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.

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,
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,
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.

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,
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,
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.

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
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
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.

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,
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,
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.

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,
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,
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.

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,
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,
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.

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

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Extraliga Preview Part One: Tough seasons ahead

We are now under a month away until the puck drops for the 2014/15 Czech Extraliga season, and with most team’s transfer business completed, what better time to offer a comprehensive preview of the coming year. With two new teams and a host of new faces, it is sure to be one of the best seasons yet.

Slavia Praha – How to solve a problem like Lubina?
Last season: 10th
Last season’s top scorer: Jaroslav Bednář (37yo, 47GP 12+27 +12)
Last season’s top goaltender: Dominík Furch (48GP 2.37GAA 91.5%)

Slavia will need a stellar season from Dominík Furch
Photo: Martin Prokop,
Backroom drama is nothing new to Slavia Praha. The recent ownership debacle looks to have sorted out as Vladimír Pitter seems to be a stabilising force, however, the infighting has taken its toll. Legendary head coach Vladimír Růžička has left the club, taking up the post as Czech Republic head coach full time. A host of other players have left, including defenceman and captain Petr Kadlec, who had played over 1000 games for Slavia. Vladimír Růžička jr., David Skokan, Petr Jelínek, Lukáš Žejdl and Lukáš Krenželok have also left for other teams.

I won’t make any apologies for being a Slavia fan, and although I can see that there are many holes to fill on the roster, I have a sneaky suspicion that Slavia will better last year’s performance which saw them lose to Pardubice in the play-ins. In goal, Dominík Furch enters his second season as an out and out starter since Miroslav Kopřiva’s departure. Furch, who has been playing with the senior Slavia team since he was 16, has a wealth of experience and I think can better last year’s save percentage.

Petr Kadlec may have gone and Pavel Kolářik is nearly out of the door, but in new captain David Štich and the resurgent 6’8¨ giant Juraj Valach, Slavia have two of the breakout defencemen from last season’s Extraliga. Valach had 22 points and anchored Slavia’s powerplay, and if the Slovak blueliner can get close to that total this season, it will go a long way to replacing Kadlec’s production. Returning to Slavia after a year on loan with Třinec, Daniel Krejči is one of the best young defencemen in the country, and I can see him racking up big minutes. Slavia’s defence has been on fire in pre-season so far, as they have won all seven games, including three shutouts. Three of these victories have come against KHL teams, whilst Slavia also were victorious in the Hockeyades tournament in Switzerland, where Slavia beat Geneve-Servette and Fribourg Gotteron. Furch has been in inspired form, picking up three shutouts along the way.

48 points at 39 years of age, Bednář will be the go to guy once again for Slavia
Photo: Martin Tellinger
Up front, Slavia have a massive task ahead to replace the loss of four quality Extraliga forwards. Tomáš Vlasák is the marquee signing, as the 39 year old joins after 7 successful seasons with Plzeň. Reuniting the successful Tomica – Bednář – Vlasák line will pay dividends for Slavia, while new signings Janos Vas and Erik Weissmann will hopefully replace some of the goals lost. Jaroslav Bednář’s first full season with Slavia since 2008/09 highlighted just how good of a player he is, as his 48 points were invaluable to the club. Bednář is the definition of a franchise forward, able to play both on the powerplay and penalty kill.

With Vladimír Růžička jr’s tryout at Dinamo Riga being unsuccessful it remains to be seen if he will return to the club he’s played his whole career at so far. Slavia will be reliant on a number of youth team graduates taking on a greater role this coming season. Michal Poletín, Pavel Klhůfek and Daniel Vrdlovec can all contribute at the Extraliga level and will need to for Slavia to be successful.

Slavia’s preseason has been clouded by the protests by the fanclub over the appointment of Ladislav Lubina as head coach. Banners proclaiming ‘Lubina Ven’ (Lubina out) have been present at Slavia games and a petition containing nearly 1000 signatures is currently being shared online. I think that on the ice, Slavia have a great looking team full of promising young players. If they can for once sort out things behind the scenes, who knows, maybe they can spring a shock.

Player to watch: Daniel Krejčí (Defenceman. Last season: 45GP 3+8 -1)
I think Krejčí is one of the best young defencemen in the Extraliga at the moment. The 22 year old impressed last season after being loaned out to Třinec and returns to his parent club with the expectation that he will be playing big minutes. Standing 6’3’’, Krejčí can use his size to his advantage and has above average skating which makes him a solid contributor at both ends of the ice.

