GROUP A: SLOVAKIA
Last year's finish: Eighth
Last year's round-robin record: 0-1-0-3
Yahoo! Sports has asked current Canadian Hockey League imports — some of whom are playing in the tournament — to break down their national teams.
Losing the top junior-age players to North America has hurt hockey in Slovakia. One offshoot of it, though, is it has helped furnish the Slovakian national team them with a deeper and tougher blueline than it usually brings to the world junior tournament.
Typically, Slovakia boasts some highly skilled forwards — think a 16-year-old Marian Gaborik leading them to an improbable bronze medal in 1999 or Tomas Tatar and Richard Panik indulging Canada's sense of schadenfreude by bouncing Team USA in the 2009 quarter-finals in Ottawa — but might be spotty in other areas. This edition boasts four drafted blueliners who play major junior in Canada: Edmonton Oilers draft picks Martin Marincin and Martin Gernat from the WHL, OHLer and New York Rangers choice Peter Ceresnak and Tampa Bay Lighting pick Adam Janosik from the QMJHL. Michal Cajkovsky of the Ottawa 67's also had a long look from the Philadelphia Flyers this fall.
"Mostly I think we have a better defence this year than offence, so it's going to be more defensive play," said returning forward Tomas Jurco, a Detroit Red Wings second-round pick who plays for the reigning Memorial Cup-champion Saint John Sea Dogs. "We can still do some things in the offensive zone ... but on defence we have a lot of drafted guys. If we play together, I hope we can go farther than last year, to quarter-finals."
Slovakia's only one first-round win last season was in overtime over the eventually relegated Germans. Losing Marincin to a two-game suspension for a check to the head definitely hurt their chances. On paper, it looks like they should have a better showing, although Jurco has the bar set realistically.
"It would be great for our country to make the medal round," he said. "Our hockey has been getting a little bit lower. Last year, our under-18 team fell to the [IIHF's] second division. It's been hard for Slovak fans, because they're used to having had really good teams when Gaborik and those guys were playing. (The) quarter-finals would be good for us."
The Slovak contingent of CHL blueliners mostly profile as two-way types. Marincin and Gernat offer experience, while Ceresnak ("he's got a really good shot," Cajkovsky notes) could also be valuable on the power play.
Up front, Slovakia might be reliant to a fault on the two Red Wings choices, Jurco and the Vancouver Giants' Marek Tvrdon. The forward depth is a little suspect, although it could get better in a few years if more Slovaks make use of the Kontinental Hockey League’s under-22 developmental league.
Jurco was a role player 12 months ago at the world juniors in Buffalo, but has matured greatly since. Along with being nails for victorious Saint John in last spring's MasterCard Memorial Cup, this season he's done well despite seldom getting to play with his regular linemates, Jonathan Huberdeau (broken foot) and Stanislav Galiev (broken wrist). Losing them was an omen for what he'll be expected to do for his country.
"I've been trying to step up for those guys [in Saint John] and I think I'm playing well," he said.
Slovakia has the relative luxury of being able to go to the hot hand among two 19-year-old goalies who play pro in the Extraliga, Dominik Riecicky and Juraj Simboch. The former was on last year's team, but Simboch might have supplanted him in the pecking order.
"We got pretty good goaltending back home and either should be good for us," Cajkovsky said.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Forward Tomas Jurco (Saint John Sea Dogs, QMJHL) Jurco, AKA The Duke of Dekes and Dangles and AKA Tommy Toe Drag, has diversified his game this season in Saint John. He was Detroit's first draft choice (35th overall) in June and has developed a responsibility on the ice that complements his array of YouTube-worthy moves.
Forward Marek Tvrdon (Vancouver Giants, WHL) Tvrdon was out of sight and mind last season when major knee surgery limited him to 13 games in his rookie season in North America. However, he's matured into a point-a-game scorer in Vancouver, showing that Detroit got a steal when it snapped him up in the fourth round this summer.
Defencemen Martin Marincin (Prince George Cougars, WHL) and Martin Gernat (Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL) The namesake blueliners are both Oilers picks. Marincin will expected to be the all-situations defenceman, while Gernat might be more of an offensive guy.
Forward Marko Dano (HK Dukla Trencin, Slovakia Extraliga) He is just a baby on a world junior scale, less than a month past his 17th birthday. But as David O'Brien of Czech Hockey Report noted in Puck Worlds' preview, Dano "seems to think at a level that is uncommon for players that age ... The reason scouts are excited about him is they figure he will still mature physically and if he can improve the skills he has, he could turn out to be a great player."
MUST WIN GAME: Circle their New Year's Eve game against Switzerland, which will feature some sweet skill between Sven Bärtschi and Jurco. Both are playing back-to-back; Slovakia will have a longer turnaround since its Dec. 30 game vs. Sweden is a matinee while the Swiss play Latvia that night.
"I know both teams will be tired but it will be big," Jurco says. "For us, the tournament will come down to beating Latvia and Switzerland. Hopefully we can play well against Sweden and Russia. Just keep it close and we'll see."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.