We now enter the final article before entering the top 10. We’re starting to get some of the most prominent stand-out players from the 2021 season. These players earned a lot of playing time and were critical to their team. All but one player in the next five moved up in the rankings—only one with a significant rise. When the list gets to as high as we are large player movement is pretty uncommon.
Players had to be under the age of 23 and at least 16-years-old on June 30th, 2021. We are only judging play that occurred before that date as well. Players are evaluated based on a combination of career history, current play, and potential. Players must have played at least five hockey games to be considered. While most of the ranking is my opinion, numerous Polish hockey people contributed their thoughts on players. One hundred forty-five players were considered for the list and reviewed. Eighty players received a ranking. Players 80-51 will be revealed at the end of the series in the breakdown article. Only the top 50 players receive a report.
Rank – Player Name (Position), Age During Next Hockey Season, Team (Ranking in 2020, change in rankings)
15 – Karol Sterbenz (F), 19, Okanagan HC Europe U20 (33, +18)
Sterbenz is a rare Polish player in the Austrian junior system as he suited up for Okanagan HC. Okanagan HC Europe is a team made of players from across Europe and the rest of the world that plays in the Austrian league. In his first year, the Katowice native showed well at the U18 and U20 levels. In 2021, he balled out while primarily playing in the U20 league. He finished second on his team in points with 30 in just 25 games. His 13 goals and 17 assists were also both second on the team. He would add another goal and assist in two playoff games as well.
His 30 points were part of a three-way tie for fourth in the ICE Young Stars League and tied for first among draft-eligible players. It stands up while too historically. While the Young Stars league is newer, 55% of Sterbenz production comparables have competed in the ICE Hockey League, the top level of hockey in Austria. Another 36% went on to become a pro in a league around the PHL level. His performance in Austria indeed suggests that Sterbenz has a lot of professional potential.
We also did see a small glimpse of him in the MHL, and it was not as strong of numbers. In four games for Janow, the 5’9 forward only managed a single assist. In one exhibition game in the PHL when Janow took on Katowice, and Sterbenz was able to score. Sterbenz tried to turn professional with GKS Katowice this year, but his tryout was unsuccessful. The talented 20-year-old forward is now going to the Slovak junior system. It will be interesting to see if his production can carry over or catch up with the Austrian numbers.
14 – Igor Smal, C, 21, Zaglebie Sosnowiec, (15, +1)
Smal escaped a toxic situation in Gdansk and moved on to Sosnowiec. While he was avoiding a train wreck, Sosnowiec was a team with many holes in their roster. Smal was going to be tasked with being one of the top centers on the team. He was slotted in the second-line center role between Andrei Dubinin and Ivan Rybchik, Rybchik a late addition to the team playing 17 games. Sosnowiec only scored 88 goals as a team, with 47% of them involving first liner Ruslan Bashirov.
An increased role defensively and offensively was the challenge for Igor Smal. The 6’0 center had the physical tools to be ready for the position. The experience was there, as 2021 would be his third full PHL season. Still, he was only 20 and played a more sheltered role with PKH Gdansk. In the end, he would match his point total from the previous year in four fewer games. His four goals and six assists ranked 15th in the PHL for points, and it was 4th among players 20 years old.
Smal is an intelligent player that processes the game well to avoid mistakes. From everyone we have talked to, he works very hard and sets his sights high, gaining consistently, and more experience will do wonders for him. I would love to see him abroad potentially again, but his PHL production will need to increase for that. For the following year, he is transferring to GKS Katowice. He will be on a much stronger team, going from poor teams where he was trusted with a more prominent role to a spot on a contender where his role will be vastly diminished.
