The 2023 IIHF international season will kick off for Poland as they host the U20 Division 1 Group B World Championships in Bytom. Poland will be competing in their group for the ninth straight season. They are only competing in Group B for a ninth straight year as Belarus and Russia were suspended from IIHF play for the 2023 season. Their suspensions resulted in Poland staying in the group despite being relegated last year. So what happened last year, and can this team avoid the same pitfall?
2022 was a tournament ground for sounding alarms that Polish junior hockey might be in deep trouble. Poland lost all five games they played, including blowout defeats to France and Japan, while also getting embarrassed late and beaten in overtime by Estonia. Both Poland’s offense and goaltending were non-existent in the tournament. Poland also showed an incredibly undisciplined brand of hockey that saw them average a period per game shorthanded. The performance left me calling for jobs and significant lineup changes. Player wise we will see a lot of changes this year, but the staff remains the same.
SMS PZHL Katowice coach Artur Ślusarczyk remains behind the bench as head coach for the Polish U20 squad. This will be his second IIHF tournament for Poland as a head coach. Along with leading the U20 team last year, Ślusarczyk was an assistant coach for the men’s senior team at the Division 1 Group B World Championships, where the team won gold and promotion. He was also a part of the Polish staff that won gold and promotion with the U18 team in division two. I hope to see a much better performance from his roster this time around.
Arkadiusz Burnat and Bartłomiej Nowak will return as assistant coaches, Nowak liking serving as the goaltending coach. Both served with Ślusarczyk on Poland U18 but are still very young in their coaching careers. Nowak briefly served as goaltending coach with GKS Katowice in 2022 but was relieved of his duties three months into the year. Burnat previously worked as a player coach with UKH Debica in the second league. Marta Zawalska will once again serve as team manager. It will be her fifth time in the role for Poland IIHF teams.
Poland brought in four goalies to camp this year. Mikołaj Szczepkowski is the only goalie returning from last year’s team. He had some highlights against Slovenia but struggled greatly at times. He has spent the entire season in the MHL with UKS Zaglebie Sosnowiec posting a .888 SV%. He did start one of Poland’s pre-tournament games against Ukraine, stopping 33 shots and allowing two goals in the 4-2 win. I expect him to be the main starter for Poland at the tournament.
The starter for Poland’s other friendly match was Szymon Klimowski. In the pre-tournament match, Klimowski stopped 30 shots in a 2-1 loss. This year he played in four matches for Podhale Nowy Targ, posting a .863 SV%, which is up from his numbers in seven games last year. He also owns a .852 SV% in 7 MHL games. I expect him to splint starts with Szczepkowski.
Filip Wiszyński and Tomasz Grobelkiewicz also attended camp but only served as backups against Ukraine. To me, that was the sign of who Poland will take as their goalies for their tournament. I thought Grobelkiewicz would grab the starting spot this year. He has the best stats in the MHL with a .902 SV% in 9 games for Polonia Bytom. He was also great last year for SMS PZHL Katowice. Plus, if you’re a goalie-size person, he is the tallest goalie by two inches. Wiszyński also had a solid season with UKS Niedzwiadki Sanok, posting a .897 SV% in 9 games.. A really tough choice for Poland, with all goalies being in their final year of eligibility.
The defense comes in with ten skaters, so I expect three cuts from the group. Only two players will be returning from last year. Kacper Maciaś is going to be the defensive leader on this team. The 19-year-old will be making his final appearance for the U20 squad and has played in 22 PHL games this year with GKS Katowice. Young promising defenseman Eryk Schafer will also be returning. At only 18, Schafer will already play in his second U20 IIHF tournament. He was a ball of energy last year, and I’m excited to see how he has developed.
