2015 WJC Preview: Draisaitl-less Germany lacks star power of top countries

By Chapin Landvogt
Markus Eisenschmid - Medicine Hat Tigers

Photo: Medicine Hat Tigers forward Markus Eisenschmid will be an important part of Germany’s offensive attack at the 2015 World Junior Championship (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

 

They’ve made a routine of it, and it’s been just enough to stick to date. For two years running, Team Germany has decided the relegation round in their favor and managed to stave off relegation accordingly at the World Junior Championship.

At the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship in Ufa, RussiaGermany defeated Latvia (5-2) in a do-or-die relegation game. At the 2014 WJC in Malmo, Sweden, they beat Norway 2-1 in games won in the relegation round, coming back from a first game loss. Now they are heading to Canada with, realistically speaking, little more to gain than class retention.

Things might have looked different if Germany’s one household name, Leon Draisaitl, were scheduled to play for the black, red and gold, but the 2014 third overall draft pick is on the Edmonton Oilers‘ NHL roster and has not been released for this tournament. The tall and stocky center with hands of gold was the absolute catalyst in the past two tournaments and played a key role in class retention in both. This year, it was thought he could actually have Germany competing for more, something they were able to do with him in the lineup at recent U18 tournaments. He also made his men’s World Championship debut last spring in Belarus and didn’t look a bit out of place.

Still, his absence is a reality the team has been reckoning with.

“Since draft day, when Leon Draisaitl was drafted third overall, we knew that there was a possibility that he would not be available to us,” said Germany head coach Pat Cortina, who hails from Montreal. “As he participated in the NHL rookie camp and made it onto the team, that possibility became more realistic. Already during this time, we began thinking about a team without Leon. He is our top player and anytime your top player is not available,  it is a big hit, but also a big opportunity for the rest of the team to make a statement.”

Now life without Leon is coming a year earlier than any WJC fan could wish for and Germany simply has to deal with it.

Key go-to guys

Returning to this year’s team are several other key players, namely former linemates Dominik Kahun and Frederik Tiffels. Both have been cogs on the past two WJC entries and will have to lead the charge this year in all game situations. Fortunately for Germany, Kahun has been known to still thrive without Draisaitl, something he did last winter when Draisaitl missed two of the tournament’s games. Both are undrafted, but are surely located in the notebooks of NHL scouts across the globe.

This season, Kahun has played in Germany’s first and second pro leagues. After putting up nine points in nine games with Riesersee, he was recalled to the DEL club and hasn’t looked back since. Moving along slowly, things have recently clicked and he now has three points in the last eight games to go along with a +1 rating.

Tiffels, a strong skater who can turn on a dime with the puck, has joined the Western Michigan University Broncos this fall after several years of USHL play – and things have skyrocketed. Already on a scoring line, the two-way forward has seven goals, 11 points, and a +8 rating in just 13 games and is turning heads around the NCAA. He and Kahun put on quite a show together in last winter’s relegation round and both are firing on all cylinders at the moment.

Also key to Germany’s chances are returning defensemen Tim Bender and Janik Moser. Like Tiffels, Moser is playing NCAA hockey after putting in a strong performance at the WJC in Malmo. He’s a freshman in the truest sense at Ohio State University and has looked very solid in gathering one assist and an even rating in 13 games. Being brought along slowly, he’s a two-way defender who puts a priority on playing strong, solid and aggressive in his own zone.

Bender is a kid who was felt to be a top prospect for Germany two drafts ago, but hasn’t gained the attention of NHL scouts to date. Clearly talented and naturally smart with the puck, Bender has often had problems bringing himself up to speed in the defensive department, but his experience with Dale Hunter in London last season has sharpened his game immensely. This year he’s been splitting time, like Kahun, between Riesersee (where he has four goals and nine points in 18 games) and Munich of the DEL, where he has one assist and a -2 rating. There’s little doubt he’ll have to man the point on Germany’s power play and his motivation must be sky-high as this will be his last, big chance at the international level to establish himself as a good overage possibility in this summer’s NHL Draft, if not gain an invite to an NHL team’s prospect camp. 

Also key to any success Germany will have is its new first-line center, Markus Eisenschmid, an old-school player who works hard and takes care of business in all three zones. After a lackluster U18 in Sochi in 2013, Eisenschmid was a cog with Germany’s U20 team, becoming better each and every game. This season, he’s been a leader for the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL, having put up 18 points in 16 games along with a +11 rating. Most importantly, he continues to improve and round out his game at a rapid pace. Without Draisaitl there, he’ll have to step up to the plate and be a difference maker in every capacity. The German Federation is counting on it.