Position: 8th
Top Scorer: Jaroslav Bednář
MVP: Jaroslav Bednář

Bílí Tygři Liberec – The Post-Nedvěd era
Last season: 9th
Last season’s top scorer: Petr Nedvěd (42yo, 49GP 19+31 -3)
Last season’s top goaltender: Marcel Melicherčík (30GP 2.59GAA 90.9%)

Liberec are still yet to taste Extraliga glory
Photo: Jiří Princ,
One man does not make a team, but Petr Nedvěd’s ¨retirement¨ sees a huge hole opened in the Liberec roster. The veteran forward was Liberec’s top scoring forward for five years in a row, and has been the heart and soul of the White Tigers for a number of years, sadly though, he was unable to deliver an Extraliga title, and for the last couple of seasons Liberec have really gone downhill.

So who is going to replace Nedvěd? Well, it looks like it’s going to be more of a group effort than anything. It was key for Liberec to keep hold of Martin Bartek, whose 28 goals were the second most of any player in the Extraliga last season, although, he did have the perfect set up man in Nedvěd. Liberec raided Slavia for the pair of Petr Jelínek and Lukáš Krenželok, and while both will be good for 20 points or so, they are at best second liners and will struggle to have the game-breaking impact Nedvěd had. Liberec will be hoping that in his second full season with the club, Petr Vampola will get more than his 30 points last season, as Vampola has all the tools to be one of the Extraliga’s top scorers. Furthermore, the three Tomáš‘ (Urban, Filippi and Bulík) can be relied on to score points at the Extraliga, while young Michal Buliř is continuing to grow into a solid second liner.

Much like Vitkovice, Liberec scored goals last year and will continue to do so. However, defensively Liberec were all at sea last year, conceding 155 goals in the regular season, more than relegated Kladno. So how has this been rectified? Well, Jirí Hunkes, the core of the defensive unit, has left for the new Extraliga central, Lada Togliatti. Hunkes was one of the premier two-way defencemen in the Extraliga, and left a massive void. Liberec picked up Martin Skoula who most recently played for Slovan, but having watched many Slovan games over the last two years, I can’t really say that I rate the former Minnesota Wild blueliner. The signing of Michal Plutnar from the CHL is a solid pick up and he’ll get regular ice time.

Martin Bartek's goals will be crucial for the White Tigers
Photo: Jiří Princ,
In goal, the Marek Schwarz experiment failed once more, and Marcel Melicherčík tried admirably to provide a solid presence in goal, but it was a smart deadline pick up by the White Tigers to sign veteran Slovak goaltender Ján Lašák. The former Pardubice goalie who backstopped Slovakia to the 2002 World Championship goal was remarkable in his 8 games towards the back end of last season, posting a 94.9% save percentage. He struggled in the playoffs and these numbers are by no means sustainable. Liberec have struggled so far in pre-season, winning only one of their five games, including a 6-2 spanking at the hands of Třinec, which Lašák was between the pipes for.

Player to watch – Tomáš Filippi (Forward. Last season – 38GP 11+10 -1)
Out of Liberec’s young forwards, I think Filippi has the best potential. The speedy forward who can play both centre and wing scored four goals at the WJC in 2012 and since returning from a two year spell in the QMJHL has been a consistent scorer. Injuries restricted him to only 38 games last year, but with a clean bill of health and a bigger role to play now that Nedvěd has moved on, I think the 22 year old will break out and get close to 40 points this season. He needs to work on using his 6‘1‘‘ frame more to his advantage, but Filippi is a name to remember, having made his Czech national team debut this year in the Euro Hockey Tour.

Position: 9th
Top Scorer: Martin Bartek
MVP: Petr Vampola

HC Vitkovice STEEL – Home isn’t where the heart is
Last season: 8th
Last season’s top scorer: Ondřej Roman (25yo, 51GP 13+35 +12)
Last season’s top goaltender: Filip Šindelář (24GP 2.66GAA 91.3%)

Richard Stehlík headlines a
depleted defensive unit
Photo: Petr Kotala,
How does a team with the best away record in the Extraliga finish in 10th place last season? Vitkovice, hailing from Ostrava, managed this feat as they won only 12 games at the ČEZ Arena despite winning well over half of their games on the road. Still, an eighth place finish was commendable and they swept Liberec in the play-ins before losing to Sparta in the first round of the playoffs. So why am I predicting them to finish in 10th and barely scrape into the play-ins this season?

