With the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia, Team Germany is returning to hockey’s belle étage after a one year sojourn to the Division 1, Group A tournament, which Germany hosted in December of 2011 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
After a very disappointing relegation to the D-1 level at the 2011 WJC in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York, despite a team featuring NHL draft picks such as Konrad Abeltshauser, Philipp Grubauer, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Tobias Rieder, amongst others, Team Germany went undefeated at the D-1 2012 WJC on its march back into the top group. The Germans rejoined the top hockey nations on the strength of a 2-1 victory over Belarus and a thrilling 5-3 final over Norway, a country that itself just earned promotion to the 2014 WJC after a good showing at the 2013 D-1 WJC in France that ended on December 15th.
Germany is now heading to Ufa with a team that features only one current NHL draft pick, the aforementioned Tobias Rieder, but no lack of young men who are either currently playing in various North American junior leagues or have begun their pro careers playing against men in one of Germany’s top three professional leagues.
In fact, no less than six members have suited up in Germany’s top league for a DEL club, with Leo Pfeoderl (Nuremberg), Christian Kretschmann (Krefeld) and Andreas Pauli (Munich) often having taken a regular shift in 20 or more games so far this season. In addition, eight of the team’s players are spending this year in North America, with Tobias Rieder (Kitchener), Sebastian Uvira (Oshawa) and Nick Latta (Sarnia) being the most recognizable names and the most experienced when it comes to CHL play. Their knowledge of the North American game will be invaluable to a team that will face Canada and the USA in the preliminary round.
Also of definite note is that the German staff is placing a great deal of importance on bringing players who are not only physically mature, but also won’t be lacking in the size and weight categories. No less than nine players weigh at least 190 pounds and eight players are 6’2” or taller. In hulks Dennis Reimer (6’5”, 234 lbs.) and Oliver Mebus (6’8”, 240 lbs.), Germany will clearly have two of the tournament’s biggest players.
Marvin Cuppers (G) – When it comes to the so-called underdogs of a tournament, it’s usually the case that anything less than outstanding goaltending will get you nowhere fast. The undrafted Marvin Cupper took his show from Germany’s capital Berlin, where he posted a 2.75 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage in 29 games for the DEL champion's junior team, to Shawinigan of the QMJHL where he’s settled in as the team’s starter and seen plenty of playing time this fall. At the moment, Germany’s starting gig is his to lose in Ufa, but his 3.57 goals-against average, .895 save percentage and 6-17-3 record for the Cataractes is anything but awe-inspiring. He’ll have to take it up a good notch on a daily basis if Germany is to avoid relegation.
Tobias Rieder (F) – The only drafted player on this German squad (EDM, fourth round, 2011 Draft), Rieder is without a doubt the team’s leader and highest profile player. Coming off an 84-point 2011-12 season for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, there’s no doubt that the 5’11”, 190-pound forward can play with anybody in this tournament and is truly Germany’s most irreplaceable piece. And therein may lay the team’s biggest problem: after 27 OHL games this season, in which he lacked last season’s scoring pace with only 23 points to date, Tobias suffered an injury and hasn’t played since. He is going with the team to Ufa, but one can only speculate as to what role he’ll be able to take on while there. Without him, the German team will be hard-pressed to generate much offense whatsoever.
Henry Haase (D) – The Eisbaeren Berlin defenseman who has spent this season playing for the DEL club and Berlin’s third-league affiliate FASS is literally a man-child. At 6’3”, 220 pounds and posing a mature physical presence, one could easily be excused for thinking Henry is already 25 years old. He played a major role on the blueline already at the D-1A tournament last year and is now the key figure for a largely unknown, untested defensive corps that is building more on size and strength than skating and puck-moving ability. He is multi-talented and can play the game in a number of ways, concentrating primarily on being a defensive stalwart when playing against top talent. He is already in his third full professional season and has 19 goals, 37 assists and 112 penalty minutes in 70 career Oberliga (third pro league) games.
Who will not be there
Mathias Niederberger (G) – Niederberger turned 20 less than a month ago and just misses out on being eligible for this tourney. Last winter he was D-1A tournament’s top goalie and is currently sporting a 17-6-1 record and .923 save percentage for the Barrie Colts of the OHL. There’s no doubt German management has shed a tear or two thinking about what could have been if Mathias were to be even just two months younger.
