Few teams in the World Cup of Hockey will ask “what if?” about their roster quite like the Czech Republic. Four of the top six Czech scorers from last season (Jaromir Jagr, David Krecji, Jiri Hudler, and Tomas Hertl) are sitting this one out, leaving them much thinner up front.
As a result, the Czechs undoubtedly face an uphill climb in this tournament. But, you still shouldn’t written them off entirely. This is a group that is familiar with international play and with each other. All but two players on the roster (Michal Neuvirth and Andrej Sustr) have represented the Czech Republic at the senior level. In a short tournament where the champion will play a maximum of seven games, that familiarity is invaluable.
Despite the missing offensive firepower, this remains a fairly potent group up front. Six players scored half-a-point per game or better last season. Tomas Plekanec and Jakub Voracek are expected to be two of the offensive leaders, and could be due for strong tournaments. The pair led all Czech players in the World Cup in points per game last season, despite shooting the worst percentage of their careers. The blueline is also experienced, with 1670 games played in the NHL.
But what may be most intriguing about the Czechs is not what was in the NHL last season, but what will be this season. Teammates for Avangard Omsk of the KHL this past season, defenseman Michal Kempny and center Vladimir Sobotka will debut and return to the NHL this season, respectively. Sobotka will help mitigate the loss of offensive talent up front, while Kempny’s strong two-way game that caught Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman’s eye will provide stability on the Czech blueline. The two make the Czechs much deeper than initially realized, and will be pivotal for any chance of an upset.
Of course, any team looking to shock the world requires strong play in net, and the Czechs’ two main options can provide just that. Petr Mrazek and Michal Neuvirth both unseated their teams’ respective starters in the postseason after solid regular seasons. The pair was stellar in the playoffs, posting a .945 and.981 SV%, albeit in incredibly small sample sizes. Mrazek and Neuvirth were 16th and 17th in even strength save percentage last season, ahead of all but three goalies in Group A at the World Cup of Hockey that played at least 1000 minutes last season (Braden Holtby, Corey Crawford, Thomas Greiss), and in front of all three American goalies.
If the Czechs can beat Team Europe in pool play, they’ll likely just need one win against the United States and Canada to advance to the semifinals. With proven scorers, under-the-radar x-factors, and strong goaltending, they’ve got all the key ingredients for an upset run. They’ll certainly need a lot to break their way, but in a short tournament where many expect so little from this team, a better question than “what if” might just be “why not?”