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The Czech net at Sochi

July 21, 2013

Alexander Salak ruled the net for Färjestad this past season. 

All hail the NHL: it has allowed its players to participate in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Yes, it was a fait accompli to some, but with the deal sealed, hockey for everyone is looking up.

The NHL media machine was quick to start churning out content for the Olympics now that it’s been green-lighted.

One piece, projecting the possible Czech team, caught my attention. The Czechs struggled in the 2010 Olympics at Vancouver. A stellar Slovak team even put them to shame. But they’ve succeeded in IIHF tournaments since, and I think they’re poised to have a strong Olympic campaign. Truth be told, these Olympics may be the sunsetting affair for the likes of Jagr and Elias, and then, this could be it for Hanzal and potentially Hejda. This is a “win now” team. As the Czech Republic has struggle to produce top end talent at the draft the last five years, the future is a little bit murkier.

Familiarity with the big ice, a share of Czechs in the KHL, and proven chemistry should give this team ample lift. I can’t argue with most of the players proposed by these three NHL writers. I’d say that Tomas Kaberle is out of the picture, and Jan Hejda too. But, the Czechs appreciate their veterans, and there’s a pinch of nostalgia and seniority that has to be considered. Would the Czechs throw a Martin Frk in the mix? Possibly. But they could use more young defensemen. And that just doesn’t appear to be coming. So, Jan Hejda it is.

My main gripe comes in net. It seems a severe bias about the Penguins’ Stanley Cup playoff run led Tomas Vokoun to be included here. The old adage applies about players getting loads of attention, warranted or not, whenever there is a deep playoff run, especially one with controversy hitched to it. Everyone watched Vokoun this spring. And he did alright. And he did steal the job from Fleury. But will he continue to perform at that level? Doubtful. I think the Czech national team would be better served looking to the future. Yes, Vokoun started in each game in the last Olympics, performing admirably. But, his time has come.

Ondrej Pavelec has been crowned heir apparent of the crease for the Czechs. This has been clear from his many starts in net for the national team, deserved or not, while he toils behind a mediocre Thrashers/Jets squad. He’s probably the most technically sound, most experienced.

Michal Neuvirth? To be blunt, without the fall from grace of Semyon Varlamov, Neuvirth risked flying under the radar in perpetuity. He is a red herring to me.

Alexander Salak should make the grade for 1A goalie at the Sochi Olympics. He set bundles of records in the Elitserien this past year, brought Färjestad to a championship two years ago, and he will be suiting up for SKA St Petersburg. Again, ice surface, plus familiarity with players and styles, making him the steadfast netminder the Czechs can rely on. Keep in mind the Czechs’ group C contains Sweden, Switzerland, and Latvia. This is possibly the best balanced of the groupings.

Salak had a spotty and short-lived stint in the Americas, with the Rochester Americans and Rockford Icehogs. Making the show full-time was never in the cards for him, sadly. He stood to be the next breakout Czech goaltender, but couldn’t jump in for the right team at the right time. So, he’s been banished to European obscurity for some. SKA should draw attention. He’s athletic, composed in high pressure.

He’s 1A.

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