Friday, 28 September 2012

CZ/SK Lockout update: Jágr's Kladno steals the headlines.

With the NHL Lockout seemingly stretching from September into October, European hockey is buzzing with the news of locked out NHLers in many cases returning 'home' to play in their domestic leagues. The Czech Extraliga has been one of the most active leagues in the lockout, with a grand total of 18 NHLers taking up spots in the highest level of Czech domestic hockey. The Czech Republic's greatest ever play, Jaromir Jágr, has stolen most of the headlines so far, as the Czech's favourite son returned to lace them up for his hometown team, Rytíři Kladno. Incidentally, Jágr is also an owner of Kladno. However, Jágr is just one of a plethora of NHL stars now on the Kladno roster, as another Kladno native, Montreal Canadiens forward Tomáš Plekanec joined up. Plekanec is currently the top scorer in the Extraliga, racking up 11 points (6+5) in just four games. In comparison, Jágr has been somewhat subdued, with 9 points (2+7) in the same amount of games. Most recently, Plekanec scored a hatrick in a 6:3 rout of Pardubice, which has helped Kladno climb up to fourth place in the Extraliga, after beginning the season with three straight losses. Also featuring on the Kladno roster is another forward, Jiří Tlustý as well as veteran defencemen Tomáš Kaberle and Marek Zidlicky, who have been paired together on the powerplay.

Jaromir Jágr salutes the travelling faithful at the o2.
Photo: Josef Poláček
The furore around Jágr and Kladno has been so intense that the club has decided to move their home games to the o2 Arena in Prague, which is where HC Slavia Praha usually play their home games. In all seriousness it is not that preposterous, as Kladno is only just over 30km from Prague itself, plus the club is providing free transportation for all ticket holders coming from Kladno. Also, if the crowds continue to flock in their droves to watch the games, then long will it continue. Kladno have played two games at the o2 Arena so far, but over 15,000 attended each of the games. It is interesting to note that while HC Lev Praha, just across the city at the Tipsport Arena, are struggling to get over 6,000 to their games, that Kladno, playing in Prague, are getting well over double the crowds. It certainly was strange seeing Slavia playing as the away side at the o2 Arena last Wednesday, as Kladno brought forward their home game with Slavia and played it at the o2. However, it wasn't the debut that Jágr and his comrades were hoping for, as Slavia managed to snatch a 3:2 victory, with more than a little help from their locked out NHLers.

Last season was an awful one for Slavia, their worst in a long time. However, optimism is somewhat high after the club managed to nab Vladimir Sobotka and Roman Červenka. The latter was due to begin his rookie season for the Calgary Flames this year, after two very productive seasons with Avangard Omsk in the KHL. Červenka comes back to the Extraliga after two seasons away. His last campaign, in 2009/10 saw him single handedly carry Slavia to the semi finals. He won the scoring title by a mammoth 18 points, and had more than double the amount of points of anyone else on the Slavia roster. Červenka and Sobotka were paired with Slavia's main off-season acquisition, Jaroslav Kalla, in the game against Kladno, and both of the locked out NHLers had 1+2. However, Slavia still only sit in 10th place, as both Červenka and Sobotka have only added a point each since, and Slavia's anaemic offence has only managed to find the back of the net 10 times in 6 games. Still, if it's any consolation, they are still ahead of fierce rivals Sparta, who signed the extremely average looking Michal Neuvirth, whose save percentage is under .900.

Vladimir Sobotka (red) flattering to deceive with Slavia
Photo: Petr Vančura
Sitting at the top of the Extraliga tree so far is HC Oceláři Třinec, who have won five out of their six games so far. However, they have barely made a splash compared to the likes of Kladno, as they have only brought in Rostislav Klesla. Still, they did manage to bring back Martin Růžička, who has picked up where he left off after the 2011 playoff run, as the flashy forward has already found the back of the net seven times. Interestingly, sitting at the bottom of the table are Bílí Tygři Liberec and HC Pardubice. Petr Nedvěd's Liberec, who promise so much every year yet always fall short, have got off to a dreadful start picking up just three points in six games. Liberec signed defenceman Ladislav Smid and netminder/drunk driver Ondřej Pavelec to lockout deals, but they have yet to shine, with Pavelec being far outplayed by the mercurial Marek Pinc as of now. Even Nedvěd is having a shocker by his standards, scoring only 3 points in 5 games to go along with a -5 rating. On his showing so far, he made the right decision not to make the move to HC Lev.

