Hockey fans in the Czech Republic are counting down the days until the Sochi Olympics because the 2014 team has a good chance to win the nation's first medal since the Turin Games.
The Czech roster is loaded with talent at every position, with NHL veterans (Jaromir Jagr), established stars in their prime (David Krejci) and exciting young talents (Jakub Voracek) ready to shine on the Olympic stage.
The concern for this country is the goaltending. There are no top-level netminders for the Czech coaching staff to bring to Sochi, but the re-emergence of veteran Tomas Vokoun during last year's Stanley Cup playoffs was encouraging sign.
Let's take a look at how the Czech Republic should craft its roster for the next Winter Olympics and predict where it will finish in Sochi.
The Czech Republic has not yet announced its Olympic camp roster as of this writing.
Many of the players from the nation's 2013 IIHF World Championship team should make the final 25-man roster for Sochi. The 2013 WC roster can be viewed here.
The Czech Republic has developed a lot of top-level talent since the nation took home the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics. The decisions on which defensemen will make the squad are going to be the toughest for the coaching staff because of the impressive depth this roster has on the blue line.
Here are three players who barely missed my final 25-man roster.
Jiri Hudler, Center
Hudler's stock dropped in 2013 after a disappointing first season with the Calgary Flames. He tallied just 10 goals with 17 assists and a minus-13 rating in 42 games. The problems for Hudler are that he has no international experience and the Czech Republic has a lot of centers who are more worthy of a spot on the final roster.
Given his inability to play shutdown defense and lack of elite playmaking skill, it's unlikely that Hudler will make the Olympic team over players such as Krejci, Tomas Plekanec, Vladimir Sobotka and Martin Hanzal.
Jaroslav Spacek, Defenseman
Spacek's defensive abilities have declined a bit in recent seasons, but his international experience is incredible. He's played in three Olympic Games for the Czech Republic and was part of the 1998 gold-medal and 2006 bronze-medal teams. The 39-year-old has also competed at five World Championships.
In total, Spacek has 76 games of international experience with six goals and 17 assists. He would provide strong leadership and valuable experience to the Sochi team, but there are some younger defensemen who deserve a chance to prove themselves on the Olympic stage.
Roman Polak, Defenseman
Polak would give the Czech Republic some valuable toughness and size (6'0" and 236 pounds), but his lack of mobility would be a problem on the Olympic-sized ice surface that will be used in Sochi. Polak also isn't a defenseman that his team can expect much scoring production from. He hasn't tallied more than 12 points since the 2009-10 season.
Here is my final 25-man Olympic roster for the Czech Republic:
- Goaltenders: Tomas Vokoun, Ondrej Pavelec, Michal Neuvirth
- Defensemen: Tomas Kaberle, Jakub Kindl, Rostislav Klesla, Filip Kuba, Zbynek Michalek, Ladislav Smid, Marek Zidlicky
- Forwards: Patrik Elias, Martin Erat, Martin Hanzal, Ales Hemsky, Tomas Fleischmann, Jaromir Jagr, David Krejci, Milan Michalek, Tomas Plekanec, Vladimir Sobotka, Jiri Tlusty, Jakub Voracek, Radim Vrbata
Projected Starter: Tomas Vokoun (Pittsburgh Penguins)
Vokoun boosted his Olympic stock during last year's NHL playoffs when he rescued the Pittsburgh Penguins from a potential first-round upset against the New York Islanders. The 37-year-old veteran finished the playoffs with a 2.01 GAA and a .933 save percentage while proving that he could carry a contending team on a deep postseason run.
Vokoun also has plenty of international experience. He's competed at two Olympics (bronze medal winner in 2006) with a combined record of 6-6 and a 2.24 GAA. His most recent international tournament was the 2010 World Championships, where he went 7-1 with a 1.57 GAA as the starting goaltender for the gold-medal winners.
Given his impressive NHL performance last season, in addition to his international experience, Vokoun is the clear-cut choice to start in net for the Czech Republic in Sochi.
Projected Backups: Ondrej Pavelec (Winnipeg Jets), Michal Neuvirth (Washington Capitals)
Pavelec is a good NHL goaltender, but he has yet to live up to his potential. He also has no NHL playoff experience, but he did lead the Czech Republic to a bronze medal at the 2011 World Championships with a 6-1 record.
The Jets netminder is the best choice to be Vokoun's backup because Neuvirth has zero World Championship or Olympic experience. Over the last two years, he has been one of the Capitals' most disappointing players with a 17-18-7 record and a 2.78 GAA.
Projected Defensive Pairings
|1||Marek Zidlicky||Ladislav Smid|
|2||Rostislav Klesla||Zbynek Michalek|
|3||Tomas Kaberle||Jakub Kindl|
The Czech Republic doesn't have an elite defenseman that will dominate games at both ends of the ice, but overall, this a fundamentally sound blue line with a lot of veteran experience.
Smid is the player to watch because he's one of the toughest defenseman in the NHL. He finished last season with the third-most hits and the sixth-most blocked shots among all defensemen. As a stay-at-home blueliner, Smid will be relied on to provide the Czechs with physical play, shot blocking, strong penalty killing and a lot of ice time against the opposing teams' top forwards.
In addition to Smid's defensive strengths, this group boasts some impressive offensive skill with puck-moving defensemen such as Kaberle and Michalek. The Sochi Games could also be a coming-out party for Kindl, who quietly enjoyed a fantastic season for the Detroit Red Wings in 2013.
Even though there is a lack of star power, the Czech Republic has enough quality on the blue line to reach the medal stand based on this group's experience, work ethic and mobility.