Vitkovice have ended up losing half of their defensive core this summer, leaving almost bare bones at the back. Karol Sloboda (Lada Togliatti), Tomáš Kudělka (Pelicans) and Michal Barinka (Sparta) have all departed, and the remaining unit anchored by veteran Richard Stehlík isn’t exactly impressive. The signing of Slovak prospect Peter Čerešňák is a positive step, but the 21 year old is not going to have an easy ride and will be thrust into big minutes almost instantly. Vitkovice are an incredibly youthful team, and it will be good to see the likes of Jan Štencel, Marek Bail and Lukáš Klok following the departure of the three aforementioned defencemen. (Edit: Early in September, Vitkovice agreed a deal with Třinec for the transfer of Lukáš Zib. Now 37 years of age, Zib has been one of the best Extraliga defencemen in the last decade, and is a solid signing after the defensive losses Vitkovice have suffered this summer.

At least the Ostravans have managed to keep a hold of all of the top scoring forwards. Ever present captain Jiří Burger enters his 14th season with the club, and the 37 year old centre shows no sign of slowing down, coming off a 40 point season last year. Burger is a tireless worker at both ends of the ice. Ondřej Roman has been a valuable addition since his return from North America in 2012. The 25 year old top scored for Vitkovice with 48 points last season, but is known for his streakiness. Vitkovice have a fearsome top six in all as Vladimír Svačina, Rudolf Huna, Peter Huževka and Roman Szturc all impressed last season, making Vitkovice the third top goal scorers in the Extraliga last season. Couple that with the addition of exciting prospect Patrik Zdráhal, Vitkovice will score goals this season.

Slovak forward Michal Vandas scored 15 points in his
debut season for Vitkovice.
Photo: Petr Kotala,
Goals were never Vitkovice’s problem. It was throwing away leads and an average defensive record. The loss of their top three defenceman, not only from a skill point of view, but also their experience, has not been replaced at all. The likely starter in the cage for Vitkovice is Filip Šindelář, who is more a backup than a starter in my opinion. He split most of last season with Daniel Dolejš, who at 20 years old was back up for the Czech Republic at the 2014 World Junior Championships. Dolejš featured 20 times for the Vitkovice senior team last season, and a 91% save percentage was remarkably impressive for his first taste of Extraliga action. I would not be surprised if Dolejš has replaced Šindelář by starter as the end of the season.

Player to watch: Erik Němec (Forward. Last season – 36GP 8+9 +6)
I think Němec will be one of the breakout stars in the Extraliga this season. The 20 year old centre is another product of the Vitkovice system, and he impressed in his debut Extraliga season, especially in the playoffs as he scored 6 points in 8 games. He has continued this in pre-season, scoring one goal and assisting on three through six games. Alongside other young forwards Lukáš Kucsera and Petr Kolouch, Němec could be a mighty surprise for Vitkovice’s already strong looking offence.

Position: 10th
Top Scorer: Ondřej Roman
MVP: Jiří Burger

HC Verva Litvinov – Searching for optimism
Last season: 11th
Last season's top scorer: Viktor Hübl (36yo, 46GP 14+24 -8)
Last season’s top goaltender: Pavel Francouz (48GP 2.02GAA 93.2%)

Can Radim Rulík turn around Litvínov's downward spiral?
Where to start with Litvínov? A consistently mid-table team a few years ago, things have been bleak as of late. They have been featured the relegation play-outs for the last few years, and in all honesty, things look as bleak as the North Bohemian landscape they are situated in. The Czech Extraliga has been a league for old men for a while, but Litvínov have taken the biscuit in recent years. Last season’s roster featured former NHLers Martin Ručinský and Jiří Šlegr, both now 43 years of age. Šlegr, had played five games in 3 years since ¨retiring¨ in 2010, but returned to play 28 games in the 2013/14 season. He’s back full time next season, although the whereabouts of Ručinský are yet to be confirmed.

Viktor Hübl leads the charge, but at 36 years of age, his career is starting to wind down. He is still a valuable first line centre, but will need more help from his teammates if Litvinov want to return to the playoffs. If there is a crumb of comfort, it is that Litvinov had many players who underachieved last season compared to their 2012/13 efforts. Juraj Majdan, the speedy 22 year old Slovak, went the whole 2013/14 goalless after posting 31 points in 48 games the year before. Majdan returned to form in the relegation playoffs, scoring six times in six games. František Lukeš followed up his 54 point season in 12/13 with a paltry 23 points. Litvínov have players who have a proven track record in the Extraliga, and if they put it together then they will do well. However, behind these three, Robin Hanzl will score points, but there is very little in the way of secondary scoring on the roster. Litvínov will also be hoping that former KHL and SHL forward Kamil Piroš will finally bring his scoring touch to the Extraliga.

