Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Extraliga team previews

Eurohockey.com's Petr Polak has made detailed team-by-team predictions about the fortunes of the 14 Extraliga clubs for the 2011-12 seasons. Feel free to agree or disagree with his opinions:

Třinec: Big changes on the roster of the Extraliga champion

Last year's champion lost two of its most important players to the KHL, but the club's management is cautioning that even if they don't have any sounding names in the list of arrivals, they are still negotiating about a few interesting names.

The best example is Darcy Verot. The Canadian hulk is in Třinec for a try-out and every Extraliga team is now trembling with fear, because Verot is known from Vityaz Chekhov as a brawl instigator in the KHL. Jaromír Jágr asked, "Do they know in Třinec who Verot really is?" According to the words of many players, however Verot can be a really nice guy and a legitimate player and in Chekhov he was just following management's orders.

Even though Třinec lost Martin Růžička and his 83 points in 69 games last season (41+42) and also lost top defenceman Lukáš Krajíček, its representatives are talking about high goals for this season. "Last year, lots of journalists were laughing when we said that we want the Cup. They saw few advertisements on the ice and were thinking that we didn't have enough of sponsors to afford a quality roster," club director Evžen Delong said. "Today everyone is talking about Třinec's depth. Everybody knows we can do it."

Vítkovice: League darkhorse again?

It was surprising when the Ostravian club reached the league finals in 2009-10. Then the following summer, they underwent a big transformation and went into 2010-11 with new coaches and a completely new roster, and the Czech media underrated them. Last September, many pundits picked Vítkovice to finish in 11th place. But once again, Vítkovice appeared in the finals. Now, they are once again being rated low.

Although the roster didn't see many changes, Vítkovice is not one of the favourites in the view of Czech bookmakers. According to their opinion, the Steelers are being given odds to win the title in the range of 7:1 to 10:1, which is fifth-best in the Extraliga. Will they be the darkhorse of the league again?

A key factor in answering that question will be the financial situation of the club because Vítkovice is entering the new season without a general partnership contract. Even though EVRAZ, a Russian steel magnate and the club's traditional partner, sent a message from Moscow stating that they will do everything to assure the club's financial stability, until the contract is signed you cannot be sure about anything. Two years ago, Vítkovice had to sell two players during the season because of the budget.

Pardubice: A new club tradition

Last season was very positive for the club from East Bohemia because they finished third and stopped a very unpleasant trend that after every successful season an unsuccessful one would come. One year after its 2004-05 championship, Pardubice ended the season in 9th place. 2006-07 brought silver medals to the city of gingerbread, and 2007-08 12th spot. The tradition was broken in the two last seasons: In 2009-10 Pardubice became league champions, yesteryear they finished third.

But another tradition started in Pardubice. The 2010 gold medal was won under the leadership of Václav Sýkora, but despite of this success, Sýkora decided to leave the team. His successor, Josef Jandač, left the team this summer after another great season. A new season calls for a new coach.

It will be a tough mission for new Pardubice coach Pavel Hynek to build on the success of his precursors with one more fruitful season. He had a free hand to choose the right players during the summer and he took advantage of this opportunity, bringing three transatlantic reinforcements: from Kärpät Oulu, Vladimír Sičák has come to help with the team's defence and from Linköping, Josef Melichar. This year's Pardubice roster is really strong on again.

Slavia: How does Růžička do it?

Every Czech hockey fan knows that Slavia is very fortunate to have Vladimír Růžička as its coach. Since he was assigned to the post as the team's head coach, Slavia has transformed from an average team into one of the best Czech Extraliga clubs.

Růžička started as a head coach of Slavia in 2000-01, and since that season his wards have never finished worse than 6th. Růžička also brings to Slavia a taste of victory. They have won the league twice and also won three silver medals and one bronze. That makes five medals in 10 years. It would be a disaster for Slavia if Růžička left. This danger was averted this summer when Slavia's ownership structure was changed and Růžička, despite offers from abroad, decided to return.

Every year, Slavia loses a few important players, like Jakub Klepiš in 2008, Jaroslav Bednář in 2009 or Roman Červenka and Josef Beránek in 2010. All of them were key players for the team, as was Michal Vondrka last year, who has left Prague for a contract abroad. Will Růžička be able to maintain Slavia's position among the league's elite?

Liberec: Still dreaming about the league finals

For decades, Liberec was just a small local club playing in second- or third-level leagues. A key break in the club's history came in 1994 when local building company Syner entered the organization, changed the club identity in an NHL-like Bílí Tygři (White Tigers) and outlined higher goals for the team.

The Tigers have been pretty successful since then. In the past eight years, the club hs advanced from the third-level 2.liga to the Extraliga and, after a short adjustment period, they became one of the leading Czech clubs playing in a newly-built arena. The Tigers have already won the bronze twice, but their dream about league finals hasn't been realised yet, even with the presence of NHL veteran Petr Nedvěd.

He wants to make this dream come true as much as team management does, but it won't be easy in 2011-12 due to the departures of Zdeněk Ondřej and Andrej Podkonický. Arriving in their place is Darrel Hay. Czech oddsmakers have given Liberec the fourth-best chance of any team to win the title.

Zlín: This will be a different Zlín with no Balaštík in the roster

The alliance looked unbreakable. If Jaroslav Balaštík was skating on Czech Extraliga ice, it was only in the jersey of Zlín. Until now. Balaštík made a salary demand that the club couldn't match, and they had to part company. Add to that the loss of Ivan Rachůnek and a coaching change, where Zdeněk Venera has been replaced by his hitherto assistant Vlach, it looks like a different Zlín than we knew in the past.

