Article written by Casey Courtright - Community Contributor
It's been a long four years since 2010 for many teams, and for Slovakia it has been no different. One may even say that in the four years since Vancouver, no nation has been hit harder than Slovakia.
Though stars Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa remain key cogs for the Slovak squad, other core players from that fourth place squad will not be in Sochi. Pavol Demitra, who hit the post in the dying seconds against Canada and who led the Vancouver tournament in scoring, tragically lost his life in the Lokomotiv plane crash on September 7, 2011. Marian Gaborik (collar bone) and Lubomir Visnovsky (concussion) are both injured and will not play. Richard Zednik and Zigmund Palffy have both retired. Miroslav Satan, Team Slovakia's all-time leading scorer, didn't make the roster, partially due to him not playing a single game this year until early December, still nursing an injury suffered in the KHL during the lockout, ironically at the hands of Chara.
Quality players like Demitra, Gaborik, and Visnovsky aren't easily replaceable, but one look at the Sochi squad (or a look at the 12 returning players from the 2012 World Championship team that won a silver medal) will show that there is a bright future for Slovakian hockey. Five players under the age of 25 made the team, and all but Tomas Marcinko have played in the NHL, though Marcinko played three seasons in the AHL with the New York Islanders' farm team in Bridgeport.
Tomas Jurco was born just four days before Czechoslovakia officially split up, and will suit up for Slovakia at the young age of 21. He has unreal speed and offensive flair, and the gift of wheels will definitely help him on the bigger Olympic ice. He was pushed into duty with the Red Wings this year due to about eleventy billion injuries but has held his own, and now gets to showcase his talent to the world. And this isn't the first time Jurco has represented his country; he suited up in the 2011 and 2012 World Juniors, posting a combined 9 points in 11 games. Not only that, but last year he led AHL rookies in playoff goal scoring with 8, and won a Memorial Cup and two Quebec League titles with Saint John. That's a lot of accolades for someone so young.
He'll be joined by Detroit teammate Tomas Tatar. Like Jurco, he is a speedy, speedy winger, and possesses a lot of talent. However, Tatar's game is more of a refined two-way game, unlike Jurco who is primarily used for offense. Tatar's small 5'10" frame won't be as much of a drawback on the Olympic ice, and his versatility allows him to be used in any situation. He was the AHL's playoff MVP last season with an absurd 16 goals in the playoffs, showing that the Ilava native can produce in the clutch. Tatar also had 5 points playing on that silver medal team in 2012.
I could imagine the headlines if Richard Panik scored a clutch goal for the Slovaks. "Panik Attack" just writes itself. The big, 6'2" winger has struggled to produce with Tampa Bay so far this year, and was recently re-assigned to the AHL's Syracuse Crunch. Like the two Red Wings, Panik is a solid skater who can control the puck. He has a killer release that allows him to finish off beautiful passing plays. Like the other two, he represented Slovakia at World Juniors, only Panik did it THREE TIMES and was captain at the 2011 tournament, and managed 21 points in 19 games during his time at juniors. It seems as though playing for his country pumps Panik up, and perhaps a good showing in Sochi is just what the doctor ordered for his season to get back on track.
Martin Marincin has quickly become one of Edmonton's better defensemen, and it's easy to see why he was an easy pick for Slovakian management. At 6'5", he has a solid frame, and he's a solid skater with puck moving AND shutdown acumen. He's quietly become a minute-muncher in Edmonton and will likely be a key cog for Slovakia's blueline for years to come. Like Panik, he represented his country in three World Juniors, and picked up 5 points in 14 games between them, along with a +1 rating. Another note is his advanced stats with the Oilers. He has the highest Corsi QoC on the Oilers of defensemen who have played at least 20 games, and still holds the highest Corsi Relative by a country mile. Not bad for a 21 year old, who will turn 22 during the tournament.
The aformentioned Marcinko has produced with HC Kosice in the Slovak Extralige this year, posting 28 points in 44 games, fifth on the team. Despite this, he really isn't much of an offensive player, and is more useful as a defensive asset and on the penalty kill. One thing that may hamper him in Sochi is his mediocre skating ability. His strength is his positional play. Marcinko, a 25-year-old former Islanders draft pick, has a high hockey IQ and knows where he needs to be on the ice.
Sure, Slovakia has lost a lot since Vancouver. Yes, Chara and Hossa, despite still being superstars, are in the twilight of their careers. Of course, it will be hard to replace them. But with what Slovakia has in the system, it is not impossible, and you can see it on the younger end of this Olympic roster.