2015 U18 World Championship Preview: Germany hopes to avoid relegation playoff

By Chapin Landvogt
Team Germany - 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship

Photo: Team Germany’s entry at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship will be looking to avoid the fate that befell that country’s U20 squad, namely relegation to Division I Group A (courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

 

 

Two years ago in Sochi, Russia, forward Leon Draisaitl was the reason many were very excited about seeing Team Germany play. And despite having to carry an unsuspecting cast on his back, just getting Germany to the playoffs, where they bowed out to host Russia in the first round with an 8-4 loss, was something he practically did on his own.

Last spring in Finland, Germany headed to the U18 World Championship knowing that there wouldn’t be a Draisaitl to lean on. Both the DEB program and the ice hockey community feared that the preliminary round would serve as little more than preparation for a relegation round match-up that would likely include the northern neighboring nation of Denmark. Exactly this took place.

In two tight games, Germany managed to win 3-2 and earn the nation another ticket to a U18 tourney in the IIHF’s belle étage. Holding place is something the German program is always thankful for, especially now that a new president is in charge and sweeping changes are being made in the program related to player development, right from the time they begin skating.

This will take time and US-born coach Jim Setters is very aware of this.

As such, the team will enter the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in much the same state as last spring’s team, with one major exception. For the first time in years, the team will not include any players currently abroad, aside from the joint Munich-Salzburg Red Bull MHL program, which consists of a collection of German and Austrian talents who play in Russia’s top junior league. This team features two of their participants.

Arguably the two readiest players for this tournament, defenseman Max Glassl and Christoph Korner will be counted on to carry roles of heavy responsibility. Each is among the best all-around players on this team and Glassl has been a name on scouts’ radars for a few years now, as he spent several seasons honing his skills in Finland. At 6’2” and 201 pounds, Glassl brings an all-around skill set to the table and combines strong defensive instincts with a strong first pass. Korner is also 6’2” and 183 pounds, but plays more of a banger’s game and is still a project with respect to awareness and dealing with higher speeds.

The rest of this team’s players will hail from the DNL, Germany’s top junior league – one that hasn’t yet shown that it compares favorably with Europe’s other top developmental leagues when compared in international play. This just wasn’t enough against the established nations at last year’s tournament.

Game plan

Coach Setters sees his work with this program as little more than development. Pure ice hockey development. What the team achieves on the ice isn’t nearly as important as the steps the players are taking towards one day coming into play as capable competitors for the men’s national team. As such, he’s thrown together a team that consists of players he’s seen all winter in Germany and has more time to work with than any who might be abroad at the moment.

The majority of the U18 squad is coming from the Mannheim DNL program, which continues to be the non-plus ultra of Germany’s junior circuit. This includes two of the three goalies, three of the seven defensemen, and four forwards. The league’s surprise powerhouse this season was Bad Tolz, based primarily on the play of underage DNL Player of the Year Tobias Eder, whose brother Andreas captained Germany at last year’s tournament. Bad Tolz will be sending five players to Switzerland.

When the first puck finally drops, the team will be in a constant uphill battle and spending most of the playing time in their end of the ice. The team will be able to go with the same mentality from opponent to opponent, making adjustments along the way. What Germany does need is for one of the goalies to take the bull by the horns and put in a few outstanding performances. This will only be possible if the five players in front of them are blocking as many shots and passing lanes as possible, 60 minutes long.

Other keys

The team has four returnees from last spring’s class-retaining efforts, namely goalie Patrik Berger, defenseman Simon Schutz, and forwards Maxilillian Daubner and Jakob Mayenschein. Berger in not necessarily the go-to starter this year, as he didn’t play at the highest level (only DNL2), and also didn’t see any pro action. Winger Daubner did, however, gobbling up a checking line role in 47 DEL2 contests, finishing with two goals and four points to accompany 24 penalty minutes. Daubner will need to bring that experience to the table in this tournament.

Just 5’11” and 172 pounds, forward Jakub Mayenschein may be the team’s best all-around player at the moment. His offensive output in the DNL2 for Landshut was dominant (roughly 1.5 points per game), but he went scoreless in 24 games for the club’s pro team, thus a teammate of Daubner, with whom he can be expected to line up in Switzerland. Probably more important is the play and role of Schutz. Not only did he progress tremendously at the last U18, he has now spent the entire season playing 47 games for Regensburg in the country’s third-highest pro league. There, he had seven points and by all accounts played beyond his years.