Zlín has definitely lost three men with hearts beating for the city, but another has come back home: Petr Čajánek has ended his tenure with the KHL's SKA St. Petersburg and will help Vlach maintain the team's morale and lead the team's offence.

České Budějovice: How will they face up to stronger opponents?

HC České Budějovice was in the middle of the pack last year. The club's management didn't markedly change the team's look and so they will be hard-pressed to improve on that this season. Even maintaining their ground will be difficult because three rivals who finished below them have made changes and declared higher goals.

Since the end of Josef Jandač's era as head coach in 2008, České Budějovice has not had much success in the league and it looks like nothing will changed in the outlook of the 2011-12 season. They will rely heavily on the goaltending of Jakub Kovář.

Litvínov: A major reconstruction is needed

Czech hockey experts fear for Litvínov's near future. The entire club looks like the old Ivan Hlinka Arena that they play in. Everything is in immediate need of renovation, but it seems like management has only enough resources to maintain the status quo. The club wants to reach the playoffs, but the hockey public thinks that the play-outs might be more likely. A few big names left the rosters and none came back during the summer. General manager Jiří Bubla is surely doing his best, but it probably won't be enough for the upcoming season. 

Hope dies last, and it is valid also in the case of Litvínov. Maybe the 2011-12 season won't be successful, but if the squad around Martin Ručínský and Vojtěch Kubinčák is able to prove its strength in the future if any empowering will come. As well, renovation plans for Ivan Hlinka Arena are scheduled to take place within a few years. But maybe Litvínov could surprise right now.

Plzeň: Third time lucky?

Big changes started in 2008. Martin Straka came back from United States and settled down in his hometown of Plzeň. In addition to his established rolls of on-ice player and dressing-room leader, he also cast a chair in the general manager's office.

Straka's first season in Plzeň has so-far been their most successful playoff-wise, advancing to the semifinals. But changes have continued since then. The next year, Straka bought the club and got rid it of its debts. Marian Jelínek was hired as head coach and a lot of roster changes were made. In 2009-10, Plzeň won the President's Trophy, but was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

The 2010-11 season was marred by a scandal that resulted in the deduction of 19 points. The team didn't quit and were able to climb back into a playoff spot, but by then they had nothing left in the tank to advance past the first round. The Indians hope that the old saying "third time lucky" holds true, and they will find the success that has eluded them in 2011-12.

Karlovy Vary: Will the club's off-ice insecurity show on the ice as well?

It was like a revelation: The Karlovy Vary club came out from the shade in 2008 and the team that was accustomed to the nether regions of the standings reached the seventh game of the finals, and then won the league title one year later.

Karlovy Vary moved from their old ice rink into a brand-new arena and the fans were looking forward to a glorious future. But it hasn't worked out that way so far. After 13th- and 11th-place finishes, the team is once again in a rut. The explanation is simple: the club is not able to pay the high rent at the new arena, and its representatives are fighting with the city over financial subsidies. At one point last season, it looked like the club would move out of the city. HC Energie is still in Karlovy Vary, but because of the poor financial situation, it is not clear how it will affect on-ice results.

Brno: Let's make things better

The classic motto suits this year's Kometa Brno team well. Brno is entering its third Extraliga season in a row, and after their first season started bad but finished well, and their second one started very strong but finished terribly, they now looking to put together a solid season from start to finish.

Brno went through big changes during the summer but the results from the European Trophy don't promise anything special. This year's pre-season yielded only one impressive result: a 3-1 victory over SKA St. Petersburg.

Sparta Prague: Czech Rangers vs New York Rangers. And what about the Extraliga?

If you are an owner of a sports club in Prague and it is called Sparta, you are supposed to be the favourite, regardless of the sport. This is also the case with HC Sparta Prague. One of the richest Czech clubs is always marked as a big favourite, and this year is no exception.

But can we rely on preseason forecasts? Usually, yes. Sparta has been one of the best clubs in Czech hockey history, but last season was the club's worst ever. Sparta lost one game after another in the autumn and its winter excursion to play in the Spengler Cup didn't help. Sparta ended up in the play-outs, and major changes were necessary. According to some Czech experts, it will be a return to the "Iron Sparta" that we know from the past.

Sparta Prague of last year reminds us of the New York Rangers: a rich club that gets no results. Coincidentally, these two clubs will face each other in an exhibition game on September 29 in Prague. But let's not forget about being ready to play against the rest of the Extraliga as well.

Kladno: Finally a light at the end of the tunnel

Kladno was the biggest Czechoslovakian club of the 1970s. Between 1975 and 1980, Kladno won the league five times. But the '90s and especially the new millenium have brought one big hit after another to Kladno's face. The club has floated between 9th and 14th spot, the lone exception being a 7th-place finish in 2004-05, and in 2003 HC Kladno was even eliminated from the Extraliga.

One year after the elimination, Kladno advanced back again, but the situation did not improve. Kladno has always had one of the lowest budgets and cannot even rely on help fromthe city. Club management hopes that is not the case anymore. Before this season, Jaromír Jágr bought his hometown club and started a big transformation. Even though he will spend this season in the services of the Philadelphia Flyers, he promises to manage the club from across the Atlantic and he said that he thinks the Knights of Kladno can win the Cup.

Mladá Boleslav: Time to move up

The most recent success in the history of BK Mladá Boleslav is came in the 2008-09 season. They won the 1.liga and advanced to the Extraliga over Ústí nad Labem. Three seasons have passed since then, but Mladá Boleslav has not risen above 14th and last place.

The club was hoping to change that last year, but because of the points they were deducted, they fell back to the bottom and weren't able to climb out the rest of the way. This summer, two big names have been added to the roster: David Výborný and Jaroslav Balaštík. Both of them are really good players with NHL experience. Will they be enough to help Mladá Boleslav  finally escape the basement?

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