The remaining eight can be split into the 19-year-olds and the young players looking to make their mark early. Outside of the two returning locks, Marlon Wróbel seems like a lock to make it. Wróbel played in 15 games this year in the PHL with STS Sanok. He also has 12 points (1-11-12) in 15 MHL games. He spent both games against Ukraine on the top pairing with Kacper Maciaś. Jakub Wilk, Jan Stępień, & Szymon Gurzyński from Polonia Bytom are all trying to make the squad in their final year of eligibility as well. Stępień and Wilk seem likely to make the team as Poland’s third defensive pairing, as they played in the spot in both games against Ukraine. Both have been a steady presence for Bytom this year, with Wilk leading defensemen in points on the team. Gurzyński appeared in only one friendly game and took two minor penalties on the fourth pairing.
In the group of young players, Oliwier Kurnicki has cemented himself on the second pairing with Torun teammate Eryk Schafer. Kurnicki scored against Ukraine in Poland’s 4-2 win in their first exhibition match. He has had a great club season with two assists in 15 PHL games on KH Torun, along with 14 points in 15 games at the MHL level. Karol Sobecki is someone I thought would challenge to make the roster at 17 like Schafer did last year. Sobecki has appeared in 12 games for GKS Tychy, along with scoring twice in nine MHL games. He would be my pick for the seventh defenseman. Blazej Chodor also had his shot at making the team. The 17-year-old has a lot of potential, but I’m not sure if he will be ready this year for the U20 squad. Kacper Łukawski has an outside chance at grabbing the final spot on the team, given his familiarity with head coach Ślusarczyk. Chodor, Sobecki, and Łukawski only appeared in one game in the fourth pairing during friendly matches. It seems Poland came in pretty set with their defense.
The biggest thing about the offense is Krzysztof Macias. Not since Alan Łyszczarczyk has Poland had such an all-star player in their squad, and Macias might even be better. This year already, he has made his debut with the senior national team and at the top level of hockey in Czechia. Macias might be the best prospect to come out of Poland in the past decade. Poland will no doubt be hoping he can carry this team to gold.
He won’t be alone in that quest, as Poland has a decent supporting cast. Poland brought 15 forwards to camp, and about eight players seem to have their spots secured. Still expect two cuts from this group. On the top line, he is likely to be joined by Jakub Ślusarczyk, his teammate at HC Vitkovice U20. Ślusarczyk has been one of Poland’s best performers on the international stage and is starting to prove himself on the club level in Czechia. They will not be the only players from the Czech U20 league as Adrian Gromadzki (HC Dynamo Pardubice U20), Aleks Menc (HC Karlovy Vary U20), Michał Kusak (HC Karlovy Vary U20), and Patryk Kusak (HC Olomouc U20) have all likely locked their place on the roster. Six forwards in Czechia’s top U20 level is a rare sight for Poland and will give them some solid options up and down the lineup.
Outside Poland’s junior prospects in Czechia, Karol Sterbenz and Szymon Maćkowski have locked spots. Sterbenz plays for HK Poprad U20 in Slovakia’s top U20 league and has seen a decent production increase compared to last season. He spent both exhibition games on the top line with Macias and Ślusarczyk. Szymon Maćkowski made it to the PHL this year and has two goals and two assists with KH Torun in 17 games. That leads all U20 skaters in the PHL by two points. Paweł Wybiral should also be safe, given he is returning from last year’s team, where he recorded a goal and assist in five games.
This leaves six players for the four remaining spots, who will be the fourth line and the extra skater. Arkadiusz Karasiński, David Wawrzkiewicz, Filip Sienkiewicz, Marcin Dulęba, Mikołaj Kociszewski, and Piotr Ciepielewski. Only one of the players from this group played in both exhibition games against Ukraine, which seemed to set the lineup for the tournament, especially in the top six and on defense. Arkadiusz Karasiński playing in both games makes me think he is safe, and I would be very happy to see the Lodz hockey product make it. Mikołaj Kociszewski has experience with the head coach and has been a top scorer in the MHL. Piotr Ciepielewski has PHL experience and substantial MHL numbers. Filip Sienkiewicz spent most of his year in the PHL with one goal in 18 games. David Wawrzkiewicz plays in the USA in the USPHL Premier, a league in which quite a few opponents also have players from. Marcin Dulęba is one of the best playmakers in the MHL and records some of the best U20 assist numbers in the league. You can argue for each player to appear on the final line.
