It feels so good to be back to our regularly scheduled IIHF events. While the Olympic Qualifiers were a load of fun. It feels nice to be back in the routine of seeing the IIHF tournament that we have grown accustomed to on our calendar, not just the ones that take place every four years. The first non-Olympic qualifying event for the red and white will be the Men’s U20 team traveling to Estonia to take on Estonia, France, Japan, Slovenia, and Ukraine from December 12th to the 18th.
The Men’s U20 squad plays in Division 1 Group B and has been since being relegated from Group A in 2014. The team won four straight silver medals from 2016 to 2019, often cruelly losing the gold medal… Then in 2020, the team fell to fourth place under returning U20 head coach Piotr Sarnik. Former PHL forward and long-time Polish development coach Artur Ślusarczyk will be taking his first shot at the U20 team. He was previously an assistant coach on the U18 squad that won promotion and a gold medal in 2019. Arkadiusz Burnat, Bartlomiej Nowak, and Tomasz Demkowicz will also be joining the staff form that same U18 team. While Marta Zawalska will be serving as the team’s manager.
The coaches are set, and we are only days away from the puck drop on Sunday. Team Poland has named their roster, and now it is time to break it down!
A few years ago, it felt like Poland really had the goaltending situation figured out, and then a pandemic hit, and we lost what would have been some really lovely tandems. I thought that Filip Płonka would be taking the reigns up next, but it appears he was dropped off the final roster after being named to the initial camp. That makes picking this team’s tandem quite the struggle, as Plonka had the highest PHL SV% at .885% and was perfect in his lone MHL performance. Szczepkowski has preformed the best in the MHL, while Polak and Klimowski both have PHL experience. In the end, Polak currently boasts the best PHL numbers and is the elder of the three, so I’m running with him as the starter. Back up is really too much of a toss-up, but I’ll give it to Szczepkowski and his .920 MHL SV%.
Karol Biłas – Oliwier Kasperek
Bartosz Florczak – Kacper Macias
Michał Jaracz – Michał Proczek
The first big thing that sticks out about this defense is there are no right-handed shots, and they didn’t even bring any right-handed shots to camp. I’m not sure how much impact it makes mathematically, but it is undoubtedly odd. To be fair, the next best available right-handed defensemen would probably have been 17-year-old Oliwier Kurnicki. It is understandable for the team to take a more experienced player. This is still a group with some interesting pieces. Macias has done really well in the top Czech junior league. Biłas is undoubtedly one of the best defensemen developed inside Poland in a long time. Schafer is a player from Torun who is really having a breakout year and played 13 games in the PHL. Oliwier Kasperek is a player Tychy seems really high on and will be the group’s veteran. Not the strongest or weakest group the U20 team has brought, some highlights and concerns.
Krzyzstof Macias- Jakub Ślusarczyk – Krzysztof Bukowski
Wiktor Bochnak – Stanislaw Drozd-Niekurzak – Fabian Kapica
Szymon Dobosz – Tobiasz Kapica – Karol Sterbenz
Szymon Maćkowski – Sebastian Wicher – Paweł Wybiral
In my opinion, this line has the potential to be one of the strongest first lines Poland has iced in a while. Macias is absolutely tearing it up in the top level of Czech hockey with the 11th most points by a U18 player. Ślusarczyk’s is also teammates with Macias on HC Vitkovice U20. He has always been a standout player for Poland at junior events. Bukowski is doing well at the top level of Swiss junior hockey and has experience with one of the best clubs in the junior scene there. Lower the down the line up I have a lot of stock in Fabian Kapica, Dzord-Niekurzak, and Sterbenz, who have shown themselves well abroad or in the PHL. Dobosz is an interesting addition; given he has not played anywhere in the 2021 season, it will be interesting to see what shape he and his game are in.
Much like the defense, the team is very right-handed shot-heavy. I am interested in the bottom-six picks. It seems the SMS Katowice connection helped a few players. Adrian Gromadzki, Michal Kusak, Michał, and Nawrocki were all forwards that I thought would be in more significant contention, but given their age, I’m not too surprised. Right-handed Piotr Ciepielewski could also fall into that discussion, but I have no significant problems. The team will need the offense to help suppress shots and scoring chances. I don’t just mean being good defensively, but also keeping the puck controlled and away from their own zone. I have no doubt the top lines will be able to score a couple goals per game, and beat up on weaker defenses. But how will they fare against forward cores that are bigger and faster than them? That was something that made past U20 leaders like Pas and Soltys so valuable.
Conclusion and Predictions
I have some concerns about each position group, but none more than what is in the net. Last time at the U20s, goaltending and defense really let team Poland down. It is hard to assess how good these groups are compared to the prior ones. I think the offense has more depth than some of the past U20 silver medals, but I’m not betting on a better defense or net situation net. I will put my prediction for this group at a bronze medal.
Estonia (Host) – this is a winnable game to me. While they are starting to make a lot of progress and have quite a few players in the Finnish junior leagues, they are the youngest team in the tournament and don’t really have any standout players. Should be an easy win for Poland.
France – The French will still be a formidable opponent but don’t possess the NHL draft caliber players at past tournaments. Still a solid roster, thanks to a good development program. It will be close, but I expect them to be too much for Poland.
Japan – A very uneven team, Japan brings some of the highest highs and lowest lows. They have three players playing the United State’s top junior, the USHL, including 2022 draft prospect Kenta Isogai. Isogai is a former teammate of Karol Sterbenz. Outside that club stats for most of their team are not even available. But if it is close to normal, Japan will score a few goals but ultimately surrender too many to overtake Poland.
Slovenia – Relegated from Group A the last time the U20s were held, Slovenia will be the team to beat. With plenty of great players from around Europe, unless there are some major chemistry issues. It is hard to see them not winning gold and earning promotion.
Ukraine – Now it is time for the wildcard Ukraine, a quickly regrowing program. LA Kings draft pick Artur Cholach will be leading the defensemen. Forward Bohdan Panasenko has put up a point per game average above .50 in the NAHL, and Daniil Trakht and Hlib Tkach have looked good in Finland and Sweden. The Ukraine junior system and league is weaker than Poland, but they have quite a few players in stronger leagues. I think Poland gets the win here, but I would not be surprised if Ukraine beats Poland.