North America no problem for Czech star Necas

Martin Necas has impressed with his strong play in the 2015 World U-17 Hockey Challenge. (HC Kometa Brno)

The Czech Republic entered the 2015 World U-17 Hockey Challenge as underdogs. It’s been nearly a decade since the team last managed to earn a medal, and the country’s high-water mark at the event came in 1998 when the club won silver. In a tournament filled with powerful teams, the Czechs have at times had difficulty standing out.

But time and again they have also shown an ability to beat any other team in the tournament, and also to put out top-level individuals who can compete against anyone in the world. There were several players on this year’s squad who fit that description, but it’s hard to look past Martin Necas. He was the Czech team’s captain and its leading scorer, a top-line centre who played heavy minutes at even-strength and on both special teams.

Given his history, it isn’t really a surprise that he was such a force in the tournament.

A season ago, Necas dominated the Czech U-16 level, putting up a ludicrous 91 points in 34 games, a figure that led the league. This year he has graduated to the country’s U-18 program, and is scoring just a touch under two points per game. The talent was obvious from the outset; the question was how well he would adapt to the smaller ice surface and whether his modest 5-foot-11, 148-pound frame could withstand the rigours of playing five games in six days against hard-hitting North American entries.

There was a learning curve, as Necas himself admitted, saying through a translator that it took a few games to find a comfort level both for himself and the team.

"We allowed eight goals in our first exhibition game," he said, and then with notable understatement added, "That’s a lot."

An NHL scout attending the event agreed, saying that Necas hadn’t been as noticeable as expected in the Czechs’ first round robin game against the United States. He did find the range, though, playing his best hockey of the tournament in two games against Canadian teams.

In the round robin his efforts allowed the Czechs to upset Canada White, a team that will play for the gold medal on Saturday.

Necas was a force everywhere on the ice, going to the corners eagerly, battling at the front of the net, competing on the backcheck and most of all showcasing the skill that makes him so lethal. His speed allowed him to catch up to and strip the puck from Gabe Vilardi, the No. 2 selection in last year’s OHL Draft and himself an exceptional skater. His skill allowed him to cut right through a well-positioned Canadian defender and then rip the puck past goalie Matthew Welsh.

On Friday, Necas was again impossible to miss, and this time it was Canada Black which paid the price. He made a stunning pass to linemate Martin Kaut just 15 seconds into the contest, a pass that Kaut wasted no time depositing behind Canadian keeper Alex D’Orio. For good measure, he also notched the empty-netter, which ended an impressive push by Canada late in the game.

Necas is a top prospect for the 2017 NHL Draft, and this tournament afforded him an opportunity to impress a veritable swarm of NHL scouts in attendance. We’ve highlighted his speed and skill, which were expected, but what may have made an even more positive impression was how well he took to playing a more physical style of game.

Necas engaged physically, on several occasions initiating hits. He showed no hesitation going to the front of the net, with one of his goals a garbage-style rebound that he managed to bang past the goaltender. He went to the corners without hesitation and didn’t back down when challenged.

Petr Studnicka, the team’s manager and also its assistant coach, praised his top centre after the Czechs finished their portion of the tournament on Friday.

"He was the key player for our team, obviously," Studnicka said. "In every game he was very visible on the ice. He’s a playmaker and a goal-scorer. He’s a great kid who loves to play hockey."

In all likelihood, Necas is going to get a chance to play a lot of hockey, and probably at the game’s highest level, too. His performance at this event isn’t going to do anything to hurt his stock with NHL teams. If anything, it just confirmed that he’s the kind of player who will be a quick study when it comes time to make the jump to North America permanently.

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