Who the scouts will be watching

The 5’10”, 160-pound and heavily skilled forward Julian Napravnik is currently the most exciting and savvy player of his class in Germany. Seeing how much brawn Germany is bringing along, one has to think he’ll be given every opportunity to QB the power play and perhaps pivot one of the top two lines. There certainly aren’t many other candidates for that role and the inside word is that Napravnik is very excited about showing the international community what he’s capable of.

Ranging in just a tad bit bigger at 6-foot and 165 pounds is goalie Mirko Pantkowski. For the preliminary round of the season, Pantkowski was the DNL’s top goaltender, putting up a 1.85 goals-against average. He played the majority of games for his club, but definitely showed some more chinks in his armor throughout the second half of the season when the competition became tougher. What makes this special though is that he did this as a 16 year old. One shouldn’t be surprised if he’s already in net for Germany at this tournament.

The most curious player, though, will be the aforementioned Eder, who is already the top figure in the junior stage despite his young age. A strong skating, right-shooting player, his game isn’t all that different from brother Andreas, who left the Vancouver Giants for personal reasons after trying out a WHL venture. Whereas Andreas is now with the Salzburg MHL program, Tobias has his eyes on North America and appears ready for a venture into the USHL or CHL after putting up 32 goals and 65 points in just 40 games. His achievements to date and his overall profile practically make him a sure-fire import draft player for a CHL club. This tourney will decide that for certain, especially since the team’s lack of right-handed shooters means he’ll be found on the power play. NHL clubs would like to see him in their backyard in preparation for his 2016 draft year as he has much to learn, but a great deal of raw potential, too.

Strengths

The team has played a whole slew of test games heading up to this tournament and feels it’s as prepared as possible from an in-game fitness standpoint. Despite a realistic approach, the team wants to avoid the relegation round and will play each game ready to win. Setters has the patience and wherewithal to run a club in a fast-paced tournament environment that can be physically and psychologically demanding.

Weaknesses

Lack of skating prowess and comparative international experience will make things very difficult for a team that has no clear-cut number 1 goalie, a defense that doesn’t currently feature anything resembling a blueline quarterback for the power play, and a forward crew with a bunch of international no-names coming out of a comparatively weak junior league, where the offensive stats didn’t even rival many of the players of recent years who couldn’t make it happen internationally.

Also hard to say is what defensemen Lukas Kalble, Tobias Fohrler, Tobias Schmitz, and Tom Horschel – all measuring in between 6’2” and 6’5” – can bring to the table internationally, as only Kalble played an offensive role for his team, while the others put up very little in the line of stats. It’s worth mentioning that Fohrler is half Swiss, which could be a bonus in the motivation department.

Size up front is decent, but it’s hard to think that any of Tim Bernhardt, Valentin Kopp, Lois Spitzer, Christoph Kiefersauer or Yannick Drews will suddenly be producers at this stage, although Drews has shown some real good chemistry with Napravnik in the recent past and Kiefersauer had 36 goals in 40 games for Cologne.

Synopsis

The team plays Russia, Sweden and the USA in its first three games. These will be used as measuring sticks. After a 6-5 overtime loss to Canada in preliminary play, the team doesn’t feel it has to fear any of the big name countries as long as it sticks to its game plan. It has to be a thorn in the side of the opponents and keep the games close for as long as possible.

Then, as has often been the case, things will come down to their last preliminary game against Slovakia, a country this group of boys has had some good success against in recent tournaments and test games. Whoever loses that game will likely be heading to the relegation round. Any surprises and Germany will have its problems gaining any points whatsoever in the preliminary round.

As such, that game may be one of the most interesting of the entire tournament. The goal is to retain the class and, should a best-of-three sneak up on this team yet again, it’s experience in Finland and the continuity of a group of players that has played against each other or together recently would normally have to be the key.

Unfortunately for Germany, some players simply must come out of nowhere to shine, because on paper, this is the weakest team in the tournament. And we know what that meant for the country’s U20 WJC squad.

Follow Chapin Landvogt’s work from the U18 World Championship at Hockey’s Future