The Witcher is one of the most popular television shows, novels, and video games of the past decade. It is amazing that a novel from Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski was then later made into a best-selling game by Polish studio CD Projekt Red. The Witcher can hold value to people all over the world in many different forms of media. There are board games, card games, clothes, and an ice hockey goalie.
Przemysław Odrobny is a legend in Polish Ice Hockey. While many nicknames in hockey are given due to a player’s skill or prowess on the ice, like “The Great One” for Wayne Gretzky or “The Grim Reaper” for feared enforcer Stu Grimson. Odrobny instead earned his nickname “The Witcher” due to his resemblance to Geralt, the lead character of The Witcher. Like his nickname, Odrobny has been a monster slayer for Poland, keeping them in games against hockey giants that they had no right to be in. In his 20 year plus career, the Gdansk native represented Poland at 15 different IIHF events. However, he has not appeared for the national team in a few years, especially as the pandemic took its toll on international hockey events. Odrobny has also not played hockey anywhere in 2022.
With the Witcher not being used at any of the recently Olympic qualifying events and not playing anywhere in 2022, it is very likely that this will be the first World Championship for Poland without him since 2010. Polish goaltending has been pretty steady since 2010. Only four goalies have appeared for Poland at the World Championships in that time span; Kamil Kosowski, John Murray Przemysław Odrobny, and Rafał Radziszewski. Kamil Kosowski retired in 2018 at the age of 31. Rafał Radziszewski retired from hockey after a 20-year career in 2020. This only leaves the current national team starter, John Murray.
John Murray came to Poland during the 2014 season after bouncing around between the CHL, ECHL, and a stop in Slovenia. He would play two seasons from 2014 to 2015 and then leave for Kazakhstan for a single season before returning in 2017, and has played in Poland since. Affectionately nicknamed Jaszek Murasz due to how his English name sticks out on the Polish roster. He has led Poland to some of the greatest moments of Polish hockey this century. He currently is 34 years old, which does mean his national team career could end any year.
So who is behind Murray and looking to be only the fifth goalie to play for Poland at the World Championships since 2010? The easy answer would be fellow import Ondřej Raszka. The Czech goalie has played in Poland for 11 years and played for team Poland at multiple non-IIHF events. At the past Olympic Qualifiers, he also backed up John Murray in three games. At 32-years-old, he is a veteran with plenty of time. The only problem though is earlier this season, Raszka was released by GKS Tychy after only four games. Since then, he has not played anywhere and was left off the roster for the upcoming training camp and exhibition games vs. Austria.
The next answer is only the fifth goalie to make an IIHF appearance for Poland since 2010 in Michał Kieler. The 26-year-old got in on the action at the Olympic qualifiers stopping the single shot he faced after coming in late in a game where Poland was easily winning versus the Netherlands. He also saw action in exhibition games in Hungary and the Three Seas Tournament. He seems to be the easy pick for a backup national team goalie based on how team leaders have used him. But as a long-term starter, I’m not sure. At 26-years-old, he is still a backup in the import goalie-dominated PHL. In 16 games for JKH GKS Jastrzebie this season, he recorded a .898 save percentage. Fourth last among goalies in the with more than 10 games played. He is one of three goalies named to Poland’s roster for exhibition games against Austria.
The options outside of Kieler are pretty slim, as zero of the other options in Poland have played a senior national team game. Dawid Zabolotny, 28, is an intriguing option. The Cracovia Krakow backup is back in Poland for the first time since 2018. He had spent the previous four years as a starter in Germany’s Oberliga. While he has been a backup to Russian goalie Denis Perevozchikov, Zabolotny’s .916 save percentage is the third-highest among all goalies with 10 games in the PHL. He also served as the backup for Poland at a few non-IIHF tournaments. Like Kieler, Zabolotny is also on the roster for exhibition games against Austria.
The final goalie on that roster for games against Austria is GKS Tychy’s Kamil Lewartowski. Lewartowski has had a quiet few years after being the starting goalie for Poalnd at the 2018 U20 World Championships, and he has earned a larger and larger role with Tychy. This past year after Raszka was released, Lewartowski took on the starting role during the regular season. In 27 regular-season games, he would record a .910 save percentage. GKS Tychy would still add Czechia goalie Tomáš Fučík and Swedish goalie Mathias Israelsson before the transfer deadline. Fučík would win the starting job, and help Tychy reach the bronze medal series. At 24-years-old, Lewartowski sits in a similar spot with Kieler with when, or will, they win a starting PHL job?