Projected Forward Lines
|1||Jakub Voracek||David Krejci||Jaromir Jagr|
|2||Milan Michalek||Tomas Plekanec||Martin Erat|
|3||Tomas Fleischmann||Martin Hanzal||Radim Vrbata|
|4||Patrik Elias||Vladimir Sobotka||Ales Hemsky|
The most notable name on this list is veteran winger Jaromir Jagr, whom many of his teammates idolized as kids growing up in the Czech Republic. Even at age 41, Jagr is still a quality player who deserves a spot on the final roster.
The players to watch in this group are Krejci and Voracek, who are two of the Czech's brightest young stars. Krejci is a two-way forward with exceptional playmaking skills and an impressive NHL playoff resume, while Voracek is well on his way to superstardom following a breakout 2013 with 46 points in 48 games.
In addition to the skill of the top line, there is plenty of depth in this forward group. The Hanzal and Vrbata combo has produced positive results for the Phoenix Coyotes, so expect them to play alongside each other in Sochi.
An underrated player who should have a major impact on the team's success with his defensive skills, hard work, physical play and faceoff ability is Sobotka. He's the perfect center for the team's fourth line.
Overall, the Czech Republic will have a well-balanced offense in Sochi that is capable of competing with the high-powered offenses from Canada, Russia and the United States.
Tomas Vokoun, Goaltender
Goaltending is going to be the area of the roster that lifts the Czech Republic to the medal stand or prevents it from being anywhere close to contention.
If Vokoun plays at the same level he did in the 2013 NHL playoffs during the Olympics, his team is going to be a gold-medal contender. The 37-year-old has a ton of experience playing in important international and NHL playoff games, and his ability to remain calm in late-game situations instills a lot of confidence in his teammates.
Vokoun is the X-factor for the Czech Republic because any chance of this team doing well in Sochi hinges on his performance between the pipes.
David Krejci, Center
Krejci has become a big-game player for the Boston Bruins. He led the NHL in scoring during the 2011 and 2013 playoffs while also showing a tremendous amount of poise in high-pressure moments. The Czech Republic will need his clutch scoring to have any chance of getting back to the medal stand.
As the likely first-line center, Krejci's playmaking skills are going to be incredibly important to the team's ability to score goals. If he's able to create high-quality scoring chances for goal-scoring wingers such as Voracek and Jagr, the Czech offense will be difficult to stop.
Krejci is also a capable defensive forward who backchecks consistently, plays physical and is responsibly positioned in all three zones. This two-way skill set will make him the most valuable forward on the Olympic roster.
Ladislav Smid, Defenseman
As I noted in the projected defensive pairings slide, Smid's ability to play solid defense in his own zone will be an important part of this team's success.
As the team's only shutdown defenseman, Smid will need to play a lot of minutes against the best players in the world during the Olympics, which is a role he's not used to. With that said, he's more than capable of overcoming this challenge based on his talented skill set and work ethic.
Speed at Forward: Being able to use speed and quickness on an Olympic-sized sheet of ice is one of the greatest assets a team can have.
The Czech Republic will have plenty of forwards in Sochi with a skill set that includes the speed and creativity needed to succeed on a larger ice surface. Players such as Krejci, Voracek, Hemsky, Erat and Michalek will all bring impressive mobility and agility to the ice on each shift.
Experience on the Blue Line: Experience on the back end is a critical component of all gold medal-winning teams, and the Czech Republic will have several battle-tested veterans on the Sochi roster. The most seasoned defensemen include Kaberle, Kindl, Michalek and Zidlicky, who have a combined 174 games of playoff experience.
This experience and understanding of how to handle high-pressure situations will help the Czech Republic against more talented opponents such as the United States, Canada and Russia. The patience and puck-moving skill that these defensemen display will ensure that this Czech team makes quick decisions and doesn't allow the opposing teams' forecheck to wear them down.
Backup Goaltenders: The Czech Republic doesn't have the luxury of a quality backup goaltender capable of providing consistently strong performance on the Olympic stage. Both Pavelec and Neuvirth are inexperienced (nine career NHL playoff games combined) and have not yet proven to be goalies who can be trusted in this type of competition.
Pavelec's GAA has been less than 2.80 in just one of his four full NHL seasons and Neuvirth has been unable to win the Capitals' No. 1 job despite playing in 121 games for the team since 2008. If one of these goalies has to start for the Czech Republic in Sochi, don't expect to see this team on the medal stand.
Lack of an Elite Defenseman: Unlike most of the other gold-medal contenders, the Czech Republic won't have an elite No. 1 defenseman on the Sochi roster. There's plenty of experience on the blue line with Kaberle and Zidlicky, as well as some impressive offensive talent in Michalek, but the lack of a top-tier shutdown defensemen such as Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara or Ryan McDonagh could be a problem for this team.
Smid is a quality stay-at-home blueliner, but he's not an elite-level player with the ability to shut down the ultra-talented forward trios of Canada, Russia and the United States.
Instead of toughness, strong penalty killing and defensive skill, the Czech Republic blue line will need to rely on its experience and mobility for success.
The Czech Republic was fortunate to avoid powerhouses such as the United States, Canada, Finland and Russia for the group stage in Sochi, but it will have to play a top contender in Sweden and an up-and-coming Switzerland squad that finished fourth at the 2013 World Championships.
Bovada has the Czech Republic at 17/2 odds to win the gold medal in Sochi, which is the fifth highest among the 12 teams.
Even though the Czech Republic team is strong enough to finish second or first in Group C, it doesn't have the depth, offensive firepower, defensive skill or elite goaltending needed to win the gold medal. With that said, don't be surprised if this squad contends for the bronze medal.
Olympic Prediction: 3-2, sixth place