Experience now a strength

Last year’s squad only had four returnees from the year before. This year’s team will feature 11 returnees. This will be most critical in staving off any possible relegation, as that experience must come to the forefront in each and every game as the tournament progresses.

Each of Bender and Moser, as well as Dorian Saeftel and Fabio Wagner, are returning in a defensive capacity, and each bring an all-round game reliant on good skating. 

Up front, Parker Tuomie is a kid the team will be relying on to do more than he has internationally to date. The tourney in Malmo was supposed to be his coming out party, but that didn’t happen. Will this year’s WJC be the charm? He’s got 14 points in 24 games for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL and is committed to Minnesota State-Mankato next fall, thus returning to the state his father hails from. If Germany is to make any noise, he’ll have to be a big part of it.

Also returning up front in addition to the aforementioned Kahun, Tiffels and Eisenschmid are forwards Vladislav Filin and Maximilian Kammerer. Both are playing key roles for Salzburg in the MHL, with both having strong seasons there. Kammerer, in particular, who has two years of experience with the Regina Pats and was Germany’s top scorer at the most recent U18 tournament, will be looked at to bring his rough-and-tumble, opportunistic game.

In addition to these returnees, all of whom are playing pro, NCAA or MHL hockey, no less than Patrick Kurz, Kai Wissmann, John Rogl, Erik Gollenbeck, Stefan Loibl, Fabio Pfohl, Marc Schmidpeter, and Manuel Wiederer are playing professional hockey in either the DEL or DEL2, meaning the team is bringing a boatload of kids who are used to playing with and against bigger, faster and more experienced competition. This is something the program feels will go a long way over a long and hard tournament.

Noteworthy

Winger Andreas Eder has played two strong U18 tournaments in a row and captained Germany at the most recent one, in which Germany managed to knock off Denmark to retain the class. After a sojourn with the Vancouver Giants of the WHL, where things just didn’t work out, Eder has been very strong and growing considerably in Germany. This season, he too is playing for Salzburg of the MHL where he’s a first-line player and has 15 goals, 30 points, and 40 penalty minutes in 35 games. He’s grown physically and loves to truck through players. For all those who decided to scratch him off the interest list after he left Vancouver, he’ll be looking to use this tournament to show the international community why the program sees him as a budding national team players for years to come.

Who else scouts will be watching

David Trinkberger, D – He became known to the scouting community through a U18 performance that saw him improve with every game. In lightning speed, he found himself drafted by the Muskegon Lumberjacks and now he’s playing USHL hockey, and doing that quite well. The stay-at-home defenseman has four points, 22 penalty minutes and an even rating in 21 games. More importantly, he’s 6’5” and 207 pounds. The size, overall defensive game and current state of development lead some to believe that his future lies in North America.

Jonas Muller, D – Other than at the U18 in 2013, little has been seen of the Berlin native internationally, but that’s about to change. After 13 games for Dresden in the DEL 2 this winter, Muller has been called up to the DEL and hasn’t looked back. For Eisbaeren Berlin, he now has a goal, five points and a +3 in the DEL. Ask anybody in the organization and they’ll probably express that he’s the league’s top U20 player by a country mile, presenting top skating, puck-moving and anticipation capabilities. For years, there’s been a bit of a buzz about him out of Eastern Germany, but he’s now strutting his stuff nationwide and hopefully soon internationally for Germany.

Nico Sturm, F – No relation to Marco Sturm, Nico is 6’2” and 190 pounds and is playing for the Austin Bruins of the NAHL, where he has 15 points and a +13 rating in 29 games. His game itself is one that mixes good offensive instincts with the ability to play physically. Folks in North America should denote his name because, like Tiffels, Moser, and Tuomie, it is felt Sturm is looking to go the NCAA route. A third-line role looks likely in this tournament, especially against tougher opponents.

Stefan Loibl, F – At 6’1” but only 165 pounds, Loibl was arguably Germany’s most creative and effective offensive player at the U18 in Finland and he’s now spent the fall playing both DEL and DEL2 hockey. In particular in the DEL2, he’s been able to make a difference with nine points in 18 games. In any case, scouts know who he is and this is truly his opportunity to step up and assume some of the offensive responsibility Germany desperately needs from a player of his creative quality. 