13 – Jakub Michalowski, D, 23, JKH GKS Jastrzebie, (9, -4)
After a year filled with team achievements, Jakub Michalowski drops a few spots on the list. Unfortunately, Jastrzebie had to make a few additions for his team to become champions. Jiří Klimíček, Mateusz Bryk, and Marcin Horzelski joined Jastrzebie in the offseason, while Eriks Sevcenko would join towards the end. Those four joined national team defenders Arkadiusz Kostek, Kamil Gorny, and Jakub Giminski. Add in Jakub Michalowski, and you have a pretty full defense. We saw this when Michalowski was the odd man and received a few conditioning games in the MHL. That is not something you want to see from a 23-year-old player, but understandable given the team.
In total, the shutdown defenseman managed two assists in 39 games. The first time Michalowski failed to hit 40 games since 2017. In his 5 MHL appearances, he managed two goals and four assists. A rare outburst of offense from the usual one-way defenseman. He does so much well at the PHL level, including good size, strong skating, and puck-moving abilities. He more than makes up for what he lacks in his offensive skill in defensive talent and potential. After a solid and quick start to his career, his development pace has slowed down. His floor is still a bottom four defensemen. Michalowski still has a ways to go a top-line player.
For the 2022 season, the long-time player and pupil of JKH GKS Jastrzebie is moving to the GKS Tychy. It will be interesting to see how the player performs in a different environment. There he seems poised to have the potential to move the lineup more than he would in JKH GKS Jastrzebie, who retained their core while adding Sergei Bogoleisha and Yevgeni Kamenev.
12 – Olaf Bizacki, D, 23, GKS Tychy, (16, +4)
Bizacki receives his last ranking on the list as he turns 23. It’s fun to see players develop over time, and Bizacki has been on junior national teams since I started covering prospects. He made his first U18 team during the 2016 season and his first national team appearance during the 2021 season. He crushed it at every level he played, with the PHL and national team included in that.
While he may be considered an undersized defender at 5’7 he never plays like it. Bizacki is a solid two-way player, and I’m impressed with his production numbers, given he primarily used on the 4th line in Tychy. While he didn’t set a new high in regular-season points this year, he improved his point per game to a .26. In total, he recorded ten points (1G-9A-10PTS) in 45 games. He is a fixture on the team for sure, with Tychy having involved the young defender in a leadership role at times.
He competed for team Poland at the Baltic Seas Cup on the national team. There Bizacki picked up a goal and three assists in three games. This included a goal and two assist performances against Lithuania. His three-point night earned him player of the game honors as awarded by the team captain’s Grzegorz Pasiut. As he gets older, it will be interesting to see how much he can move up the GKS Tychy lineup, as right now, that may be the only thing keeping him from higher production seasons.
11 – Krzysztof Bukowski, F, 19, Kloten U20, (21, +10)
The Swiss junior system is unknown territory for Polish players. There has only ever been one Pole to reach the top level of junior hockey in the country, Krzysztof Bukowski. The Pole, with a Swiss player license, made it to the top level for Kloten U20. Making it to a league of this magnitude is an outstanding achievement for any young Pole.
It was not just making it there, as Bukowski proved he belongs with 19 points (7G-12A-19PTS) in 40 games. This was tied for 31st among all skaters in their draft plus one season. Given the prominent league, we have over 120 player comparables for him. The bad news is his current stat line does not suggest he will become a player in Switzerland’s National League or a comparable top league in Europe. Only 4.7% of his player matches went on to play at least 50 games in the National League. On the bright side, 24.2% of his matches played in a top or mid-level league around Europe (Swiss League, Extaliga). That is pretty good odds. Even if most of his comparables ended up below the top two leagues of Switzerland, his brother Jakub Bukowski seems to be translating well to the PHL from Switzerland’s fourth league.
Bukowski appears to have a strong shot at making it outside of Poland. But even if he returns to Poland, he would easily slide into a top 6 role in the PHL. For the 2022 season, the 5’11 forward will be moving to Genève-Servette U20, another small move up the Swiss hockey ladder as Genève-Servette is a slightly more distinguished club. We will also get to see him at the U20 world championships, where he should be a key contributor on team Poland’s offense.