Offense Preview: The Czech Republic is always an interesting group to look at because while you might not remember them when listing off the world's hockey super powers, they can't be forgotten about or else you'll wind up going home early.
This year's Czech Republic roster looks like an interesting mix of younger talent of the here and now, mixed with a large number of guys who have been around the business of professional hockey for many years, some more than 15.
The biggest standout in this regard is the second-oldest player in the NHL today, Jaromir Jagr, who will be competing in his fifth Olympic games. The second standout, former NHL-er who apparently still plays professionally Petr Nedved. Nedved has not played in the NHL since 2007, and at the age of 42 will be competing in only his second Olympics. Nedved last played for the Czech Republic in 1994, meaning it has been 20 years since he wore his country's colors in the Olympics.
While Jagr has been lighting it up for the New Jersey Devils this year, passing great names such as Mario Lemeiux in the NHL's all-time records book, Nedved will undoubtedly be much slower, having played the last several years in the Czech Extraliga.
But perhaps the biggest story beyond the inclusion of these older players are the names who will not be going to Sochi as a result. Phoenix Coyotes sniper Radim Vrbata did not get the call for his country, along with Calgary Flames stalwart Jiri Hudler. Both guys are in the top five in NHL scoring amongst Czech born players.
Two KHL players will also travel to Sochi, Jiri Novotny (Lev Prague) and Roman Cervenka (SKA St. Petersburg), and figure to see considerable minutes. Novotny played in the NHL from 2005-2009, never scoring more than 24 points in a season. Cervenka played one season in the NHL, last year with the Calgary Flames where he scored 17 points in 39 games.
Defense Preview: The Czech defense is similar: five NHLers and three European-based players, including two from the Czech Extraliga.
One Extraliga player: Tomas Kaberle, whose NHL career ended with two years of teams saying "For crying out loud will anybody take this guy off our hands? Please?!"
Highlighting the NHL representation on the Czech blue line are veterans Zbynek Michalek (Phoenix Coyotes), Michal Rozsival (Chicago Blackhawks), and Marek Zidlicky (New Jersey Devils) while young Ladislav Smid (Calgary Flames) and Radko Gudas (Tampa Bay Lightning) will also be making the trip.
Lukas Krajicek (Dynamo Minsk) is the lone KHLer in this unit.
Goaltending Preview: For many years, the Czechs have not been extremely deep at the goaltender position, but it hasn't mattered because they've had one megagiant in the goaltending world who could carry them through the tournament. For years, Dominik Hasek led this team from the back, including to a gold medal at the 1998 games in Nagano. After his retirement, the torch passed to Tomas Vokoun, who started for the team in both the 2006 and 2010 games. After a health scare due to a blood clot, the burden now falls on the shoulders of Ondrej Pavelec. Despite Pavelec being berated for his play with the Winnipeg Jets this season (18-22-4, 2.97 GAA, .901 Sv%), we Ducks fans have had the unfortunate displeasure of seeing what he's capable of when he's on his game.
He will be joined by two KHL goaltenders: Jakub Kovar (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg) and Alexander Salak (SKA St. Petersburg). Before we go off assuming that Pavelec will get the starting job, Kovar has put up some pretty stellar numbers this season: 19-15 record, 1.91 GAA, and .934 Sv%. For a team that's never finished higher than 16th in the KHL, Kovar has them currently sitting sixth in their eastern conference. And Salak's numbers are just as good, putting up a 17-10 record along with a 1.86 GAA and a .933 Sv%.
NHLers Michal Neuvirth (Washington Capitals), Marek Mazanec (Nashville Predators), and Petr Mrazek (Detroit Red Wings) were all passed over as well, though in this case I can agree with them that the choices they made were probably the best ones.
X-Factor: The Czechs really appeared to make the biggest mistake you could possibly make when selecting an Olympic team: they made their choices political rather than taking their best players. Rather than take the best group players available to them, the governing body decided that they would rather promote the idea to Czech players that if you play in the Czech league, you will still have a chance at going to the Olympics, even if you don't play in the NHL. To me it really looks like more of a grasp to try to keep some of its talent at home rather than let them go play where they can face the best competition in the world, and hone their skills against those players.
As a result, the X-factor for this team will be can a past-their-prime segment of their roster based in a second-tier European league hold up against the best players the world has to offer from the KHL and NHL?
Predicted Finish: The Czechs political picks get them upset by Switzerland in the group stage and they're out before the quarterfinals even start. That's what happens when you rely on Tomas Kaberle and former-Oiler Ladislav Smid to keep pucks out of your net.