After failing to secure a spot in the quarterfinals by losing the decisive game against Denmark at last year’s World Junior Championship, Switzerland is trying to avoid adversity this year by catching a spot in the medal round for only the third time in the last seven years.
With 10 returning players from last year’s squad and the addition of several players from the strong ’97-born class – a group that finished fourth at the 2015 U18 World Championship and which might be one of the best Switzerland has ever produced – the direction to the quarterfinals is clear.
Switzerland will face tough competition playing in the strong Group A at the 2016 World Junior Championship, where they will be playing defending World Junior champion Canada; a powerhouse USA squad that includes the potential top pick for the upcoming NHL Draft, Auston Matthews, who is competing in Switzerland’s top league, the National League A (NLA); an especially strong squad from Sweden; and, as in last year’s WJC, Denmark. The games against the top nations will be a showcase for Switzerland, but the main focus will be against Denmark since this game will be a make-or-break situation, as it was at last year’s tournament.
This year, Switzerland will send a well-balanced forward group to the tournament, but the big missing name will be Kevin Fiala. The Nashville Predators draftee declined the call from Swiss Ice Hockey as he tries to find his game in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals, where he will put all his focus as he tries to get back to the NHL.
So the offensive load for the Swiss will fall on the shoulders of San Jose Sharks prospect, Timo Meier. The hard-shooting offensive forward will be on the first line with Pius Suter from the ZSC Lions Zürich and Tino Kessler of HC Davos. Suter was surprisingly overlooked at last year’s NHL Draft and decided to return to Switzerland, where he took the NLA by storm as one of the better offensive performers for the powerhouse ZSC Lions. The flashy pivot catches your eyes with his great drive and his nose for the net. Meier and Suter will be supported by energy forward Kessler, who will be battling in front of the net for the dirty goals.
The second line for the Swiss will include another Sharks’ draftee in Noah Rod. The pesky, two-way forward plays a fearless, in-your-face style and loves to get under the opponents’ skin, provoking them into taking penalties that provide his team with the man advantage. Together with Denis Malgin, a Florida Panthers draft choice, and Geneva-Servette teammate Damien Riat, this trio will provide secondary scoring for the Swiss. Malgin will spark the transition with his end-to-end rushes, while Riat and Rod’s scoring touch should benefit from Malgin’s strong hockey sense and playmaking skills. Riat, in particular, is having a very good season with Geneva where he plays a regular shift in the NLA after returning from his two-year stint in Sweden with the Malmö IF Redhawks.
The Swiss energy-line will most likely include Quebec Remparts forward Auguste Impose, who is in his first season in the QMJHL; Edmonton Oil Kings center Dario Meyer, also in his first season but in the WHL; and another North American rookie, Calvin Thürkauf, who has debuted in the WHL with the Kelowna Rockets this season.
Kris Schmidli, who returned to Switzerland from the WHL to play for the ZSC Lions organization, Julien Privet from SC Bern, who currently is playing on loan with the EHC Visp in the National League B (NLB), and Chris Egli from HC Davos will form a Swiss League fourth line for this WJC squad.
A very interesting name is ’99-born Nico Hischier, who made the cut for this year’s Swiss U20 team as a 16 year old. Probably one of the best Swiss talents since Nino Niederreiter, Hischier has already gotten his first taste of NLA hockey with SC Bern. Hischier is a smart offensive forward with tremendous hockey sense and on-ice awareness. While strength and maturity will be the question mark in his game at this level, his hockey smarts should help him to quickly adapt to the higher pace at the World Junior Championship. The top Swiss prospect for the 2017 NHL Draft could at the least fill the role of a 13th forward.
Switzerland is taking seven defensemen to this WJC, including three rearguards who participated at last year’s tournament.
One of those WJC veterans is Washington Capitals second round choice, Jonas Siegenthaler. The big, mobile defenseman has taken a big step in his development this season, filling a bigger role with the ZSC Lions in the NLA. While his two-way game still needs work, Siegenthaler will take a physical role with the team and lead them in that aspect. He will be paired with his ZSC Lions teammate, Roger Karrer. Karrer was sent home at the last minute from last year’s WJC after Mirco Mueller became available and took his spot. But the young, puck-moving defenseman will be able to show his smart, two-way game in this year’s tournament.
Simon Kindschi, who is another returning defenseman from last year’s World Junior squad, big and mobile defensive defenseman Fabian Heldner, and Marco Forrer, who is currently on loan from EV Zug, are three defensemen who are currently playing with HC Davos in the NLA. All three are strong and steady defensemen who know their role and stick to it, preferring to keep their game simple.
Edson Harlacher from the Kloten Flyers is the third returning defender. The two-way defenseman along with Andrea Glauser from HC Fribourg-Gottéron round out the Swiss defensive corps.
The goaltending position for Switzerland will feature a wide-open battle for the starting role. Last year’s No. 1, Gauthier Descloux, is in the pole position as the athletic goalie has spent most of this season with Geneva-Servette of the NLA after seeing some playing time in the NLB with HC Ajoie.
A hard push for playing time has been made by Joren van Pottelberghe. The Detroit Red Wings draft choice had a very good camp in Switzerland, showing strong positioning and rebound control with very good composure. If not this year, he will be penciled in as next year’s No. 1 goalie for the Swiss.
The third goalie is Ludovic Waeber, who also could take over the role of Swiss starting goaltender. A similar goalie to van Pottelberghe, Waeber is a product of HC Fribourg-Gottéron. He missed the first quarter of the season with a knee injury but came back strong, playing regularly while on loan to the NLB with the Red Ice Martigny.
Head coach John Fust can send four strong and well-balanced lines onto the ice. Despite the strong preliminary round opposition in Group A, the Swiss have the ability to surprise some of the top nations. But it won’t be an easy road, and they will need strong performances from every single player, especially from the goaltender that emerges as the No. 1. If Switzerland is to compete for a medal, it will be this year as the ’96- and ’97-born classes remain their strongest while neither the ’98- nor the ’99-born classes are currently holding up at the international level.
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