Slovakia is one of the wild cards of the 2010 Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament (Team USA is the big wild card). With the quartet of LW Marian Gaborik, RW Marian Hossa, D Zdeno Chara and G Jaroslav Halak nicely spreading elite talent between forwards, defense and goaltender, the Slovaks have a legitimate shot to beat any team on any given night…if things break right. But what Slovakia lacks, compared to the other top teams––Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic and Finland––are quality players throughout their lineup. So while Slovakia can match or even trump their opposition’s best talent for a portion of the game, the rest of the game they’ll find themselves hanging on for dear life, the soft underbelly of their roster exposed. To counter that weakness, head coach Jan Filc will undoubtedly look to have his top players––especially Chara––log huge minutes; the question is how long they’ll be effective playing that way.
So can Slovakia ride a superstar core deep into the tournament? Probably not, if the past is any indication. Consider that in Team Slovakia’s relatively brief Olympic history––four sets of Winter Olympic games, starting in 1994––their 3-1 quarterfinal loss to the rival Czech Republic in Torino was their “greatest Olympic success”. And no, there isn’t a pewter medal for 5th place. True, Slovakia’s star power has never been this great, but the Slovaks are not strangers to having upper echelon scorers in their lineup: you might recall that they featured the likes of Peter Bondra in his prime, when he put up an NHL-leading 52 goals in 1998. For the Vancouver games, the familiar high scoring, top heavy roster construction remains the same, although the ingredients have admittedly been improved – enough for Puck Prospectus to rank them 6th amongst the medal contenders, ahead of Finland.
Appearances (Including 2010):
Total Appearances: 5
OGVT: Offensive GVT
GGVT: Goaltending GVT
DGVT: Defensive GVT
GVT: Total GVT
Name Pos Age Team GP OGVT DGVT GGVT GVT
Marian Hossa F 30 CHI 35.0 17.5 7.0 -- 24.5
Marian Gaborik F 28 NYR 57.0 15.5 4.5 -- 20.0
Zdeno Chara D 32 BOS 56.0 8.7 8.4 -- 17.1
Jaroslav Halak G 24 MON 27.2 - - 12.8 12.8
Michal Handzus F 32 LAK 58.0 4.1 7.6 -- 11.7
Lubomir Visnovsky D 33 EDM 52.0 6.9 4.8 -- 11.7
Branko Radivojevic F 29 KHL* 53.0 6.9 1.8 -- 8.7
Pavol Demitra F 35 VAN 10.0 6.0 2.3 -- 8.3
Marcel Hossa F 28 KHL* 53.0 5.3 1.6 -- 6.9
Miroslav Satan F 35 BOS 15.0 3.9 1.6 -- 5.5
Jozef Stumpel F 37 KHL* 53.0 4.3 1.2 -- 5.4
Lubos Bartecko F 33 SEL* 9.0 2.8 0.8 -- 3.6
Andrej Sekera D 23 BUF 31.0 1.6 1.7 -- 3.3
Richard Lintner D 32 KHL* 33.0 2.3 0.8 -- 3.1
Milan Jurcina D 26 CBJ 41.0 0.5 2.2 -- 2.6
Richard Zednik F 33 KHL* 35.0 1.5 1.0 -- 2.5
Andrej Meszaros D 24 TBL 56.0 0.4 1.9 -- 2.3
Martin Cibak F 29 KHL* 48.0 1.7 0.5 -- 2.2
Rastislav Stana G 30 KHL* 46.0 - - 1.1 1.1
Martin Strbak D 35 KHL* 51.0 0.1 0.7 -- 0.8
Tomas Kopecky F 27 CHI 55.0 -1.2 1.4 -- 0.2
Zigmund Palffy F 37 SLOVAKIA* 53.0 0.0 0.0 -- 0.0
Peter Budaj G 27 COL 8.6 - - -0.3 -0.3
Total 30.4 88.5 51.7 13.6 153.8
*League, if not the NHL
Counting stats shown are for 2009-10 (except Palffy: 2008-09)
Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) is normalized for last 3 seasons