Jiří Šlegr. The Nagano Gold Medalist will play his
first full season since 2008/09, now 43 years of age
Litvínov desperately needed to bring in 1 or 2 scoring forwards this summer, but their business has been somewhat disappointing. The addition of Kamil Kubát (Sparta) to the blueline is a good pick up, but that is about it. There have been rumours abound that both Ručinský and former Liberec forward Petr Nedvěd will join the club before the start of the season, which would be a welcome boost.

If there is one area where Litvínov don’t need improvement, it is between the pipes. They can count themselves very lucky that Pavel Francouz has decided to sign on for another season, although I don’t think it is too long before KHL clubs come sniffing for the 24 year old Plzeň native. His statistics are remarkable for a goalie on an 11th placed team, and he is easily in the upper echelons of Extraliga goaltenders. Francouz is the sort of goalie to give his team a chance every game, but far too often Litvínov’s anaemic offence let him down.

One to watch: Juraj Majdan (Forward. Last season – 41GP 0+3 -9)
This is a bit of a weird one, but I think that this season is going to be Majdan’s year. It could just be that his 31 point season in 2012/13 was a flash in the pan, but the speedy winger is the most exciting player on Litvínov’s roster, and I think his six goals in six playoff games will the confidence boost that the Slovak forward needs going into the coming season. Paired with Hübl, Majdan will score goals.

Position: 11th
Top scorer: František Lukeš
MVP: Pavel Francouz

BK Mláda Boleslav – Safe for now
Last season: 1.liga Champions
Last season’s top scorer: Tomáš Klimenta (30yo, 49GP 22+36 +39)
Last season’s top goaltender: Michal Valent (31GP 1.66GAA 94.3%)

Mláda Boleslav were a class above in the 1.liga
Photo: Jan Pavlíček,
While I criticised Olomouc for their lack of signings, Mláda Boleslav look to have learned from their last experience in the Extraliga, which resulted in three painful years at the bottom of the table. Mláda finished 19 points clear of Olomouc last season averaging nearly four goals scored a game. The core of this was the front trio of Tomáš Klimenta, David Výborný and Michal Broš, who all remain with the club going into their second foray in the Extraliga. Milan Toman, who had 31 points in 41 games from the blueline also remains, leaving Mláda a solid core on which to build on.

The Jaromir Balaštik experiment failed in 2011/12 for Mláda, so it is good to see that this time round they have looked to invest in promising younger talent rather than old veterans. The signings of promising young Czech forwards Tomáš Hýka and Dominík Pacovský are a great coup for the club, with Pacovský having a proven record with Sparta Praha before his season spent with HC Lev Praha. Also joining Mláda this summer is former Třinec forward David Květoň, which could arguably be their signing of the summer. He will be looking to bounce back from a poor season which resulted in him scoring 19 points following his return from Finland.

Mláda have impressed so far in pre-season.
Photo: Jan Pavlíček,
Ctirad Ovčačík and Michal Barta will help bolster the blueline, along with 23 year old defenceman Matěj Stříteský who joins from Litvinov. Mitja Robar, who was part of the Slovene Olympic squad has also joined the team from Krefeld in the DEL. Mláda are definitely built to score goals rather than keep them out and I think their blueline unit will struggle. However, I think they have enough firepower to keep them out of the relegation playouts.

Michal Valent will have to be in top form though, and while his statistics in 1.liga last season for Mláda were exemplary, the 28 year old Slovak will be hoping that he can play a lot better than he did when he was Mláda’s goalie in their last Extraliga stint. It remains to be seen whether or not Valent will be the reliable goaltender that Mláda need to push on. This perhaps explains the signing of Dukla Jihlava youngster David Rittich. After a very solid season with the third best team in the 1.liga last season, Rittich has been Mláda’s go to goalie in pre-season so far, and has picked up two shutouts already.

Player to watch: Tomáš Hýka (Forward. Last season - Färjestad: 40GP 4+5 -5)
The above statline may not been impressive, but the 21 year old Mláda Boleslav native returns to the Czech Republic following a very successful junior career with Gatineau in the QMJHL. Hýka was almost signed to an entry level contract following an impressive stint at the Philadelphia Flyers, but elected to move to Sweden last season. Hýka is an offensive dynamo, and his speed and scoring touch will be a welcome addition to Mláda’s ranks. Out of any of the teams in the bottom half of the table, Mláda out of any have the potential to surprise. However, I think their defence and goaltending will see them scrapping it out towards the bottom of the table.

