. The 23-year old was tasked with replacing Jakub Kovář in the CB net, but looked out of his depth in 2012/13. However, with a solid defence in front of him, Kantor looked every bit the Extraliga starter many predicted him to be from his days in the Češke Budějovice system. HK have also made strides to make their defence even better. Tomáš Slovak joins from Plzeň, along with Jiří Vašíček, who in my opinion is one of the premier two way defencemen in the country. Completing HK’s top six is Bohumil Jank, one of the best young Czech defencemen.

With only two wins out of five in pre-season, I think that on paper Hradec Králové have strengthened, but I can see them just falling short of last year’s standards. I think they lack depth up front, and are relying on players who perhaps overachieved last year. They will still make the playoffs, but will have to go through the play-ins

One to watch: Bohumil Jank (Defenceman. Last season: 24GP 1+2 +1)
Jank is not one to watch in terms of excitement, as the 22 year old blueliner plays a no-nonsense defensive brand of hockey. However the Milevsko native brought through the CB system has represented his country at every junior age level and his great performances last season were rewarded with his senior team debut in the Euro Hockey Tour. Standing at 6’2’’, Jank is the sort of defenceman that teams win with, and he is only going to get better.

Predictions:
Position: 7th
Top scorer: Jiří Šimánek
MVP: René Vydarený