Yasin Ehliz (F) – The 19-year-old forward of Turkish descent is missing out on this tournament by a matter of just a few days, as he’ll turn 20 on December 30th. At the moment, he’s the DEL’s most successful 19-year-old and is taking a regular shift for the Nuremberg Ice Tigers, having gathered 11 points and a +2 rating in 27 games. His speed and wherewithal would have been a huge boost to this year’s WJC entry.
Tim Bender (D) – Cut on the last day of camp, the Mannheim Junior Adler’s Bender is the DNL’s top scoring defenseman with 12 goals and 23 points in 22 games. He’s also currently the highest ranked German for the upcoming NHL draft. Despite being a kid who NHL scouts would ideally liked to have seen in this tournament, he is only 17 and weighs in at a buck over 165 pounds. Germany’s staff simply had more physically mature and experienced kids to pick from.
Who NHL scouts will be focusing on
Leo Draisaitl (F) – Aside from Rieder, the 17-year-old Draisaitl is Germany’s key offensive player in this tournament and perhaps the country’s best prospect to come along since Marco Sturm was a San Jose first rounder in 1996. Skating is currently his biggest shortcoming, but it hasn’t stopped him from putting up 19 assists, 28 points and a +12 rating in the first 33 games of his rookie season for Prince Albert of the WHL. As far as players who are first eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft, he is one of this year's most fascinating prospects.
Dominik Kahun (F) – Eligible for the 2013 draft, the small-framed puck wizard has started his North American career in a largely successful manner to date, having collected 17 assists and 25 points in 32 games for the Sudbury Wolves this season. Last season, he joined with Draisaitl to form the Mannheim Junior Adler’s top attacking unit, which powered the team’s way to the DNL championship. The two then had a very impressive performance at the 2012 U-18 WJC in the Czech Republic. As with Leon, the scouts will be curious to see how this 17-year-old holds up in light of the WJC’s stiff competition.
Frederik Tiffels (F) – The forward hasn’t scored in 23 USHL games for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, but he does have 14 points and a +10 rating. Having chosen the USHL despite being drafted by a CHL club, many feel Frederik is looking to ultimately go the NCAA route. Another former Mannheim Junior Adler champion, scouts feel this will be as good a test as any to get a read on what he’s really learned in his USHL stint to date.
Around the boards – keep an eye on
Huba Sekesi: The 6-foot, 180-pound forward is a bit of a surprise on this team. Currently playing for the Jamestown Ironmen of the NAHL, the young man from Bad Toelz had a strong 2011-12 DNL season and currently has four points in 13 games.
Oliver Mebus: He is the tournament’s biggest player and you won’t be able to miss him when he’s on the ice. He is already playing pro hockey and can have a mean streak to boot, which can lead to unnecessary or even somewhat unfair penalties as his hits can look more illegal or vicious than they actually are. As expected, he’s not without his skating deficiencies and these can be taken advantage of, especially via quick counterattacks.
Biggest strengths: The size, strength and general physical maturity of the team is clearly what the decision-makers are banking on. In addition, many of these players are currently playing against men in Europe and will bring a physical game that is already familiar with IIHF rules, something North American teams can have problems with. In addition, the team’s skill players are pretty much on par with those of Latvia, Slovakia, and Switzerland, several of the teams Germany will need to be better than to avoid relegation.
Biggest weaknesses: No doubt about it, the goaltending is a question mark at this point. Although the starter seems clear-cut, it’s due more to the lack of options than to pure ability to succeed. Cuppers will need to go above and beyond in order to win a game on his own and this team cannot afford for him to be a weak link in any way, shape or form. Should he flounder or get injured, then there’s no telling what Philipp Lehr or Elmar Trautmann will be able to do at this level. In addition, the defensive unit is a group of relative no-names and there’s no telling if they’ll, as a unit, be able to keep up with the speed, agility and athleticism of this tournament’s top players, many of whom they will be facing right in the preliminary round.
Team Germany is undoubtedly an underdog in Ufa. The national program does however want its U-20 team to start emulating the success of the U-18 team, which has continually managed to maintain a top-8 role in the world rankings in recent years. The big names aren’t yet there and some of these young men are not particularly familiar with each other, so the coaching staff will have its hands full with the team-building aspect as the tournament approaches. By the last game of the preliminary round, Germany will already have played Canada, the USA and Russia, who many feel are the tournament’s top three contenders. They hope to be warmed up and in a groove by the time they face Slovakia to wrap up the first round. No doubt about it, though, Germany’s biggest challenge will likely come in the relegation round and there’s good reason to believe that the final game of the tournament will decide Germany’s fate. If the country gets anything less than above-average goaltending by this point in the tourney, it’ll be very hard to avoid relegation.