U-18: Swiss looking to improve on last year’s WJC

By Rafik Soliman

After failing to earn a spot in the quarterfinals in last year’s Under-18 World Junior Championship following a heartbreaking loss to Germany, Team Switzerland is looking for rehabilitation with a new coaching staff and four returning players from the 2011 tournament.

Switzerland is playing in Group B of this year's WJC and is facing Latvia, Sweden, Russia, and in the final game, Germany, as their preliminary round opponents. The Team and Head Coach Alfred Bohren has a realistic chance to earn a berth in the medal round with wins over Latvia and their arch rival, Germany, which would also be the perfect revenge over last year’s defeat.

Goaltender

Similar to the under-20 World Junior Championship, the under-18 Team is going into the tournament with no clear-cut starting goaltender. Both 94-born Melvin Nyffeler and Niklas Schlegel will share the work-load as No.'s 1A and 1B. They shouldn’t have any problems with that role, since they also played that way with their junior team, the GCK Lions. Both are undersized goaltenders with similar playing styles as they both feature quick legs, decent reflexes, and good lateral movement, but due to their size don’t cover much of the net. Goaltending is the big question-mark on this year’s edition of the under-18 squad.

Defense

The rather undersized defensive corps will be led by Samuel Kreis, who is the only returning defenseman from last year’s tournament; offensive defenseman Anthony Rouiller; and Swiss teenage-sensation Phil Baltisberger.

The steady defenseman Kreis is a candidate to take over the captaincy for the event, as he is among the eldest players on the team. Rouiller will play in his firstt Under-18 WJC, as the injury-prone defender missed last year’s competition with a knee injury. The right-shooting Rouiller should lead the Swiss with offense from the blue line, as his hard shot will draw comparisons to fellow Swiss and current NHL player, Yannick Weber. 16-year-old Phil Baltisberger has had a turbulent year, as he made the cut with the GCK Lions in the Swiss National 'B' League, where he saw a regular shift all season long. The 6-foot-1, 203-pound Baltisberger is a teenager captured in a man’s body. He will be among the strongest players in the whole tournament. Baltisberger also participated at this year’s under-20 WJC and didn’t look out of place, while playing the role of the 7th defenseman on the team. The late 95-born rearguard is not NHL Draft-eligible until 2014 and is looking forward to his 1st National League A-Season with the ZSC Lions in 2012/2013.

Alessandro Lanzarotti, Riccardo Sartori, Timon Zuber and Xeno Büsser will round out the defensive-squad. The diminutive Büsser is another 95-born rearguard that made the team.

Forwards

Among the forward-group, Lukas Balmelli, Dario Simion and Julian Schmutz are the only returning players. Dario Simion also played in this year’s under-20 WJC, and the two-way forward should lead this team offensively. He earned a spot with HC Lugano and played the whole season in the National League 'A' and, after a hot start, cooled off after a coaching change. He also battled with injuries late in the season and the question will be, how much energy is left in his tank?

Another player who should contribute offensively is Julian Schmutz. The small, 5-foot-9 forward led the Elite A-Junior League in Switzerland in both goals and assists and deserves the tag “sniper” attached to his name. Julian Schmutz will have to prove, that he can also score at the international level and that he can overcome his small stature in battles with bigger and stronger players.

The 3rd returning forward is two-way pivot Lukas Balmelli. The 6-foot-1 center is penciled to center one of the top-lines, but the jury is out as to whether he can handle this role.

Two other interesting forwards are Nicola Brandi and Sandro Zangger, who have just won the Elite A-Junior Championship with the GCK Lions. Zangger just completed his first National League 'B' season and didn’t look out of place while playing a regular shift. He could turn into a nice power forward, as he has developed a nice mean streak and has improved his hitting-game. On the other side, Nicola Brandi is a wizard with the puck. Only 5-7, he is not blessed with a big body, but instead possesses excellent puck-handling skills and decent speed.

The intensity-leader for the forwards should be Lukas Sieber. The average-sized forward is a typical role player, who seems to be very coachable and will do whatever is asked of him. He just completed his 1st full National League 'A' season with Davos. Another player who needs to be mentioned is Flavio Schmutz. Schmutz is one of several players who left Switzerland to play hockey in Sweden to take bigger strides in his development. Schmutz is a playmaking, two-way forward with good size who should center the 4th line for Team Switzerland. Completing the attack are Ramon Diem, Nico Dünner, Fabrice Herzog, Dario Kummer, Thomas Studer and Marco Müller. The big name missing is Christoph Bertschy, who would have been another returning player and another forward who had already participated in this year’s Under-20 WJC. Bertschy is currently playing with the SC Bern in the National League 'A' playoff final and is therefore unavailable. The rumor is out that the coaching staff around Head Coach Alfred Bohren will only name 12 forwards to the tournament, so Bertschy, whose offensive abilities would be a huge boost to the team, could join during the event.

All in all, Switzerland will send a talented group to the under-18 World Junior Championship, but again the real test will be mentally as the most important games are must-win and will be played at the beginning and the end of the preliminary round. In the last couple of junior tournaments, those teams failed in those exact gut-check situations.

 

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