Keep an eye on

Marc Michaelis, F – He was the DNL’s MVP last season, but is truly slight of frame at 5’10” and 168 pounds. Nonetheless, he is athletic and has a strong academic mind, and his journey to NCAA play is no surprise. At the moment, he’s now skating for the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, where he has two assists in two games after gathering 31 points in 27 games for the Minnesota Magicians of the NAHL. Like former linemate Tuomie, he too is heading to Minnesota State-Mankato next fall. Interestingly, Michaelis is one of those kids who simply doesn’t allow his size to alter his effectiveness, and his ability to transfer his offense to the North American-sized rinks has not gone unnoticed. There’s really no reason he can’t be the guy for Germany who viewers will be asking about as the tournament progresses.

Difficulties

As usual, the WJC squad is comprised of players playing in different areas of the globe and coming from all sorts of systems. There is no USNTDP in Germany and so, any and all measures in the course of the summer and winter are spent getting the players onto the same page.  Many are playing in North America, while others are skating for a number of different first and second league clubs, most getting little ice time or only a regular shift in a lower line capacity.

“It is always difficult to put together a team for international competition, especially with so little time,” states Cortina, who is also the men’s national team coach. “We hope that our ´European´ players can adapt during training and exhibition games. More importantly, the common goal of bringing our best and properly representing German Ice Hockey is what we hope will bring the team together.”

Another big question is what the team will be doing in goal. After two winters in which Shawinigan’s Marvin Cupper was able to win a game or two on his own, this year’s squad will look to a totally new starter, likely last year’s back-up, Kevin Reich. The 6’1”, 205-pound goaltender has recently been playing for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL, where he’s put up a 2.16 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in 10 games played. He played one game for the WJC squad last season, but had a less than impressive 6.00 goals-against in that contest.

Both Reich and Florian Proske have good U18 experience as starters, but the interesting name in this equation is that of Ilya Sharipov. Of Kazak Russian descent, he too has been playing for Salzburg in the MHL and has a highly impressive 2.84 goals-against average and .902 save percentage in 22 games, serving as the team’s clear-cut starter. He also has been very impressive at a number of camps to date and was dominant in appearances for Berlin’s DNL club in recent years. If ever there was a joker in the hat, Sharipov may just be that.

He’s not alone on the team with a Slavic background, as both Denis Shevyrin (who also is playing NAHL hockey this season) and Filin are native Russian speakers while Kahun is a native Czech speaker.

Prognosis

All in all, Team Germany will feature 15 players with experience in North America and 14 who are currently playing in one of Germany’s top two pro leagues. In addition, five key players are suiting up for the Salzburg MHL club, where they’re playing in one of Europe’s top junior circuits. The team hopes this mixture will go a long way in making the team competitive in each and every game in the tournament, most particularly against their robust preliminary round rivals Canada and the USA. In a recent test game 5-2 loss to the USA, Germany did manage to finish things off strong after having falling behind 4-0 after 30 minutes. Against returning gold medalist Finland, Germany has rarely been able to even put a dent in the armor in prior tournaments.

Then there’s perennial rival Slovakia, a team Germany got blown out by last winter after having knocked them off in Ufa the year before. This will be their big test in the first round – a recurring theme. It goes without saying that anything less than a victory against Slovakia will likely see Germany placed in the relegation round, so December 30th will be the key date for the ‘Bundesadler’ this winter.

If the almost unavoidable relegation round should end up being the case, the pressure will be on no less than Kahun, Tiffels, and Bender to repeat their heroics from the past two Januarys. Experience there is their strength, and particularly Kahun has continually proven to be a winner in that capacity. Still, even if they were to face neighboring Denmark, which is returning to Group A play for their first appearance in quite some time, the team will have to hope they can shut down the Ehlers-Eller-Bjorkstrand line, which features players of an offensive caliber that Germany just can’t throw on the ice.

In light of the lack of Draisaitl, this group will be tested to bring its size, pro & North American experience, as well as a close-knit, do-or-die team feeling to the table in order to allow the next generation to experience next year’s WJC fun.  It remains to be seen if Germany’s strong depth and relegation round experience – albeit plagued by many question marks overall – will be enough to beat likely opponent Denmark’s star power, despite the new participant’s lack of experience at this level.

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin