Every good hockey tournament has a team that fans of any nation can get behind.
From Great Britain at the 2019 World Championship to the German team at the most recent world juniors, sports fans love a feisty underdog. This year’s Hlinka-Gretzky Cup has given us the upstart young Slovak squad.
The Slovaks check all the boxes you want from a feel-good, underdog story. They come from a team outside of the big nations you always expect to compete. They have star talent with top 2022 NHL draft talent such as forward Juraj Slafkovsky and defenseman Šimon Nemec. They had a top goaltender in Rastislav Eliáš. They had an underage star in Dalibor Dvorsky leading the tournament in scoring through the group stage.
How could you not love this team?
The Slovaks went undefeated through the group stage, defeating the Americans, Germans and Swedes to get there. The only team that seemingly put up a fight was Sweden. In the semifinals against the Finns, the Slovaks turned up the heat even more with a 6-2 win to earn a berth into the tournament final for the first time ever.
Slovakia eventually ran out of steam against a powerhouse Russian squad in the final, losing 7-2 to the Matvei Michkov- and Ivan Miroshnichekno-led team. Despite the second-place finish, Slovakia showed a bit of a resurgence after many years of struggles at all major international events.
As cool as a cucumber, Nemec is the star on the backend with his incredible poise. His passing ability is among the best of all 2022 defensemen, and with a solid physical profile at 6-foot-1 paired with his good stick work, Nemec won't need to wait long to hear his name at the NHL draft in Montreal.
Slafkovsky is a bigger physical presence at 6-foot-4 with a willingness to use his frame. He can - and will - skate through his opponent with the puck on his stick when he wants to. Slafkovsky possesses a booming one-timer that he used regularly at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, finishing with nine points in five games. The towering Slovak winger diagnoses defensive structure so efficiently and has the ability to pick his opponent apart with his passing as well.
Playing in the second Slovak league last season, Eliáš posted a .906 save percentage across 11 games. If you weren't convinced about his play prior to the Hlinka-Gretzky, his continued presence in the net leading up to the final should change your mind. Eliáš has the size that NHL teams covet and the athleticism to make the big save when he needs it. He’ll spend the upcoming season in the USHL with Green Bay, which should help increase his draft stock and subsequent exposure.
Dalibor Dvorsky, the 16-year-old 2023 NHL draft eligible with a summer birthday, was one of the top names people couldn't get enough of. The young forward has a quick release and a penchant for being in the right place at the right time. The 2023 draft already looks strong with names like Connor Bedard and Matvei Michkov, but Dvorsky proved he can hang with the best.
Despite the finals loss, this Slovak squad has a bit of everything = and don't be shocked if many of the top players represent Slovakia at the 2022 World Junior Championship. They have the depth that they’ve rarely seen before, with the likes of Filip Mešár (2022), Alex Čiernik (2023), and Ondrej Molnár (2023) all playing key roles. The next wave of Slovak hockey is upon us with stars like Nemec and Slafkovsky in this upcoming draft and everyone’s favorite son, Dalibor Dvorsky, set to make his mark the following year.
If you ask me, that’s Dali-dope.