GROUP B: CZECH REPUBLIC
Last year's finish: Seventh
Last year's round-robin record: 1-0-0-3
Yahoo! Sports has asked current Canadian Hockey League imports — some of whom are playing in the tournament — to break down their national teams.
There's a sense that Team Czech Republic is sick of the same old, same old.
One strong finish will not remedy the issues the structural issues in Czech hockey that have cropped up since the former Czechoslovkia dissolved in the early 1990s. That's a given. They would also need everything to break right in order to get on the podium in Alberta, but it could only be a matter of a few small improvements. Namely, tighter play in the defensive zone, better discipline and lights-out goaltending from Petr Mrazek, the Detroit Red Wings pick who was kept off the team by some red tape within the Czech hockey program for the past two years.
"The last medal they had was 2005, but it we play like a team, we can surprise and finish in a very good position," said Mrazek, 19, who led the Ontario Hockey League in save percentage last season. "But everyone knows we have a very hard group to play against."
The Czechs boast two recent NHL second-round picks, Edmonton Oilers-drafted defender David Musil (31st overall) and St. Louis Blues-selected forward Dmitrij Jaskin (41st). They took a hit in the week leading up to the tournament when potential NHL first-rounder Martin Frk removed himself since he felt he might not be sufficiently recovered from a concussion to help the team, having played only seven QMJHL games. In his stead are two skilled, good-sized forwards, NHL draft prospects Radek Faksa and, Tomas Hertl, plus 6-foot-4 Montreal Canadiens pick Daniel Pribyl. The Czechs face a significant challenge to come together quickly, though.
"Obviously, we'd like to have a medal, but first we have to bond as a team and go from there," said Musil. "A lot of us are used to the small ice, so that should help us, And the guys coming over from the Czech Republic play the kind of game that should help them get used to it pretty quickly."
The Czechs badly missed Musil last season when an ankle injury kept him out of the tournament. They allowed at least six goals in all three of their round-robin losses. Musil is part of the remedy — as Mrazek put it, "He will be the best defenceman for us and a key to our power play and penalty kill" — and so are overhauling their systems.
"Last year, we had a tough time on the PK [penalty kill]," assistant coach Jiri Fischer recently told IIHF.com "We had a lot of missed coverages ... We want to be a little more structured. We want to be a little more disciplined."
Faksa and 18-year-old Tomas Hyka of the Gatineau Olympiques are each point-a-game scorers as newcomers to the CHL. Hertl will also bear watching.
"Hertl was the best player last year on our under-18 team, so I think he can definitely help us," Mrazek said.
Both Musil and Mrazek said the Czech hockey federation's issues with securing players' releases from club teams for the tournament have persisted. This isn't the best under-20 team the country could have sent. That's part and parcel of how the country has lost control of its hockey development. What existed in the former Czechoslovakia is gone for good. Now it's a matter of figuring out how to compete in a borderless hockey world. The junior program did hold more camps this summer in hope of having a more cohesive team.
"Czechoslovakia, when they were raising players, the structure was very different," Fischer also told IIHF.com. "There were eight teams in [the present-day] Czech Republic, four in Slovakia. All of the players were in. Now out of the Czech whole development, there are 40-some players in the NHL. There are 40 players in the KHL. You've got 30 players in Scandinavia. The top juniors are out of the country. And all of a sudden, you're missing 150, 200 players that could be playing in the environment of the Czech Republic."
Making the medal round is definitely possible for the Czechs, who outshot the reigning champions from Russia 43-21 in a 5-3 loss leading up to the tournament. For what it is worth, their key players have some added motivation. Mrazek finally has a chance on the big stage. Musil also has something to prove.
"It was disappointing last year that I couldn't play, but I'm really excited to play in Edmonton in the arena of the team that drafted me," he said.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Defenceman David Musil (Vancouver Giants, WHL) Musil will play in virtually every situation for the Czechs. A high ankle sprain kept the British Columbia-born blueliner out of last year's tourney; it also probably played some part in why he was not a first-rounder. He'll go head-to-head against his WHL coach, Don Hay and teammate Brendan Gallagher in the Dec. 28 game vs. Canada.
Forward Tomas Hertl (HC Slavia Prava, Czech Extraliga) The 18-year-old is a rangy centre at six foot two and 196 pounds who is holding his own in his country's pro league with nine goals and 15 points in 23 games. Independent scouting service Hockey Prospect projects him as a first-round choice.
"I played with him at the [IIHF] under-18s this year and he's a really good player," Musil said. "He can score goals, but he's more of a two-way forward."
Forward Radek Faksa (Kitchener Rangers, OHL) He's only 17, but he blends premier skill with the will to play the North American style. Faksa is the second-leading scorer in Kitchener with 16 goals and 33 points in 31 games.
Goaltender Petr Mrazek (Ottawa 67's, OHL) The Detroit Red Wings prospect is playing internationally for the first time since the 2009 IIHF under-18 championship in Fargo, N.D., three seasons ago. Mrazek's numbers (3.01 average, .909 save percentage) are not as glowing as they were a season ago (2.84, .920). That could be put down to the 67's having battled injuries and being in an improved and deeper conference. What is for certain is that he has superb athleticism and reflexes.
MUST WIN GAME: The Czechs are in the Group of Death with Canada, the U.S. and highly touted Finland. Their New Year's Eve matinee vs. Suomi might make or break their tournament, but they'll be a clear underdog. As Musil put it, "There's some teams that we just have to try to get points against."
Both teams will be in the second of back-to-back games. The Czechs will be coming off a likely tough game vs. powerhouse Team USA and Finland will likely be coming off a cakewalk vs. Denmark.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.