GROUP A: CZECH REPUBLIC
2012 finish: Fifth, lost 2-1 in overtime to Russia in quarter-final
2012 round-robin record: 2-0-0-2, 12 GF/11 GA
Yahoo! Canada Sports has asked North American-based players, some of whom are playing in the world junior championship, to break down their national teams.
Climbing out of the relegation zone last year means Radek Faksa, Tomas Hertl, David Musil and the Czechs finally have a friendly draw in the world junior championship. They might also have a group which can cash in on their opportunity, provided they have the support to match a multifaceted offence.
Team Czech Republic, which last medalled in 2005 when it upended Phil Kessel and Team USA for the bronze in Vancouver, spent half a decade in a vicious cycle of lower-rung finishes that inevitably put them in pools with hockey heavyweights at the following WJC. Last season, with current Detroit Red Wings farmhand Petr Mrazek stealing the show, they made an enervating run to within one goal of playing for a medal, ultimately finishing fifth.
They managed that feat without a big cog, laser-accurate finisher Marty Frk, the Red Wings high pick who missed the event due to a concussion. Ufa could represent their best medal shot in a while, with high draft picks Faksa, Frk, Hertl (especially Hertl) and Dmitrij Jaskin all together for the last time. Edmonton Oilers high second-rounder David Musil anchors the defence in a lineup more than half composed of Canadian major junior players, including likely starting goalie Patrik Bartosak.
"I think we have a much better team this year so our wish is semifinals," says Faksa, the Kitchener Rangers pivot whom the Dallas Stars drafted No. 13 overall last June, four choices before high-scoring Hertl was snapped up by the San Jose Sharks. "We have some pretty good guys. We're in the easier group so I hope we can finish in second place."
The missing link for the 2012 Czech team might have just been having another true goal scorer who could provide a team-wide adrenalin shot with one flick of his stick. They were shut out in each of their group games, which contributed to drawing Russia instead of Slovakia in the quarter-final (whom they later beat for fifth place). In the quarter, they could manage just a singleton and did not cash on a power play that bridged the final minute of regulation and overtime. Russia's Nikita Kucherov left the goat horns in the penalty box, setting up the winner just 16 seconds after his minor expired.
Enter Frk, who missed last season's tournament due to a concussion. He, along with the all more mature Faksa, Hertl and Jaskin, could make a difference.
"We had some chances but didn't score in that Russia game," Faksa recalls. "We had a power play going into overtime. We were very close."
"It might have different if Frk was there," adds Faksa, whose fellow Stars prospect Matej Stransky of the WHL's Saskatoon Blades was again left off the roster by the Czech hockey federation. "He had experience from the world juniors in [the 2010-11 season]. He's a sniper, he's a goal scorer. We're pretty good friends, so if I play with him, that would be good."
Hertl is thriving as a boy playing with men in the Extraliga, where his 22 points are second-most among players age 22 and younger. (No other world junior-eligible Extraliga'er has even reached double digits.)
The big questions are in defence and in goal. Musil is one of four defenders who hail from the CHL, along with the P.E.I. Rocket's Tomas Pavelka, Kamloops Blazers' Marek Hrbas and returnee Petr Sidlik of the Victoriaville Tigres. Jan Stencel has played with HC Vitkovice's top team, a nice feather in the cap for a 5-foot-9 defender who's only 17.
Bartosak and the Brampton Battalion's Matej Machovsky were considered front-runners to be the two goalies. Bartosak has the best statline of any WHL goalie eligible for the WJC. Matching the Mrazician's showing is a tall task for the 6-foot-2 'tender.
"I think it will be very hard for them to do the same as Petr Mrazek did last year," Faksa says. But both these guys are very good. It's good that they have some challenge over fighting for No. 1."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Forward Radek Faksa (Kitchener Rangers, OHL). Now that he is 18 and has been through the tournament once, the rangy two-way centre feels ready to lead. "Last year I was younger and I was so happy just that i was there," he says. "I played fourth line and I was taking experience. This time I want to be a leader on the team.
Forward Tomas Hertl (Slavia Prava, Czech Extraliga). Hertl is having a superb sophomore season; his 22 points in 29 games leads all teenagers playing in the Extraliga. Perhaps the Sharks best teen prospect, he had five points in six games at the 2012 WJC and is a big forward with hands and vision, in the classic Czech mould. "He had a good tournament at the Karjala Cup," says Faksa, referring to the November tune-up event for the IIHF senior worlds which the Czechs won in November.
Forward Dmitrij Jaskin (Moncton Wildcats, QMJHL). The Russian-born St. Louis Blues second-rounder migrated to Moncton and has put up 50 points in less than half a full season's schedule, so he seems to be pretty talented. Uh, to put it mildly.
Forward Marty Frk (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL). Detroit Red Wings high second-rounder had 29 points in his final 17 games for the Mooseheads before joining the Czech camp. Injuries and adjustments to North America were a drag on Frk's progress in his first two seasons, but he is showing that is a superb finisher from the high slot and can drift away from the coverage.
Defenceman David Musil (Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL). The Oilers prospect has had some misfortune related to the WJC; he missed it in 2011 due to an ankle injury. Last season, a blindside hit kept him out of the Czechs' final group game, where a loss to Finland decided who played Russia in the quarter-final and who played Slovakia. (The Czechs beat Slovakia in the consolation game.) Having Musil at less than his best probably altered the Czechs' fortunes.
Goalie Patrik Bartosak (Red Deer Rebels, WHL). What, Canada, you think you're the only country in the world who expects a 19-year-old goalie to be invincible right from the start of December and then get better? The burning question back in Prague is whether Bartosak can follow up on Mrazek's act from last season. Bartosak has helped Red Deer climb into Eastern Conference contention in the Dub with a 2.35 average and .931 save percentage for former Team Canada coach Brent Sutter.
MUST WIN GAME: Finland (Dec. 28, 2:30 a.m. ET)
Their matchup last Dec. 31 in Edmonton went a long way toward determining which darkhorse played in a medal game in the Americans' absence. The Czechs will have slightly less rest than Finns after each plays on Day 1 of the tournament. They will be coming off an opener vs. Sweden whereas their Nordic nemesis opens vs. Latvia.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.