One place above Nedvěd's flounderers are last seasons champions HC Pardubice, who have forward Aleš Hemský and Jakub Kindl on their roster, as well as the distinct possibility of also grabbing David Krejčí, although insurance issues have been stalling the deal so far. Pardubice, who are desperate to become the first team to retain the Extraliga title since Sparta did it in 2007, are certainly experiencing the winner's hangover on their showings so far, although the losses of Petr Koukal and Jan Kolář to Neftekhimik in the KHL gutted the team of two top quality first liners. Pavel Brendl, their big summer signing, has been dreadful so far, putting up a paltry two points from five games. Martin Růžička's goals against average isn't looking too healthy when it's pushing four as well.

Petr Nedvěd and Ondřej Pavelec both need
to be better for Liberec
Photo: Joerg Stephan
Extraliga new boys Piráti Chomutov are doing well in eighth, and will only improve with the lockout acquisition of Michael Frolik, and the indirect lockout affected transfer of Radek Duda, who was released by Geneve-Servette to make room for locked out NHLers. Duda, arguably more renowned for his antics off-ice rather than on them, is still a top quality addition to a roster that looks big on grit but low on top end talent. If they can add a better goalie (Slovak press was hinting that Slovan outcast Ville Hostikka could be on his way), then making the playoffs should be an achievable goal. Martin Straka's Skoda Plzeň, who are the San Jose Sharks of the Extraliga, made their moves later than most teams, but certainly strengthened their team with the addition of Tuukka Rask in goal, as well as adding Michal Rozsival on the backend. České Budějovice added Canadian Andrew Ferrence and Radek Martinek to their defensive unit. Both incidentally played for the club in the last lockout. Lets hope Ferrence won't flip off the Czech crowds like he did in Bruins colours. The club will need him as the injury struck Jakub Kovář will likely have at least another month on the sidelines. Finally, Vitkovice penned Roman Polak and Pavel Kubina, with the Ostrava side desperate to move up from their current ninth place standing.

Ľubomír Višňovský celebrates
his goal against Avangard
Photo: Ján Skalican/Ziakoo
There is also obvious KHL interest in locked out players, and the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk have all headed back to their native land to lace up for Dinamo Moscow, SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow respectively. However, both HC Lev Praha and Slovan Bratislava have also jumped on the lock out bandwagon, and both have made some solid acquisitions. Lev bolstered their scoring ranks, signing Jiří Hudler and Jakub Voráček for the duration of the lockout. Voráček has certainly impressed, scoring four points in four games, including a beauty of an assist on his debut against Avangard Omsk. Lev certainly needed some forward help though, as apart from free scoring Jakub Klepiš, they have lacked consistent scoring from their forward ranks. Slovan Bratislava were not to be outshone by their Czech rivals, who sit a remarkable first in the Western Conference with 7 wins in 10 games. Slovan first put pen to paper to sign Ľubomír Višňovský. The former Slovan junior has already made his mark, shoring up Slovan's defence, with the club currently on a five game winning streak which has seen them move up to third in the Western Conference. He also bagged a goal on his debut against Avangard Omsk. The club has also managed to come to an agreement with another top quality Slovak defenceman, as Andrej Sekera will soon join up with the club.

Last but not least, a quick mention for Tomáš Tatar, the only NHL player at the moment who has taken up a place in the Slovak Extraliga, playing for the league's new boys, ŠHK 37 Piešťany. He was part of the roster which sent shockwaves through the Extraliga following his side's 8:2 demolition of HK36 Skalica, a side featuring a number of players in the Slovan system. However, his side were humbled 9:5 by HC Košice two days later. Tatar currently has four points in three games. It is interesting to note how hockey has changed in Slovakia, as the last lockout saw Pavol Demitra, Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa line up for Dukla Trenčín, Višňovský and Miroslav Šatan play for Slovan, Ziggy Pálffy for Skalica, Richard Zednik and Michal Handzus lace up for Zvolen, and even Ladislav Nagy played for Košice. Still, I guess that's a story for another day.

The lockout will once again increase knowledge of European competitions, if only for a few months, but it's certain that the Czech Extraliga, already incredibly competitive, will benefit (from an entertainment point of view) from the influx of Czech NHL talent to the league. It's a boost that the league desperately needs.

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