1 year, 1 month, and 27 days ago, Robert Kalaber was named the head coach of the Polish national team. On August 26th, 2021, the Slovakian coach will coach his first IIHF game for team Poland. During that time, we have seen quite a few national team games. These games have all come against pretty weak competition or depleted rosters. The biggest challenges being Hungary and Latvia U23. It was thought his first test would be getting Poland back to the World Championship Group A. Instead, he will have to finish what Tomek Valtonen started with Poland’s path to the Olympics.
This is the second time in a row that Poland has pulled off an upset in the third round of qualification and earned a shot at the final qualification round. In 2016, Poland lost three straight games as they were expected to. The final scores of those games were 6-1 Slovenia, 5-3 Belarus, and 5-2 Denmark. While not the greatest results. These games were all somewhat close, with Poland even holding the lead over Belarus.
Poland once again is likely to lose all three games. Their opponents are going to be hard to break. You have team Austria that will be led by top NHL prospect Marco Rossi and a squad of players mostly playing back in Austria’s bet-at-home ICE Hockey League. Next up, you have a Belarus team that continues to improve, who will feature New Jersey Devils breakout star Yegor Sharangovich and an army of KHL talent. The final team and toughest opponent will be Slovakia, a roster featuring talent from all around the top leagues of Europe.
These games’ goal will be to stay competitive, and who knows maybe they pull off a miracle upset in one of the games. So what is the strategy to do that? Do you go all out on the offensive end and try to outmatch them with firepower or at least fight fire with fire? Do you load up on the country’s best defenders and two-way forwards in the hope of establishing a strong defensive presence and capitalize on a few rare mistakes?
There are plenty of ways to go, and it seems that Kalaber is taking the second route. When the Polish roster was announced there were three huge forwards missing. Damian Kapica (1st among Polish players in PPG), Radoslaw Sawicki (3rd in PPG), and Christian Mroczkowski (6th in PPG). The Polish squad later announced that Kapica would be missing due to a back injury, but what about two of Poland’s best goal scorers?
Kalaber talked to Hokej.net, saying, “Sawicki and Mroczkowski are offensive players who do better with the puck than without it. At this tournament, we must first and foremost defend ourselves effectively, because there will be players from the NHL and KHL in front of us.” He continued saying that “We are not building an offensive dream team, but the strongest team that will have to play under pressure with extremely demanding opponents. That is why I gave up Radek and Christian and selected forwards who are better in defense than in attack.”
While I can understand the idea that the team will need to be strong defensively, I also have a problem with the final result of the roster. At the end of the day, Poland’s best defensive forwards will not create any match-up nightmares. At the same time, a physical power forward like Christian Mroczkowski could definitely raise some hell. It is hard to argue whom spots you would take away to add the Canadian with a Polish passport or Sawicki to the roster. I do feel you can create strong arguments for Filip Starzyński, Kamil Walega, Mateusz Michalski, and Martin Przygodzki.
The strongest for Filip Starzyński. Starzyński is a player I believe would be highly debated if analytics were more established in the PHL. He is commonly praised for being strong in the faceoff dot and best in his own zone, but the offense is almost non-existent. Over the past two years, his .30 PPG in 102 games ranks 52nd among all Polish forwards, 163rd among all skaters.
There is so much talent that is being left on the board. I can’t justify some choices in the idea they make Poland that much better defensively or harder to play against. In the first true test for Kalaber, when his goal is to stay competitive, it is a choice to go in without two forwards considered among the best in Poland. These are the choices that will help define his era and staff. We will have to see how it plays out.