Photo by: Taylor Friehl on Unsplash
On Sunday, Jan. 9, a major upset occurred in the women’s hockey U18 championship as the IIHF’s 15th-ranked Slovakians ran over the fourth-ranked Swiss.
Though the Swiss got the scoring started in the first, the Slovaks responded in a big way in the second, scoring three of their own in six minutes, prompting a Swiss change in netminders.
The Slovaks would add one more in the third, cruising to a comfortable 4-1 victory, setting them up for a rivalry matchup with Czechia on the 11th. The Slovaks barely avoided relegation in last years’ tournament, and they are 0-3 against the Czech’s all time in this tournament. Though they fell 4-3, it looks like Slovakia’s turning the corner.
Though the Slovaks played a strong team game against the Swiss, that’s not the reason they were likely to beat the Czechs, nor is it the reason I am writing about a relatively inconsequential group-stage match in a small hockey tournament.
The reason is Nela Lopušanová.
Lopušanová plays for the Slovaks and is definitively the best player in the tournament.
Lopušanová is a potential generational talent in the women’s hockey sphere. However, her game is not much like that of Connor Bedard, the Canadian star of the World Juniors.
While Bedard’s game is built more around his superlative skill rather than his physical assets, Lopušanová’s plays a game that blends power with finesse. At 5’7”, Lopušanová is already a big player, but she also marries this with speed, good hands and puck protection, and, similar to Bedard, an excellent shot. Lopušanová is a supremely skilled player at just 14 years old.
In that six-minute stretch in the second against the Swiss, Lopušanová first added a short-handed goal, stickhandling through defenders and ripping a hard shot near-side. Minutes later, she made a slick feed on the rush to set up her teammate’s backhand goal right in front of the net and, four minutes after that, added another goal of her own.
Lopušanová completed the hat trick later in the third, and celebrated by pulling out the griddy.
Lopušanová’s skill has been on full display in this tournament. Three days after her hattrick, Lopušanová pulled out the lacrosse-style Michigan goal against Sweden. She also added this spectacular goal against Japan.
After playing her fifth and final game of the tournament against the Czechs on Jan. 13, Nela Lopušanová has nine goals and twelve points in five games, two statistics in which she leads the tournament. She also continued her sorcery with the puck against Czechia, first dangling a defender and batting the puck past the goalie, and then going between-the-legs on a breakaway.
Lopušanová’s dominance is not just limited to the international circuit. Nor even to the women’s circuit.
Though she is not the highest scorer in the Slovakian women’s league, she has not played as many games as her competition, and she is third in points per game. Both the players ahead of her are also considerably older.
Lopušanová also plays in Slovakia’s top men’s U16 league where she is arguably even better.
Among players with over ten games played, she’s second in points per game with 15 goals and 31 points in 10 games. It is also, I believe, worth mentioning, again, that Nela Lopušanová is in grade nine. She is 14 years old. Nela Lopušanová might not just be the top women’s Slovakian hockey player, but one of the top young Slovakian hockey players, period.
It is not as though the Slovakian circuit is some farmer’s league either. 2022 in particular was a huge crop for Slovakian NHL draft prospects, with the 2022 draft featuring three Slovak first round selections, including the number one and two overall selections.
In fact, around the same age, Slovakian number one overall selection Juraj Slafkovsky actually played in the same Slovakian U16 league. What’s interesting to see is that Slafkovsky put up worse numbers.
The 3.1 points per game Lopušanová is currently rocking is almost 0.8 more points per game than Slafkovsky had. The possibility of Lopušanová becoming the first woman to join the ranks of the NHL is becoming more and more realistic.
At 5’7”, 150lbs, Lopušanová would undoubtedly be small for the NHL, but players of her size are not without precedent, though these are edge cases. Cole Caulfield of the Montreal Canadiens, for example, is 5’7”, 165 lbs. At 14 years old, Lopušanová’’s also has plenty of time to grow.
Doing some quick (if flawed) math, you can also estimate how Lopušanová might perform following Slafkovsky’s development curve.
You can use historical data to estimate how much a point in one league is worth relative to another, and then adjust point totals to guess how much a player might put up in a different league. For example, a point in Russia’s top hockey, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) is worth roughly 0.88 points in the NHL, meaning a 100-point season in the KHL would be roughly equivalent to an 88 point one in the NHL.
Using this method, Lopušanová outperforms Slafkovsky every step of the way, from the Czech youth circuit, to the Finnish youth circuit, to Finland’s top league, Liiga. For reference, Hayley Wickenheiser, the GOAT of women’s hockey, in the prime of her career, was only able to crack Mestis, the Finnish league below Liiga, where she had zero points through 10 games.
|Comparing Slovakian Superstars|
|League||Juraj Slafkovsky||Equivalency Coefficient||Nela LopušanováAdjusted Pace|
|Slovakia U-16||54 points,23 games played, 2.35 points per game||71 points,23 games played,3.1 points per game|
|Czechia U-16||42 – 22 – 1.91||1.91 / 2.35 = 0.81||58 – 23 – 2.64|
|U-18 SM-sarja||52 – 39 – 1.33||0.7||69 – 39 – 1.77|
|U-20 SM-sarja||13 – 16 – 0.81||0.61||17 – 16 – 1.08|
|Liiga||10 – 31 – 0.32||0.4||13 – 31 – 0.43|
All statistics courtesy of EliteProspects.
To go a step further, to compare her with other prospects to emerge from Liiga, Lopušanová’s estimated point per game pace (0.43) puts her right in the mix with former Finnish top prospects Sebastian Aho (0.43), Mikko Rantanen (0.5) and Jesse Puljujarvi (0.56).
This is the future of hockey; not a flashy, Canadian NHL phenom, but a 14-year-old Slovakian girl who hits the griddy after completing a hat trick against peers four years her senior.