The Jury: Switzerland to be axed for WJC performance? Part I

By Joeri Loonen

Switzerland finished the 2003 IIHF World Junior Championships with a 3-3-0 record resulting in a 7th position. How to take this result considering they were looking up after their 4th spot last year? A critical look at several areas of their performance.

Quick facts 1:

Record:
2002: 3-4-0, WinPct: 0.429
2003: 3-3-0, WinPct: 0.500

Switzerland improved its record from last year, yet a winning percentage doesn’t tell the whole story. They did not only drop three spots in the final ranking, but they also went from participating in the bronze medal game to the relegation series.
An even bigger contrast; Last year in Switzerland’s penultimate game they were playing Canada with having a shot at the gold medal. While this year they were playing Germany in order to avoid relegation. What a difference one year can make!

It is easy to say Switzerland performed below par during this WJC and that they played an abysmal tournament. Is it valid to say so? Yes and no!

Expectations were high, not just from the hockey fans, but also from the players itself. Whether you’d ask 2003 draft eligible defenseman Tim Ramholt or Dallas Stars 2nd rnd draft pick Tobias Stephan, all mentioned a medal was their goal before they made the trip across the pond in December. So taken that in account, coming back home in Switzerland with only a 7th spot to show the home fans is rather disappointing.

Nevertheless what should not be forgotten when judging the performance of Team Switzerland is that the IIHF changed the tournament format in this years edition of the World Juniors. This change clearly hurt Switzerland big time. Last year the top 4 of each group would make the jump to the quarter finals instead of just the top 3 this year. As they did this year, Switzerland finished 4th last year as well (with a respectable 2-2-0 record in a group with amongst others Canada, Finland and Russia, and the top 4 of last year’s tournament coming from that group). The 4th spot this year meant they were not given a chance to surprise a team in the quarter finals as being the underdog (their favourite position), but went straight into the relegation series.

Quick Facts 2:

Final Ranking
1996: 9th
1997: 7th
1998: 3rd
2000: 6th
2001: 6th
2002: 4th
2003: 7th

Were the expectations heading into this tournament too high? Again I have to say, yes and no!

Looking at the past results of Switzerland at the U20 WJC you can see a steady improvement since 1996 when they promoted into the elite group. Other than an amazing bronze medal performance in 1998, Switzerland went from 9th to 4th in 7 editions. This would justify the feeling that Switzerland were considered a medal candidate for this year’s edition.

Added to this are the facts that Switzerland saw a massive number of 9 players returning from last year’s team. Amongst them a goaltender that got drafted in the 2nd rnd of the NHL Entry Draft and 5 defensemen. Also several players that had succesfully won a silver medal in Finland at the U18 WJC in 2001 made the jump to the U20 team. All these ingredients made Switzerland being touted as a ‘possible’ medal candidate.

Then again every coin has got two sides, despite Switzerland not having introduced the Euro as their currrency.
As mentioned goaltending and defense looked more than solid on paper, but their offense took a heavy blow compared to last year. With only three players returning Switzerland lacked experience up front. In a tournament like this experience is a valuable asset unless you got the pure raw talent teams like Russia and Canada produce.

As I predicted in my preview article, offense would be Switzerland’s biggest hurdle this tournament and I turned out to be correct. In the games that counted during the round robin –(vs. The USA and Slovakia), Switzerland only managed to score a grand total of 1 goal! This is extremely marginal considering they outshot their opponents 65-49 (31-20 and 34-29). Sure, they had bad luck with unlucky bounces and pucks ending on the post or bar instead of in the net, but that does not make up for a total of 64 missed shots.

Quick Facts 3:

Top 3 scorers on team:
2002:
1. T.Nüssli 7-3-3-6
2. T.Monnet 7-3-2-5
3. P.Bärtschi 7-2-2-4

2003:
1. P.Bärtschi 6-6-4-10
2. A.Ambühl 6-0-6-6
3. G.Christen 6-1-4-5
-. S.Blindenbacher 6-2-3-5

13 Of the 16 goals scored last year, where scored by players not on the team anymore. 12 of those 13 were scored by forwards. Forwards that were, as stated before, heavily missed this year. It takes a big effort from the players and coaching staff to replace over 80% of your scoring from last year.
A hip injury to Columbus Blue Jackets’ prospect Raffaele Sannitz did not really benefit either. Sannitz was expected to play an important role in Switzerland’s offense. Not just his offensive game was more than welcome, also his physical presence and his experience (both in national league as a pro and during international tournaments) would have meant a big boost for this Swiss team.

Amongst the other players that didn’t return to this year’s team were New York Rangers’ prospect Sven Helfenstein, Vancouver Canucks’ Thomas Nüssli and last year’s captain Andreas Camenzind.
Then again, it is useless to talk about players not being there since it are the players on the team that had to do the job.

Switzerland’s first offensive line did not even perform that bad, perhaps even better than last year. The line of Grégory Christen, Andres Ambühl and Patrick Bärtschi combined for 21 points in 6 games. That’s a number last year’s first line didn’t even get close to. But it the strength of their depth that proved Switzerland’s main problem. Were last year’s team might not have produced big time, they were very defensively solid and did not look out of place. This year the difference between the first line and the fourth line was much bigger and that hurt Switzerland down the line.

Why doesn’t Switzerland like team USA and Canada? Which two tournament records did Switzerland set this year? How did each player fare? NHL-futures and the first Romanian ever to have skated at the World Juniors in North America. It can all be read in part II which will be posted soon.

Stay Tuned