Position: 12th
Top Scorer: David Květoň
MVP: David Výborný

HC Energie Karlovy Vary - Another season of struggles
Last season: 12th
Last season’s top scorer: Martin Zaťovič (29yo, 50GP, 20+17 -1)
Last season’s top goaltender: Tomáš Závorka (52GP 2.52GAA 91.5%)

It has been a rough few years for Karlovy Vary
Photo: Kateřina Macečková,
It was not too long ago that Karlovy Vary were in the Extraliga Finals two seasons in a row. However, it has been five years now since the Spa team has come close to repeating their triumph. In fact, it has now been five years since KV have made it to the Extraliga play-ins (Played between the 7th-10th ranked teams to decide who gets the final two playoff places), let alone the playoffs. The rebuild began in earnest last season, as star forwards Lukáš Pech and Petr Kumstát left to join Sparta Praha, while a whole host of loan players were signed in order to get KV back to the playoffs, but it didn’t work as they finished in a disappointing 12th place.

It is another fresh start for KV as five of their six top scorers last season will not feature on the 2014/15 roster. Martin Zaťovič (Lada Togliatti), Roman Vlach (Zlín), Petr Pohl (Eisbären Berlin), Marek Hovorka (Chomutov) and Michal Gulaši (Södertälje) have all departed, with Stanislav Balan being the one remaining forward of any note. The only area where there appears to be any sort of stability is in goal, as Tomáš Závorka will likely retain the starter’s position with Vladislav Habal and David Honzík backing up. Závorka had a so-so 2013/14 in comparison to his first season as a starter the year before. A 91.5 save percentage is not going to cut it if KV want to be contenders for playoff action this coming year.

So if there has been a massive exodus from KV this summer, how come they have been able to beat Plzeň, Litvínov and the KHL’s Medveščak Zagreb in pre-season? Well, in the latter game, new signing Radek Duda scored twice, once on a goal assisted by Balán before burying a penalty shot. Like him or loath him, Duda is going to score points at the Extraliga level. The now 35 year old winger, who has tossed away the #69 along with mirrored visor, joins after a near point per game season with Plzeň. The journeyman forward has been given the captaincy at KV and will be relied on to lead the charge back to the playoffs. Although, part of me doesn’t think that Duda is going to be the best captaincy in all honesty.

Joining Duda and Balan up front is Juris Štāls, who joins from a near point-per-game season with Poprad in the Slovak Extraliga. Veteran David Hruška also joins after scoring 32 points for Chomutov last season, but the scoring depth then drops off. There is a glut of young forwards who may be able to have a breakout season, mainly graduating from the KV team in the MHL. Look for Martin Kohout, Jakub Flek and Tomáš Harkabus to have their first real taste of Extraliga action this coming season.

Radek Duda, now at his seventh Extraliga club
Photo: Kateřina Macečková,
If anywhere, KV have bolstered their blueline, the two biggest signings being Radek Deyl from HC Košice and Jēkabs Rēdlihs from Dinamo Riga. Whether or not they will be able to right the sinking ship remains to be seen, especially with the departure of Radim Bičánek. However, Deyl has been on the cusp of the Slovak national team for two seasons, and Redlihs has over 150 KHL games to his credit.

Player to watch: Radek Duda (Forward. Last season: 47GP 17+24, 141PIM, +6)
It couldn’t be anyone else really. Duda always draws attention, and he can still produce at the Extraliga level. He will more than likely be KV’s top scorer and he can be guaranteed to get himself into trouble at some point this season. The Duda sideshow rolls on to KV, and to be honest with his antics it is no surprise it has been 11 years since he has tasted Extraliga glory.

Position: 13th
Top Scorer: Radek Duda
MVP: Radek Duda

HC Olomouc – Tough Beginnings
Last season: 1.liga Runners up – Promoted in Extraliga playout
Last season’s top scorer: Denis Kindl (22yo, 52GP 16+31 +26)
Last season’s top goaltender: Tomáš Halász (25GP 1.62GAA 94.3%)

I love to see an underdog do well. I really do. However, one look at the HC Olomouc roster for the coming season and it is clear that this a good 1.liga squad, but it just won’t cut the mustard at Extraliga level. Olomouc’s roster last season was heavily reliant on loan talent. For example, top scorer Denis Kindl joined the team on loan from Třinec, and the 22 year old will play for his parent team this coming season. Additionally, Olomouc’s top player in the playoffs, forward David Ostřížek, has signed for Kometa Brno full time after also coming from Třinec. To be fair to them, Olomouc have managed to sign Jan Knotek full time from Havlíčkův Brod, while Rostislav Marosz, who had 11 points in the 1.liga playoffs, signs for another season on loan. However, the loss of Kindl’s points up front will be a massive blow for Olomouc, and none of their summer signings seem to suggest that these points will be replaced.