Yet with all the firepower they bring to bear, you might miss the fact that Slovakia’s biggest improvement has been in net. A red hot Jaroslav Halak (17-9-2, .927 save percentage)––who has finally wrested Montreal’s starting gig away from former wunderkind Carey Price––could be Slovakia’s biggest difference maker, saving their bacon when the dregs of their lineup inevitably give up more scoring chances than they create. The 24 year old Halak is not a big name like Martin Brodeur (Canada), Henrik Lundqvist (Sweden) or Miikka Kiprusoff (Finland) nor does he have the extended NHL track record of Tomas Vokoun (Czech Republic), Ryan Miller (USA) or Evgeni Nabokov (Russia), but with the way he’s been playing this season, he doesn’t take a back seat to anyone in this tournament (In fact, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the top teams are on roughly equal terms in goal; their starters are all in the top 11 of goaltending GVT). Though G Peter Budaj manned the nets admirably for Slovakia in 2006, make no mistake: Halak is undoubtedly the man for Slovakia in Vancouver. By all rights, Budaj should only get the start against long shot Latvia, but with the schedule maker pitting the Slovaks against the Czechs and Russians on back-to-back nights, you never know what coach Filc might decide. G Rastislav Stana is on the roster for emergency purposes only, of course.
Expect offensive-minded D Lubomir Visnovsky––a commendable 9 G, 21 A, 30 P, +0 plus-minus on an awful Edmonton Oilers’ squad––to join (assumed) team captain Chara in logging extreme minutes on the blueline. You might be surprised to find that we rank the dynamic duo as the tournament’s top one-two punch on defense, better than Keith-Boyle of Canada (since Mike Green was inexplicably left off the roster), Markov-Gonchar of Russia, Lidstrom-Enstrom of Sweden, Rafalski-Suter of USA, Timonen-Pitkanen of Finland and Kaberle-Kuba of the Czech Republic. Yet while their top pairing ranks the best, the rest of their defensive unit ranks worse than any other contender’s. So again, it’s a question of just how long Chara and Visnovsky can stay out there, to minimize the use of D Andrej Meszaros, D Milan Jurcina, D Andrej Sekera and KHL defensemen D Richard Lintner and D Martin Strbak. As far as roles, Jurcina is a defense-first blueliner who you’ll see logging plenty of time on the penalty kill, while Meszaros will likely play on the second power play unit – though beginning to be a hazy memory, he’s shown offensive skills in the past. Strbak has put up his share of points in the KHL, so he may see power play time as well.
At forward, the primary reinforcements for superstars Gaborik and Hossa are veterans F Pavol Demitra, F Michal Handzus and F Miroslav Satan––credible second and third line NHL skaters––but don’t expect these thirty-somethings to see massive minutes on ice. A host of players of recent NHL vintage fills out the rest of the roster, such as playmaker F Josef Stumpel, who hopefully still has enough skills remaining to feed the puck efficiently to Slovakia’s dangerous finishers. Perhaps the best known non-NHL skater is F Zigmund “Ziggy” Palffy, a former multiple 40 goal scorer who averaged over a point per game in his NHL career; the 37 year old has literally dominated the Slovakian league over the past three seasons. Thus, along with Peter Forsberg and Jaromir Jagr (if he’s able to play through a groin injury), Palffy may be the most intriguing Olympic participant from the European leagues.
Look for Slovakia to fare as well as second place in Group B, missing a bye as the Group A and Group C runner-up should place higher due to an easier schedule. Assuming no stumble against a non-contender in the Secondary Round, the Slovaks can expect a quarterfinal date with a top tier team like Russia, Sweden or the United States. Such a matchup would give Slovakia a puncher’s chance of making a semifinals appearance, a new high water mark for their country in Olympic hockey.
Schedule: Czech Republic, February 17 at 21:00; Russia, February 18 at 21:00; Latvia, February 20 at 16:30. Secondary round (except for byes) for all teams on February 23.
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics. Follow Timo on Twitter at @timoseppa.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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