After a seventh place finish at the 2014 U20 World Junior Championship in Stockholm, Sweden, Switzerland enters the 2015 WJC looking to break finish among a top-six group that could be very difficult to crack.
This edition of the WJC will be even more special since it will be held in Toronto and Montreal, two of the most hockey-crazed cities in the world, and it should surpass all the recent attendance records for this event. Switzerland will be a part of this showdown and, just a week before the tournament starts, it has received a major boost to their roster as the San Jose Sharks have decided to loan their 2013 first round draft choice, Mirco Mueller, to play for the Swiss at this WJC. Mueller is one of only five returning players from last year’s tournament, where Switzerland finished the event with a quarterfinal loss to Canada.
This time, the Swiss will face Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic and Denmark to battle for a spot in the quarterfinals as a part of Group B. The main challenger for the final spot will be Denmark as Sweden and Russia are well out of Switzerland’s league while the Czechs have one of their most talented rosters at this tournament in recent years and could very well be tagged with the dark-horse label.
On paper, Switzerland should have no problem beating Denmark. But a recent strong showing at the 2014 World Junior A Challenge, where the Danes were led by Winnipeg Jets‘ 2014 first round choice Nikolaj Ehlers (who, ironically, is trained and grew up in Switzerland) showed that points against the promoted nation can’t be taken for granted and will be a hard fight.
Switzerland will head into the tournament backstopped by Gauthier Descloux, Gilles Senn, and Ludovic Waeber, who are three 96-born goaltenders and WJC rookies. All three are very talented and, since the ’95 class didn’t produce any goalies of international caliber, the coaching staff headed by Swiss-Canadian John Fust, together with goaltending coach Pauli Jaks, decided to instead select the three unproven netminders.
Waeber with Fribourg-Gottéron and both Senn with HC Davos and Descloux with Geneva-Servette are already training with their senior team in the National League A, and the three of them have already received some playing minutes in the NLA. But only Descloux, who currently is on loan to Red Ice Martigny in the National League B, plays regularly against men and should have a slight advantage over the other two. Despite his being only average sized and the smallest of the three, he will make up for the missing inches with his agility, quickness, passion and his never-quit attitude. Waeber and Senn are both big and have a good combination of size and mobility, while both rely on their positioning and composure and let the pucks hit them.
Waeber was already the second goaltender on the U18 squad as an underager, but missed most of last season with a severe knee injury. He has recovered well, however, and is back on his game and with the national team program. Senn has flown under the radar so far, but has made some noise this season while getting a taste in the National League A and in the Swiss Cup playing for HC Davos. He is currently among the leaders in wins in the Swiss Elite Jr. A League with Davos’ junior team and impresses with his 6-foot-5 frame and athleticism.
With the addition of Mirco Mueller, Switzerland has in he, Phil Baltisberger and Yannick Rathgeb, all of whom are playing in North America this season, three returning defensemen from last year’s squad. Head Coach Fust has selected a big and mobile troop for this WJC tournament.
The unforeseen reinforcement of Mueller will probably make the Swiss decide to go with eight defensemen in this competition as, during the Summer Challenge in Zuchwil, they tested Michael Fora, who is in his first season with the WHL‘s Kamloops Blazers, as a left wing.
Two interesting names in the defensive group are 97-born and 2015 NHL Draft-eligible Jonas Siegenthaler and Roger Karrer, both from the ZSC Lions organization, who are about to make the team as underagers. Both are blessed with tremendous mobility and skating abilities. Siegenthaler already has the size for pro hockey, while Karrer brings a puck-moving element to the team.
Mueller and Yannick Rathgeb of the Plymouth Whalers should bring the offensive game to the Swiss’ top-4. They could be paired with Edson Harlacher who, after one season with the Kamloops Blazers, decided to return to Switzerland to play for the Kloten Flyers in the National League A, and Jonas Siegenthaler, who both keep their game simple and would bring the defensive play to their pairings. Simon Kindschi of HC Davos and Phil Baltisberger, who is already in his second season with the OHL‘s Guelph Storm, should build the shutdown pair. Both are not the flashiest skaters but are instead known for their punishing hitting game, and they will certainly benefit from the smaller North American ice size.
Switzerland has several interesting names in the forward group and should be offensively strong this year. Kevin Fiala is of course the main Swiss player to look for. The first round draft pick of the Nashville Predators is one of two returning forwards for the Swiss, and he will have to lead this team. Although surrounded by stories of having a bad attitude and also not having the best preliminary camp in Lenzerheide, the highly-skilled Fiala will have to prove his critics wrong and show his game-breaking qualities.
Fiala will hit the ice on a line with another 2015 draft-eligible player, 17-year old Denis Malgin. Both Fiala and Malgin have shown beautiful chemistry in the past playing for the ZSC Lions’ Under-17 team where they were dominating the Swiss Novice Elite League by scoring in bunches. Switzerland is hoping the duo can re-ignite that fire again. Malgin has strong hockey sense and playmaking abilities and will hear his name called in the top-100 of the upcoming NHL Draft. A concern in his game is his face-off play, as he lacks confidence in the dot and usually lets his wings take the draw in the offensive zone. The scoring line should be completed with power forward Timo Meier. The late 96-born Meier is already in his second season with the Halifax Mooseheads and so far has not experienced a sophomore-slump as he has already surpassed all his offensive totals from last season with half a season to go. While he is not the most explosive skater, the Swiss will need Meier’s very good shot and offensive instincts.
The second scoring line should be led by the other returning forward, Jason Fuchs. Fuchs is another Swiss player who has returned home to play in the National League A with HC Ambrì-Piotta after one season in the QMJHL with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, and should take the center position between Luca Fazzini and San Jose Sharks’ second round pick, Noah Rod. Rod is known for his agitating playing style and his solid two-way game with Geneva-Servette , while Luca Fazzini will bring the sniper component to this line. Fazzini has excellent shooting abilities, but skating is a real issue for the forward who is hoping he can benefit from playing on the smaller North American ice surface.
The third line, Switzerland’s checking line, should see an all-North American combination, with Guelph Storm pivot Pius Suter centering Kay Schweri and Tim Wieser, who both play for the Sherbrooke Phoenix in the QMJHL. All three are only average sized, but know the smaller ice rink and the intense North American playing style and will bring this element and speed to the Swiss game. Luca Hischier from SC Bern, who currently plays on loan with EHC Visp in the National League B, Kris Schmidli of the Kelowna Rockets and either one of Swiss-Norwegian Fredrik Sitje or Marc Aeschlimann should round out the attack.
Switzerland played two pre-tournament games, against Slovakia and Canada, and lost both games. If they weren’t already aware, they are now alerted that the necessary points won’t come easy and they will have to battle hard until the end. The Swiss will start the tournament with probably one of the better rosters in their history of the U20 World Junior Championship, but it seems that all the other nations have improved, as well.