Tomáš Vošvrda returns to the Extraliga
Photo: Karolina Martinková,

Pavel Patera, now 42, leaves Rytiři Kladno following their relegation and is Olomouc’s marquee summer signing. He picked up 26 points for Kladno last season and no doubt his two way game will be valuable for the club, but I doubt he will match his points target last season. Jakub Matai, the 21 year old Czech forward who split last season between HC Lev Praha and HC Litomeřice in the 1.liga is a good signing and he will relish his first crack at the Extraliga. His points totals were rather disappointing for Litomeřice (7 points in 18 games), but his KHL experience will be vital. If one of these forwards can strike up a partnership with Radim Kucharczyk, then maybe Olomouc will be on to a winner.

In goal, Tomáš Halasz, who was on loan from HC Košice, has joined Pardubice, leaving Tomáš Vošvrda and new signing Jíři Trvaj. Vošvrda had near identical statistics to Halasz in the regular season, but the former was disappointing in the post-season. Vošvrda has extensive Extraliga experience, having been 1b to Marek Pinc at Liberec. Pinc’s tendency for playoff meltdowns saw Vosvrda feature in the post-season heavily for Liberec over the course of three seasons, however, he has struggled to hold down an Extraliga starting post. Trvaj has already picked up a 31 shot shutout in a pre-season victory against Pardubice last week, and is still one of the best ‘one game goalies’ in the Extraliga. Olomouc have picked up another victory over Pardubice and also have a win over Dinamo Minsk to their credit so far in pre-season, but this has been juxtaposed with a loss at relegated Chomutov.

Jakub Herman wheels away in celebration
Photo: Zdeněk Polák,
The defence has been strengthened with the signing of Finnish defenceman Joni Tuominen, a 31 year old veteran has extensive Liiga experience. At the time of writing, Olomouc have also announced the signing of 36 year old Pavel Skrbek, who has played the majority of his career in the SHL. It is a fantastic coup for Olomouc and he easily slots in as their number 1 for the coming season. However, one player won’t solve all of Olomouc’s problems and they will be hoping that some of their younger talent steps up to the plate. It remains to be seen whether Czech U18 representative Alex Rašner will play with the senior team in the coming season, while up front, a number of players will be getting their first taste of action. Roman Rac and Lukáš Králík will be relied on to contribute, and Olomouc will need them to get on the board if they have any hope of not being bottom of the table.

One to watch: Jakub Herman (Forward. Last season: 48GP 16+13 +12)
Out of Olomouc’s young forwards, Herman in my opinion, is the one who will have the best season. He has had two solid seasons with Olomouc since joining in 2011, and the former U18 national team player will be looking to get somewhere close to his 16 goal tally from last season. The goal-scoring forward will have to quickly get up to speed in the Extraliga, and with some work on his skating I think he has the potential to hold down a regular spot in the Czech top flight.

Position: 14th
Top Scorer: Radim Kucharczyk
MVP: Pavel Skrbek

So with the bottom half of the table covered, the time comes to look at the championship contenders. Check back next week, when Velvet Hockey will bring you the run through of the top teams in the Czech Republic for 2014-15. Will Pardubice bounce back? How will Hradec Kralove do in their second season? Will Sparta dominate for a second season? Velvet Hockey will have the answers.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The boys of winter are back: Reflecting on the Czech summer

It is with great pleasure that Velvet Hockey returns from an extended break. After taking a year break from engaging with hockey, I’m feeling refreshed and ready to bring news and views from the Czech Republic and Slovakia and (hopefully) neatly summarise them in English.

HC Zlin: Extraliga Champions 2013/14
Photo: Lukáš Urbanik,
It has been a busy summer in the Czech Extraliga, and I could write reams on the major stories which have filled those long summer days. With pre-season now two weeks in and the league season a little under a month away, most teams are putting the finishing touches to their rosters and seems the perfect time to reflect on the summer that has been.

Two in, two out

Ever since the Extraliga/1.liga relegation playouts were changed to a round robin format (somewhat resembling the Swedish Kvalserien) featuring the top two 1.liga teams and the worst two Extraliga teams, the potential for a massive shift has always been there. HC Pirati Chomutov survived by the skin of their teeth in 2012/13, but this year they were not so lucky. Joining Chomutov in 1.liga next year is Rytiři Kladno. Kladno, owned by Czech legend Jaromir Jágr, were a perenial bottom feeder before the team rebranded under the name Rytiři (meaning Knights) in 2011.

It's 1.liga hockey once again for these Chomutov fans
Photo: Jan Pidrman,
Kladno has been one of the biggest talent producers in Czech hockey over the last century. The club was founded in 1924, and won five Czechoslovak championships between 1975 and 1980. The NHL lockout in 2012/13 was testament to the quality that Kladno has produced, as Jágr, along with Tomáš Plekanec, Marek Židlický, Jiří Tlustý and Tomáš Kaberle all laced up the skates for the Knights. The aforementioned five players were all products of Kladno’s junior system, but the senior squad has always flattered to deceive. Kaberle returned to the Extraliga following a fourteen season NHL career, but he was unable to solidify a leaky defence which conceded an average of over three goals a game. It is not the first time Kladno have fallen to the 1.liga though. In 2002/03 the team bounced straight back following their relegation the season before. This author has his fingers crossed they can do the same in 2014/15.

Chomutov’s two year stint in the Extraliga is a cliché for what could have been. 2012/13 saw the team get off to a flyer, hovering around the playoff places as they seemed to catch teams by surprise and pick up victories at home on the road. However, the racism incident involving Chris Stewart (read here) appeared to take more out of the team than was first thought, as they dropped like an anchor to the bottom of the Extraliga pile by the end of the season. Last season, Chomutov started awfully and continued the trend. A paltry six wins was all the team could muster, 20 less than 13th placed Kladno.

HC Olomouc celebrate their promotion "Czech Style"
Photo: Eva Holásková,
Taking their place are BK Mladá Boleslav and HC Olomouc. The former are no strangers to the Extraliga, as they had a four season spell between 2008 and 2012. However, it was hardly a successful stint in the Czech top flight, finishing last in three of those four seasons, and only managing to finish 13th in 2009/10. In one of the most interesting facts of Czech hockey, HC Olomouc were the first winners of the independent Czech Extraliga in 1993. However, in 1997, the club sold its Extraliga license to Karlovy Vary, and in 1999 the club collapsed all together. Hockey returned to Olomouc in 2001, and they have risen through the ranks from the 2.liga (Czech third tier) and have finally returned to the Czech top flight, having finished runners-up to Mladá Boleslav in the 1.liga final but beating both of the Extraliga teams in the relegation playout.
Both teams have looked to strengthen in order to make sure their stays in the Extraliga are not limited to a solitary season. Mladá Boleslav have retained their three top scorers from last season (Tomáš Klimenta, David Výborný and Michal Broš). Adding to this trio, the club has penned contracts with young forwards Tomáš Hyka (from Farjestad in the SHL), Dominik Pacovský, who failed to make an impact with Lev Praha in the KHL, but has a proven track record with Sparta and David Květoň, who has a number of solid seasons with Třinec to his name.

On the other hand, Olomouc have strengthened the back end. Tomáš Halász’s transfer to Pardubice opened up a space in goal alongside the rejuvinated Tomáš Vosvrda, which has been filled by Jiři Trvaj. Additionally, Olomouc penned deals with Martin Vyrůbalík, who has an exceptional record in recent years in the Slovak Extraliga with Skalica, and Joni Tuominen, a Finnish defenceman with over 350 games experience in the Finnish Liiga and 22-year old Peter Hraško, who made his Slovakia national team debut this season.

The New Slavia

"Lubina Out" - Slavia fans make their voice heard
Photo: Pavel Mazáč,
The club undergoing perhaps the biggest change this offseason is Slavia Praha, not least because coach of fourteen seasons, Vladimir Růžička, left the club to take up the post as Czech Republic head coach on a full time basis. Along with the coach’s departure, club captain Petr Kadlec left for Plzeň after over 1,000 games with Slavia. The ownership fiasco of the last two seasons seems to have got itself sorted and now Slavia can look to move on…right?

Wrong. Or so that’s how it seems to be at present. The man chosen to replace Růžička as coach is Ladislav Lubina, who had a distinguished career with Pardubice as a player and a so-so period as head coach. However, Slavia’s fan club (Sešívaní) have been vocal in their unacceptance of Lubina, with a ‘Lubina ven’ (Lubina out) banner being held proudly at all Slavia’s pre-season games at Eden so far.

The root behind the dislike of Lubina? Reading through the group’s Facebook page and what has been published in the press, it appears that the main point of contention is Lubina’s non-hockey past, where he was responsible for the death of the father Vratislav Lokvenc in a car crash in Hradec Kralove. Lubina fled the scene but was eventually caught, and sentenced to two years’ probation.

Lubina appears to have the support of the Slavia board, and the team’s pre-season form has been incredibly impressive, as they have racked up five wins in a row, defeating the likes of Admiral Vladivostok and thrashing Medveščak Zagreb 5-0. Against Zagreb, Slavia lined up with a first line of Marek Tomica, Jaroslav Bednář and Tomáš Vlasák, the same top line they had in the 2005/06 season. Vlasák has been Slavia’s big name free agent signing this summer, after spending seven successful seasons with Plzeň.

