For the past two years, the under-20 national team of Switzerland has been desperately trying to reach the quarter-finals of the World Junior Championship. But, after two WJC's with heartbreaking losses in the decisive preliminary round game, and despite Swiss Ice Hockey’s success in avoiding relegation, the team saw a major coaching staff overhaul during the summer.
After months of reorganizing and searching, the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation relieved head coach Manuele Celio of his under-20 functions and named him the new under-18 head coach. The vacant position was then filled with Canada-native and current senior national team head coach, Sean Simpson, with the goal of bringing more professionalism to Switzerland's elder junior team.
Once again, the situation for the team is the same as every year – somehow it is getting old – and kind of reads like a “story of life” for the Swiss. In the “Scandinavian group” they will battle Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Latvia for points, with defending WJC champion Sweden and Finland seemingly out of their reach.
The Swiss will first face Latvia and then the Czechs in their crucial “do-or-die”, must-win games, after last year’s horrific collapse in the last preliminary round game against Slovakia where the team blew a 4-2 lead and neither the former coaching staff nor the players were able to react and overcome this shock. Nine Players are returning from that trauma and will have to prove that they have matured.
Switzerland is sending a balanced team to the tournament, which has an outside chance of breaking into the quarterfinals for the first time in two years.
The defensive corps will be led by Dean Kukan, Cedric Hächler and Christian Marti, who are all returnees and are competing at their second WJC. All three have spent time outside Switzerland, and while Kukan is still in Sweden developing his skills, Hächler chose to come back to join the ZSC/GCK Lions organization after a one-year stint in Malmö, while Marti is playing in the QMJHL for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. In crucial situations or with a man-advantage, the three will play the big minutes and should be the go-to-guys for Head Coach Sean Simpson.
Another defender in his second WJC stint is Samuel Guerra from HC Davos. Guerra has already played with the under-20 team of Switzerland as an underager but missed last year’s tournament with a nasty groin injury. Now healthy, Guerra will be an important piece for the team with his reliable defensive play.
Another interesting defeseman to watch is 17-year-old Mirco Müller, who currently is in his rookie year in the WHL with the Everett Silvertips. Müller made his National League A debut last season with the Kloten Flyers at the age of 16. The calm and mobile puck-moving defenseman is touted as a top-100 prospect for the upcoming NHL Draft and will probably take the role as the seventh defenseman with the team. Isacco Dotti and hulking 6-foot-6, 236-pound Eliot Antonietti will complete the defense for Switzerland, which has one of their biggest and strongest blueline groups in years at this tournament.
The exact opposite of the defenders is the forward contingent of this year’s edition of Team Switzerland, which contains mostly speedy, small, and light attackers.
The go-to guys are current CHL players Sven Andrighetto of the QMJHL's Rouyn-Noranda Huskies; Alessio Bertaggia of the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL; and Tampa Bay Lightning draftee Tanner Richard, who currently plays with the OHL's Guelph Storm. All three are playing in their second World Juniors and will lead the Swiss with their offensive skills and their intensity. Richard will be Switzerland's main face-off guy as he excels in the draw showdown.
The scoring lines will be supported by Lino Martschini, who is in his National League A rookie year with EV Zug after a two-year stint in the OHL. At 5-foot-6 and 143 pounds, Martschini will be one of the smallest and lightest players in the tournament, but you will hardly find another player who plays with more heart and dedication than Martschini . If he had been blessed with a bigger body, he’d be the player every NHL team desires. With his hard and accurate wrist shot, Martschini will play the point on Switzerland's first power-play unit as he did in the OHL with the Peterborough Petes.
The second Swiss NHL draftee and another returning forward is Minnesota Wild property, Christoph Bertschy. The forward from SC Bern is currently battling a sophomore slump and limited ice time in the National League A, but hasn’t had any troubles in this season’s international junior competition. Bertschy is blessed with goal-scoring instincts, which the Swiss will need during crucial situations as he will be one of the players they will use in the dying seconds when they need a goal. Of the five named forwards, only Tanner Richard reaches 6-foot and 185-pounds; the others are smaller and lighter.
The Swiss are looking to complete the top-6 with returning forward Dario Simion of HC Lugano; Sandro Zangger, who is having a breakout season in the National League B with the GCK Lions; and Robin Leone of the Kloten Flyers as potential wings on the scoring lines. Both Zangger and Leone are playing in their first World Junior Championship.
Two-way pivot Lukas Balmelli of the QMJHL's Drummondville Voltigeurs and Jan Neuenschwander of HC Davos will center the two checking lines. Neuenschwander is a true leader on and off the ice and will be the team’s captain. Mike Künzle and speedy Lukas Sieber will serve as role players, where Sieber of HC Davos especially will bring energy to the Swiss forechecking game. Vincent Praplan will round out the forward ranks and will probably play the role of the 13th forward. The slick offensive player and current goal-scoring leader of the Swiss Junior Elite A Championship could make some noise on the score sheet if given the right ice time.
The Swiss will travel to Russia with three goaltenders. The team will be backstopped by Luca Boltshauser, who is in his second year with the under-20 team of Färjestad BK in the Swedish SuperElit league. Boltshauser plays an aggressive style and tries to cut down the angles of the opponent, a goaltending style that needs good coverage by the defenseman around the net. He is the kind of goaltender geared toward the big games as he shows decent composure when under pressure, a trait that is exactly what Switzerland will need in their two important early games against Latvia and the Czech Republic.
Melvin Nyffeler probably will serve as the backup. The late 94-born Nyffeler is in his first year of draft eligibility and, despite being undersized, he can play big. Like Boltshauser, Nyffeler is a calm goaltender who relies on his good positioning and holds his ground during pressure situations. Robin Kuonen will be the third-stringer and earn some experience for next year’s event.
Again, it will be a hard battle until the last game of the preliminary round for Switzerland; not only will they need nearly perfect games from the players, but the coaching staff also will need to be at the top of their abilities. This group of young forwards must be well coached but must also stay disciplined since stupid penalties could be exactly what derails the Swiss squad's mission to reach the quarterfinals. Switzerland has rarely had forwards like Tanner Richard or Alessio Bertaggia who not only can contribute offensively but also play an agitating style which is not well known in Switzerland. If this agitating approach is not handled properly, it could end up being a disadvantage for the Swiss, leaving them shorthanded against some more offensively superior competition, and in a worst-case scenario could ruin the whole tournament and give the Swiss an unwanted trip to the relegation round.