Traditionally, Switzerland holds their World Junior Championship preliminary camp in the snowy ski resort of Lenzerheide. But before this year's camp began, the Swiss took a major blow as their first-line center and Minnesota Wild draft choice Christoph Bertschy was injured during a National League A game with SC Bern. Not only is Bertschy an experienced player of two WJC's, but he would have served as team captain if he had remained healthy.
Since the Swiss were promoted to the WJC's top level in 2009, they have finished in the top-eight in every WJC tournament, and have made the quarterfinals in three of those four tournaments. This year, the Under-20 World Junior Championship is changing the playing format, as they did on the Under-18 level, and this will strengthen the position of Switzerland as a top-eight junior nation. The Swiss should now be able to focus more on battling for medals rather than trying to avoid relegation. The recent silver medal that the senior team won last season at the World Championship should give the young Swiss another boost.
Switzerland has seven returning players from last year’s WJC, with two of those returnees playing on the defensive squad. Gone, however, is the '93 defender class, which can easily be named as one of the best Switzerland has ever produced.
The two 95-born defenders, Phil Baltisberger, who is in his first season with the Guelph Storm of the OHL, and San Jose Sharks first round draft choice Mirco Müller, are the two returning defensemen and will be among the leaders for Team Switzerland. Müller, who is known for his calm and savvy play, should be paired with Yannick Rathgeb. The late '95-born Rathgeb is in his first season with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL and is slowly adapting to the North American game. A versatile player, Rathgeb is also able to line up as a forward, which makes him very valuable to this Swiss squad. He possesses a hard shot and, in combination of him being right-shooting, makes him the perfect option for the power-play. Baltisberger is already attending his third World Junior Championship and this will be the most important for this strong shutdown-type defenseman as he is looking to showcase himself to raise his stock for the 2014 NHL Draft.
Baltisberger is another late 95-born and first-time draft-eligible player and should be paired with Lukas Frick of the Kloten Flyers. Frick plays in the National League A and is taking part in his first WJC. He can be called a poor man’s version of Roman Josi and has a lot of upside, considering that he’s still completing his apprenticeship while practicing with the professionals just once a week. There’s still a lot of room for him to develop into a marquee defenseman.
These four should make up the top four for Switzerland, and they will be completed by Claude-Curdin Paschoud of HC Davos, Anthony Rouiller and Benoit Jecker of the EHC Biel/Bienne, and Sämi Kreis of SC Bern.
The biggest name of the returning players is goaltender Melvin Nyffeler (pronounced NEE-FFA-LER), who came out of nowhere last season to backstop the Swiss to the quarterfinals where they lost to the Russians in a shootout. Nyffeler took the National League A by storm this season as he got the call after ZSC Lions goaltender Lukas Flüeler was injured, and Nyffeler proceeded to excel. In his first two starts, he posted two shutouts and continued his stellar play until Flüeler returned. Nyffeler displayed solid lateral movement, decent athleticism and great composure, but the knock on him will always be his size. He barely reaches 5-foot-10 and he will feel this, the better he is known and the better the shooters get. Sascha Rochow and 95-born Daniel Guntern will complete the goaltending trio, but Nyffeler should see all of the workload throughout the tournament.
The forwards will have four returnees, including Sandro Zangger of the ZSC Lions; Dario Simion of HC Lugano; Lukas Sieber of HC Davos; and Lukas Balmelli, who after one season in the QMJHL with the Drummondville Voltigeurs returned home to play with HC Lugano.
The void Bertschy's injury has left on the first line should be filled by Jason Fuchs of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. Fuchs is in his first season in the QMJHL and has all the offensive tools to be the go-to-guy for Switzerland, although his face-off play needs major improvement if he wants to take crucial draws in the game.
Head Coach Colin Muller and his Associate Coach Gerd Zenhäuser tested several line combinations during the preliminary camp and the exhibition games in Sweden, but it should be Zangger and Sieber who will be the wings on the top line. Zangger typifies the scoring forward and is playing in his first season in the National League A with the ZSC Lions, although he still hasn’t found his spot with the team and his skating woes are more serious than expected. Sieber plays with HC Davos in the National League A and is the power forward-type who plays a high-tempo game, tries to hit everything that moves and does not shy away from going into the hot areas.
In the mix for a top-6 role are the two Lugano-products, Balmelli and Simion. Simion received an invitation this summer to the Chicago Blackhawks development camp and definitely benefited from the intense training in North America, as he took another step forward in his development. Balmelli plays a solid two-way game and has good enough playmaking abilities to center a top-line for Switzerland. Julian Schmutz and Marco Müller (not related to Mirco), both from the SC Bern, should be good options to play on the top lines, as well. Both players are undersized but with very good offensive instincts and creativity.
Fabrice Herzog, the surprise fifth round draft choice from the Toronto Maple Leafs, should provide the Swiss with secondary-scoring. Standing 6-foot-2, he has respectable size and a decent shot but lacks the flashiness and acceleration to be a major factor on the top lines.
The one big name to look for is 96-born Kevin Fiala, a very skilled and highly-touted offensive forward who is looking to make the team for his first World Junior Championship. Fiala left Switzerland two years ago to play in Sweden and is posting solid numbers in the Swedish SuperElit Junior League. Despite his high skill-set, the noise always surrounding Fiala is that he’s hard to coach and is not sticking to the system and game plan. The 5-foot-10 forward is best suited on the wing, as Fiala’s offensive instincts, creativity and his ability to take face-offs, where this Swiss team struggles, is probably exactly what the Swiss need and something the coaching staff cannot pass on. The role as the 13th and extra-forward could be the best for Fiala for this tournament.
The remainder of the forward group includes Nico Dünner, a solid two-way pivot from EV Zug; Flavio Schmutz a defensive center with good playmaking-skills, who is another player currently playing in Sweden for Västeras; Vincent Praplan, an offensive forward from the North Bay Battalion; and Luca Fazzini, a scoring forward with limited skating abilities from HC Lugano.
Overall, Switzerland is looking at a decent group of players with decent size and good speed. Thanks to the new playing format, the Swiss will have to focus on the deciding game against Norway to avoid the relegation round and qualify for the quarterfinals, a mission that should be within the grasp of this Swiss squad.