A Ton of bricks

A sight Sparta fans thought they'd never see -
Petr Ton in a Kometa jersey
Photo: Michal Eger,
In arguably the biggest transfer saga of the season, Petr Ton, the face of Sparta Praha for the last decade has
left the club after a 67 point season which ended in acrimonious circumstances. Sparta, who finished the 2013/14 miles ahead of the pack in the regular season, lost once more to Kometa Brno in the playoffs. A lack of agreement over finances has been cited by the club as the reason as to Ton’s release, however, the fact that the 40-year old was benched during the third period of game 7 against Kometa by Sparta head coach Josef Jandač surely must have played a factor in Ton leaving Sparta after his best season yet. A video of Ton’s sitting is available here

In a rather cruel twist of fate, despite rumours linking Ton to his hometown Kladno club, the veteran sharpshooter signed with Kometa Brno, who have been a perennial thorn in Sparta’s side in recent seasons. You can be sure that Ton will get a warm reception on his return to the Tipsport Arena, but if Ton leads another Kometa victory over Sparta in the playoffs, perhaps the goodwill will fade.

The KHL merry go round

As with every summer, there has been no shortage in the transfer activity between the Czech Extraliga and the KHL. I remember interviewing then Zlín (now Pardubice) head coach Zdeněk Venera in 2007 and him remarking that it was a massive struggle for Czech clubs to hold onto their talent because they get offers of between 7 and 10 times more from the KHL. As a consequence, a vast majority of the younger Czech talent that perhaps won’t make it in the NHL, makes the move to Russia.

The biggest ‘Czech’ transfer splash in the KHL perhaps does not involve the Extraliga though, as Slavia product Vladimir Sobotka surprisingly left the St. Louis Blues and signed a bumper contract with Avangard Omsk, a Russian powerhouse who have fallen by the wayside in recent years through poor performances. Other KHL-KHL transfers have seen defenceman Josef Hrabal (former Třinec) move from Sibir Novosibirsk to Dinamo Riga. Vladimir Růžička jr. left Slavia for a tryout with Dinamo Riga, but his future is uncertain as the Latvian club declined to offer him a contract. Defenceman Jan Kolář (former Pardubice) makes the move from Donbass Donetsk to Admiral Vladivostok following Donbass’ decision to cease operations for the coming season. Petr Koukal leaves Neftekhimik Nizhekamsk for KHL newboys Jokerit, while fellow forward Jakub Petružálek will hope to recapture his fine form on Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg’s roster, after leaving Ak Bars Kazan.

In terms of transfers from the Extraliga to the KHL, Sparta lost two players as Tomáš Pöpperle returns to the KHL, this time with HK Sochi, while Tomáš Rachunek has penned a deal with Metallurg Novokuznetsk. Additionally, Martin Zatovic and Karol Sloboda have signed with Lada Togliatti, from Karlovy Vary and Vitkovice respectively. Moving back to the Extraliga from the KHL, Třinec have made the biggest splash, signing Zbyněk Irgl to replace Martin Růžička, who gets a second crack at the KHL, this time with Traktor Chelyabinsk. Additionally a number of the younger players at the now defunct Lev Praha have signed Extraliga deals, Lukáš Cingel and Jakub Matai being two.

Can Irgl lead Třinec back to the Extraliga championship?
Photo: Martin Ježowicz,
All in all, it looks to be yet another promising Extraliga season, with the pressure being on Zlín to see whether
or not they can retain their Extraliga crown. They have made very few changes to their roster, along the loss of Petr Zámorský and Antonín Honejsek, two of the team’s best young players may hit the reigning champions hard. However, the signing of Roman Vlach from Karlovy Vary was a welcome boost, and the Moravians have faith they can get their second title in a row. I will hopefully have a team by team preview up within the next week or so, including my predictions of the Extraliga table and the players to watch this season.

Until then, enjoy pre-season, and if you have always wanted to go and watch some Czech hockey but have never got round to it, this is the year to do so. Pound Sterling is currently around 25 per cent up on the Czech Koruna since the start of the year, and the Czechs are planning on keeping their currency at the same level. This means that a centre ice ticket at the o2 Arena for a Slavia game costs £5.50 (standing for £2), while a ticket at the Tipsport Arena for their deadly rivals Sparta will cost you £3.30 at the cheapest (rising to £5.75). Your pound will go even further in the Czech Republic than it has before, and with beers from as little as £0.80, you cannot go wrong!