Two things were very clear from the first day of the World Junior Championships. The first is that Team Czechia, a dark horse team come prediction time, was very much for real. They opened their tournament with a marquee matchup with tournament favorites Team Canada, and took it to them, winning 5-2 against Connor Bedard’s team.
The second is that David Spacek, the defenseman who went undrafted in 2021 but whom the Minnesota Wild took in Round 5 (153 overall) last year, was going to stand out. He potted a goal and an assist and led the team in ice time despite skating with David Jiricek (No. 6 overall, 2022) and Stanislav Svozil (No. 69 overall, 2021).
Wild fans may not have been paying much attention to Spacek initially. After all, Sweden boasted Liam Öhgren, Minnesota’s first-round pick (No. 19) from 2022. And real prospect-heads would have remembered the big tournament 2022 sixth-rounder Servac Petrovsky had in the World Juniors this past summer, with two goals and an assist in four games for Team Slovakia.
But it was Spacek who had the coming-out party at the 2023 tournament. He finished tied for second on Team Czechia with eight points through seven games. Spacek tied Svozil and Brandt Clarke (No. 8 overall, 2021) for third in scoring among defensemen in the tournament, and his three goals were also good for a tie for third (with Jiricek). It was a performance good enough for the coaches to name him one of Czechia’s top three players.
Spacek’s burst of production might have shocked just about everyone in the State of Hockey. Just don’t count Wild Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir among them. “We were excited to see him play like that and also very pleased,” the former Wild defenseman said of the prospect. “But we’re not overly surprised by him doing that.”
Why’s that? Well, Spacek’s turned heads since his rookie season in the QMJHL last season with the Sherbrooke Phoenix. He not only led the Phoenix blueline with 12 goals and 50 points in 57 games, but he also had a terrific playoff. Spacek’s 13 points in 11 games were the second-best of anyone at his position in the QMJHL.
So that’s why, in a big tournament, Bombardir isn’t worried about Spacek rising to the challenge. “It just seems like when the moments in the game get higher, he’s able to elevate his play but still has a calming demeanor out on the ice,” Bombardir glowed. “No moment is too big for him.”
Not even the moments where he had to go head-to-head with Connor Bedard, the generational talent slated to go first overall in the 2023 Draft. Bedard had one goal and no assists in two matchups against Spacek and Czechia’s defense. In five games against the rest of the field, he posted eight goals and 22 points.
Even so, it’s a short tournament, so how much stock should we take from eight games? “I think it’s very important,” Bombardir responds. Why? “He’s going to be pushed at the next level like all these young men are when they end up turning pro. … You’re playing against bigger, faster players, and for the most part, they’ll have a high hockey sense as well.”
So playing well against the biggest, fastest, smartest, and most skilled players in his age bracket is a good sign. Obviously, not every prospect who turns in a big performance at the tournament goes on to do bigger and better things, but Spacek’s production puts him in good company.
Defensemen who turned in eight-point performances in the last decade include Cale Makar and Ivan Provorov, who both have seen lots of success in the NHL. You can also find a ton of big names who just missed Spacek’s production. Charlie McAvoy, Adam Fox, and Bowen Byram didn’t shine as brightly in their tournaments. And those three names weren’t, say, 17 or 18. They were 19, the same age Spacek is now.
But Spacek showed he at least has the tools to succeed at the next levels. It’s not just Bombardir and the Wild saying this, either. Spacek’s even starting to convert his doubters.
“To us, Spacek always looked more like a dominant Junior defenseman than a real NHL candidate,” Mitch Brown and David St. Louis, scouts for Elite Prospects, wrote after the tournament, “but this tournament is now making us question this assessment.”
They then broke down exactly why Spacek opened their eyes. “Playing tough minutes against top opposition, he made the safe, right choices. He enabled Svozil to join the attack, and he himself contributed to create the offense by shifting the defense around with his skating.”
That combination of mobility and smarts makes the Wild front office so excited. “He’s just a smooth player,” Bombardir continues. “He has a really good feel for his surroundings. He doesn’t have to all-of-a-sudden make knee-jerk reactions to plays because he senses and feels the play quite well. He’s able to read plays before they happen and be in the right spot, both positionally and with his stick.”
It must run in the family. David is the son of Jaroslav Spacek, the NHL veteran of 880 games, including several against Bombardir.
“His dad was a great hockey player,” Bombardir recalls. “They both play the game very smoothly. But I even think David himself might have a bit more offensive upside to his game.” No small statement, as Jaroslav scored 355 points in the NHL (0.40 per game). “They’re both smart, smooth players, and David’s definitely learned from him.”
Spacek’s still learning and not a finished product yet. But all that means is he has a path to improve every day. This season, he’s got 26 points in 29 games for Sherbrooke, about per-game point pace he had last season. But what he did in Halifax showed the steps forward he’s taken in his skating and mobility, a focus of his game this year.
Between the Wild’s development team and Dad, Spacek’s got all the help he needs to maximize his game and NHL chances. “It’s interesting,” Bombardir says. “When we talk after games, we always like to ask, ‘What does your dad tell you?’ We’re pretty much spot-on [in agreement] with David’s game and the areas he needs to work on and the strengths of his game, too.”
One other thing they’re on the same page about: David’s got a real shot at a nice career. After the last few weeks, the hockey world at large is starting to follow.