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By Steven Ellis – Eurohockey.com

The Czech Republic have struggled over the past ten years at the World Juniors. Will they finally break the mold, or will it be back to being a mid-pack nation again.

Goalies: For the third straight year, the Czech Republic are going with Daniel Vladar between the pipes. While his experience is going to be very welcomed on the Czech roster, the Boston Bruins prospect will surely have to improve his play from recent World Junior tournaments. In both events, however, Vladar went in as the backup to Vitek Vanecek, but as a 19-year-old in 2017, he’ll have the top spot all but locked up heading in. Vladar had an odd route to the North American pro ranks, having shined in a USHL role last year in junior before jumping to the Providence Bruins of the AHL. He’s got tremendous skill, no doubt about it, but he hasn’t proven himself at a high enough level yet that he can get the job done. He has already won silver medals for the Czech’s at the 2013 U18 World Juniors and 2014 Hlinka Memorial tournaments, so he knows how to win when it comes international hockey. But will it matter in Montreal this year, where the Czech’s are far from being top contenders?

Defencemen: With five players in the CHL, the Czech’s have a fun base to work around defensively, even if they’re not as strong as the teams they’ll be facing off against. Their two best defenders, however, are Jakub Zboril and Libor Hájek, who are veterans to the international game. A smart, quick skating defenseman with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, Zboril will likely be one of the top blueliners at the tournament and having a lot of shots against will only help his case. Zboril, a 2015 Boston Bruins draft pick, played in his first World Junior tournament a year ago but has played nearly 100 games in a Czech uniform over the past few years, so the teams know what they’re getting out of him. Hajek, a second-round pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning this past year, will be making his World Junior debut for the Czech’s, but has also represented his nation numerous times. Hajek won a silver medal at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka, a tournament the Czech’s typically do well in. Offensively, Hajek isn’t much of a factor, but he still is a good shutdown defender that you can count on in the final minutes of a tight contest.

Another intriguing name is Detroit second rounder Filip Hronek. The 18-year-old played at last year’s U20 tournament, putting up two points in five games. This year, while playing for the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, Hronek is nearing a point-per-game average and is an ideal power-play candidate thanks to his accurate shot and great vision. Vojtěch Budík, a fifth rounder by the Buffalo Sabres, is more of a stay-at-home defenceman with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, but has developed his offensive skills this year. And if you want to look away from North America, undrafted defender Petr Kalina will be a solid depth guy that has slowly evolved into a decent young player in the professional Czech league.

Forwards: The Czech’s are weak up front, something that has yet to really change after the Czech’s dominance on the international scene in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The one thing they do have, however, is a good amount of players that know to use the smaller NHL ice to their advantage, but with no Pavel Zacha, they’ll have to rely on other players to find the back of the net. One of those players is Adam Musil, who has actually represented Canada at the 2013 Under-17’s and 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournaments. The captain of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels, Musil comes from a strong hockey background which includes two-time World Junior bronze medalist and Stanley Cup champion Bobby Holik. Musil has never been a top end scorer in junior, but he’s one of the best that the Czech’s have.

Fellow Rebels forward Michael Spacek is playing the best hockey of his junior career, so there’s no doubt he’ll be relied on in Montreal. A silver medalist at the 2014 U18’s, Spacek has recorded six points in ten World Junior games over the past two years and should be counted on in a key leadership role. Tomas Šoustal has never been a strong offensive threat for the Czech’s, but he’s been a solid secondary option for them. A member of the 2016 World Junior team, Soustral is hoping to finish with more than just a single point in his final go-around for the junior squad. Soustral has a strong work ethic and plays every shift like he’s trying to prove something. If that doesn’t say enough about him, nothing else really will.

Prince Albert Raiders forward Simon Stransky is a good option to skate on the first line for the Czech’s. Aiming for a point-per-game in the WHL, Stransky has looked good in previous national team performances, but not as much with the U20 team at last year’s World Juniors. Filip Suchý should also be counted on at points throughout the tournament, as he has adjusted well to playing on NHL-sized ice. And never, ever forget about Filip Chlapík, a scoring machine with the QMJHL’s Charlottetown Islanders. Chlapik is on pace for well over 80 points in his third season with the club, putting him eighth in league scoring after a strong start to the year.

Projection: If the Czech’s are hoping to medal in 2017, they’ve got the odds stacked against them. The country hasn’t medaled at the U20 level since 2005 in Grand Forks, United States, and has finished fifth five times since then. Their best players are returning more experienced and stronger than ever, but the team still lacks overall talent and an underlying strength. They don’t have any tremendous weaknesses, but they do need to get lucky if they hope to contend for a medal in Montreal.