At last year’s IIHF U18 World Championship, Switzerland finished the tournament supported by a partisan home crowd in Zug, ultimately placing fourth. It was the second time the Swiss finished a championship at home in the top-4 of the world. The core of that group, who snuck into the medal round with a last minute overtime win against Latvia, was built around the 97-class, which was one of the strongest and deepest Switzerland has ever produced.
A new year, and in comes a new group of youngsters out of Switzerland who are chasing their goal of reaching the medal round while ultimately trying to avoid relegation.
The Swiss named 13 forwards to the U18 squad, with the offense being led by 99-born phenom and 2017 draft-eligible prospect, Nico Hischier. Already performing in his second U18 World Junior Championship, Hischier is considered by many to be one of the most talented Swiss forwards since Nino Niederreiter. But, while Niederreiter was well developed and made noise with his drive and combination of size and speed, Hischier will instead catch your eyes with his tremendous smarts, hockey sense and awareness. He has the ability to control the play, is always ahead of the play, and seems to always make the right decision. Hischier made his National League A debut with SC Bern this season at the age of 16, becoming the youngest player since Roman Josi to play in the pro league at this young age.
Hischier will be one of four 99-born forwards playing for Switzerland. The others include Nando Eggenberger, who has already had a taste of NLA hockey with HC Davos. The late-born forward plays a two-way game, competes hard, has good size and good speed, using big strides to move forward. Rounding out the underage forwards are Axel Simic and Philipp Kurashev, two players on the small side, but both are blessed with strong offensive instincts.
Switzerland won’t simply lean heavily on their underage guns as they will be looking for production from their two returning forwards from last year’s U18 team, Marco Miranda and Dominik Volejnicek.
Miranda just completed his first complete National League B season and is the top 98-born forward out of Switzerland for the 2016 NHL Draft. He has good size and is an excellent skater, while possessing a nose for the net. Still raw on the physical side of his game, he should still contribute for Switzerland. He is a project in terms of his NHL potential, but could hear his name called at the NHL Draft with a strong showing at this tournament.
Volejnicek is the Swiss team’s sniper. Although only an average skater who lacks quickness, he owns a good shot, which first-year Head Coach Thierry Paterlini will lean on. Fabian Berni and Kaj Suter from the GCK Lions, André Heim, Yannick Lerch and Janik Lerch from Junior Elite A champion SC Bern, and Thomas Lust and Stefan Rüegsegger round out the Swiss forward group.
The defensive group will be led by a draft-eligible returnee from last year’s U18 team, Livio Stadler from EV Zug. The smart and smooth-skating, two-way defenseman should take over the captaincy while playing top-4 minutes for Switzerland.
Another name to look out for on the Swiss team is 2000-born Nico Gross. The underager possesses an excellent combination of size and mobility, playing a smart defensive game for his age while contributing to a team’s transition game. He is a player to watch for the 2018 NHL Draft.
Aside from Stadler and Gross, the central Switzerland club EV Zug has a third defender in Tobias Geisser on the Swiss U18 team. Geisser, who started the season as a center and looked promising with his two-way play and playmaking abilities, was transformed to a defender at midseason. His long reach and reliable defensive game reminds one of San Jose Sharks draftee Mirco Müller.
SC Bern products Colin Gerber and Fabian Steinmann, together with Simon Le Coultre of Lausanne HC and Elia Riva from HC Lugano, round out the Switzerland’s defense.
Protecting the net for the team are three promising 98-born goaltenders. With Matteo Ritz of Lausanne HC, Leo Chuard from Geneva-Servette, and Philipp Wüthrich of SC Bern, Switzerland has three goaltenders on their roster who have the ability to steal games.
Matteo Ritz is the front-runner for the starting job. The calm and big butterfly goalie shows strong athleticism and could rescue the team’s average defensive group. Both Ritz and Chuard are already practicing with their respective NLA teams, while Philipp Wüthrich just backstopped his team to the Junior Elite A championship. Wüthrich has excellent agility, good anticipation, and reads the play well. Both Wüthrich and Chuard are only average sized, which is another point in favor of the 6’2”, 207-pound Ritz’s favor. Still, Coach Paterlini could very well play the whole group and have fresh goalies throughout the tournament in the important games.
The main goal for Switzerland, as always, is to avoid relegation. They started the tournament with a crucial game against Latvia, and managed to escape with a 5-4 overtime win. This tournament is a special situation given the meldonium scandal the Russians have been caught up in, so the door to the quarterfinals has opened a little more for the Swiss, giving the Swiss a chance to leave at least one team behind them and secure a spot in the final-eight of this U18 World Championship.
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