Krzysztof Macias – Karol Sterbenz – Jakub Ślusarczyk
Aleks Menc – Adrian Gromadzki – Michał Kusak
Patryk Kusak – Szymon Maćkowski – Paweł Wybiral
Mikołaj Kociszewski – Piotr Ciepielewski – Arkadiusz Karasiński
Kacper Maciaś – Marlon Wróbel
Eryk Schafer – Oliwier Kurnicki
Jakub Wilk – Jan Stępień
Can this lineup compete better than last year in the group? It is hard to say; I feel very shaky about the goaltending with how they played last year. The defensive group should have a lot more chemistry this season, thanks to players that already play on the same paring in their club seasons. Still, it is not the best group Poland has ever taken to this tournament and has never really been the vital part. Offensively there is a lot of talent in this group, but its key players are also very young. Still another group that knows each other well, and that should help with chemistry. I overall feel better about this team thanks to the true star power it might have at the top. If the offense falters like last year, I don’t think the defense can recover.
Poland will start the tournament on Sunday, Dec. 11, vs. Estonia. Estonia survived relegation last year by beating Poland in overtime. The goaltending on this team looks unknown, and together have played four total club games in 2022-23. Klaus Kaspar Jõgi will lead the team offensively, and he plays in the second level of US junior hockey, the NAHL. Deniss Kontseus and Nikita Stepanov, who play with Krefelder EV 1981 U20 (DNLU20), should also be considered scoring threats. Marek Potšinok is also doing well in the top level of Finnish junior hockey. A young potent offense will be scary, but they have questions on the defensive end and in the net. Estonia is much like Poland. Still, I like what I see here for Poland, and I predict a win.
Poland’s second game will be on Monday, Dec. 12, vs. Ukraine. It is great to see Ukraine at this tournament. We also know how this match should go based on Poland’s pre-tournament matches. I like Poland’s chances as long as the offense can capitalize. I predict a second Poland win.
Poland’s third game will be taking on Japan on Wednesday, Dec. 14. Games vs. Japan are always hard to tell, given the lack of information about the junior level in the country. Still, they will have five players coming to the team that played in US junior leagues last year. The top name to watch is Yusaku Ando, who finished with nine points in five games last year. Japan only lost one of their top scorers from last year, while 6’5 goalie Ryuto Nakamoto will be joining this year after an impressive start to his USPHL season. I don’t see Poland finding a way to win this one. The Japan offense was too strong last year and only came back more experienced.
Poland’s fourth contest will come against Italy on Friday, Dec 16. Poland will face off with likely the best player in the tournament, Tommy Purdeller, who currently plays in the Ontario Hockey League for the Peterborough Petes. Damian Clara should be a force in the net, possibly as well for the Italians. There are a lot of big names in big leagues on this squad, but a lack of depth. I don’t think Poland will be able to stop their rise. There is just too much talent and experience for Poland to overcome.
Poland’s last match will be on Saturday, Dec 17, vs. South Korea. South Korea is the true wildcard of this tournament, as like Japan, there is little information about their team. They were promoted to Division 1 Group B due to the Belarus and Russia suspensions. The team looks to be hurting due to players aging out. South Korea will lose all five top scorers from last year, along with their starting goalie. I will give Poland a win here, but it is hard to say until the tournament begins.
Final Record: 3-2. Good for Bronze
After a disastrous tournament last year, I do see Poland getting on track, but that is more due to the drop in talent for the division than it is the change in the team. Poland is lucky to be back in Division 1 Group B and can’t waste a golden opportunity to possibly get a promotion or at least stay in the group. Maybe there is a chance that Macias can carry Poland to gold with his strong offensive supporting cast, but it is just as likely that this young Polish team crumbles to their opponent’s star players like last year.
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