Other options in Poland include KH Torun’s Mateusz Studziński (24), who has posted solid numbers the past two years as a backup. He was previously the starter of Polonia Bytom during the 2019 season. Robert Kowalówka, 28, has long been the backup in Krakow but moved over to Osciewim for the 2022 season. While the long-time backup primarily produced average numbers during his time. The Oswiecim native has been outstanding in his 11 playoff appearances. Michał Czernik, 25, has been the starter in Zaglebie Sosnowiec for two years but has posted the league worse and second-worst save percentages in those seasons on some very weak teams.
In terms of players under 23, not many have played significant minutes in Poland’s top league outside of one. Paweł Bizub, 22, was the starter on Podhale Nowy Targ this year primarily out of necessity. He showed flashes of potential in limited minutes the previous year, but his .870 save percentage was .021 lower than any other PHL goalie in 2022. Oskar Polak backed up that same Podhale team while also leading Poland at the U20 World Championship. The 19-year-old was put in two challenging positions, and the results reflect that. Marcel Kotuła, 20, sits in a similar place, backing up a weak Zaglebie Sosnowiec team with poor results.
Three goalies have really caught my attention for the future. Filip Płonka, 19, has shown a lot of potential with a shutout at the PHL level, but we have never seen him play more than one PHL game in the season. He was curiously left off the U20 team in 2022. With John Murray leading the charge, there are not many games left for a backup in GKS Katowice. Maciej Miarka, 21, has shined in those few games with a .942 SV%. He has also been almost perfect in his three Polish second league games. Filip Świderski, 20, was the second goalie in Sanok this year and recorded a .894 save percentage. While not eye-popping, it was very close to Sanok’s starting goalie and followed by a strong second league playoff run. Their young age means there is still plenty of time for growth, but it is beginning to be hard to see what their actual potential is with so few games.
When we look outside of Poland, there is no immediate help either, but possibly more intriguing and high-risk options. French Canadian Michał Łuba, 27, came to Poland with the goal of representing Poland internationally. He did just that after a few years of junior hockey in Poland and Slovakia. In 2015, he earned best goaltender honors at the Division 1 Group B U20 World Championships, helping Poland to a bronze medal. After a few years of being the backup in Krakow and split starting one year, he left for France. Playing in France’s 2nd since 2020, he has been one of the best goaltenders in the league, earning end-of-the-year all-star team honors in 2021. In 2022, he posted his best career save percentage with a .925 mark. Who knows if Łuba will ever wear the red and white again, but his success in France definitely should earn him an opportunity.
Poland’s former top goaltending prospect Sebastian Lipiński, 21, is the only other Polish goalie playing in a senior league outside Poland. Lipiński was hyped to be the next great Polish goalie after solid performances in the PHL for his age and leading team Poland at both the U18 and U20 World Championships. After playing just 5 games in the PHL in the 2021 season, Lipiński left the country. This year, he is playing in the NIHL 2, the third level of British hockey. While his numbers there are impressive, as he rocks a .927% save percentage, it is such a low level I’m not sure how it stacks up. It is crazy that there wasn’t a place in Poland for him to play a more significant role.
The quick option would be to try and naturalize another player like Murray and Raszka. A player would have to play two consecutive years in Poland, or four years if they had previously played with a different national team. Tomáš Fučík, 28, would be eligible thanks to playing in Poland from 2017 to 2018, and whenever he has started for a PHL team, he has always been dominant. Patrik Spěšný, 26, has spent the last 4 years in Poland with stellar results in his first three years before a rough 2022 season. Clarke Saunders, 32, has played in Osciewim for three straight seasons and could be a stop gate. A reminder that all these players would have to undergo a lengthy process to try and receive Polish citizenship.
Poland was spoiled for years with how good John Murray, Ondřej Raszka, Przemysław Odrobny, and Rafał Radziszewski were. It propped up a Polish hockey program desperate for talent on offense and defense. While Murray appears to be the only active one, again at 34 years old, Poland needs to start looking at who is next. It doesn’t appear there is anyone up to the task or quality of what Poland has been used to this past decade. This is huge, given that Poland’s offensive and defensive talent is better now than what Odrobny and Radziszewski had most of their national team careers.