Mirco Mueller could be excused if he is a little disorientated this week while playing at the Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Halifax. Ever since the start of the 2013 calendar year, the young Swiss defenseman has spent almost as much time traveling on airplanes as he has playing hockey.
When the New Year began, Mueller was in Russia playing for Team Switzerland at the 2013 World Juniors. The tournament ended on January 5th and Mueller then flew to Everett, Washington in time for the following weekend to play two games with his WHL team, the Everett Silvertips, before departing for Halifax for the Top Prospects Game. Even after this week's event, there won't be any rest for the defender as he will return to Everett just in time to join the team for three games in three nights over the upcoming weekend.
Although Mueller admits that crossing multiple time zones and playing high caliber hockey at every stop along the way is a challenge, he also knows that it is something he will have to get used to as he looks forward to a future in pro hockey.
"I've been on a lot of planes, but I'm getting used to it. You just have to deal with it," says Mueller. He also admits, "I haven't really had time to unpack yet. I got home and we had two games, we won one and lost one unfortunately, and then came here. But I'm happy to be here and I'm enjoying the whole experience."
Reflecting on his travels over the past few weeks, it is clear that Mueller is extremely proud to be a part of the success that Switzerland had at the World Juniors. In six games, the defensemen had two assists as the Swiss team finished sixth overall.
"Our first goal was to stay in the Top Division," Mueller admits. "We started pretty good with a solid win against Latvia and we just kind of kept going. We couldn't win anymore, but we never really lost in regulation so I think that's pretty good for Switzerland to tie games against Sweden and Finland and the Czech Republic."
Making it all the way to the quarter-finals, Switzerland took the host Russian team all the way to a shootout before finally being eliminated. It is still a tough pill for Mueller to swallow.
"I think we deserved what happened, being in the quarter-finals, but that was a pretty tough game against Russia in the end. I think it was one of the hardest losses in my career so far."
Switzerland surprised many teams with their strong play, something Mueller credits to the familiarity that the players on the team had with one another.
"Switzerland is very small, so everybody already knows each other from junior, midget and the minor years," says Mueller.
He continues by explaining how important chemistry was for the team.
"When you're an American or a Canadian, you hear Switzerland; it is thought that they're so small and not really good players and stuff. I think, this year, we didn't really have a superstar or anything. Everybody just sacrificed themselves for the team and gave everything and just stuck up for each other. I think that was the key, we just were a good team, we had a good atmosphere in the locker room and on the bench, even in the hotel and I think that helped us a lot. I think the level of hockey is a lot better over the last couple of years in Switzerland, the coaches do a great job."
Playing for Switzerland was a homecoming of sorts for Mueller after spending the first half of the season in the WHL with the Everett Silvertips. Already familiar with many of his teammates from previous experiences playing for his country, he credits those teammates for helping him adjust back to playing on the larger ice surface again.
"I think the whole team did really good, so it was easy for me to fit in. The other guys helped me a lot and they did a very good job helping me out. It's not easy to get used to a bigger rink again for the European play and the European-style of game, so I just have to say thank you to the guys as they did a really good job."
As a 17-year-old, Mueller is eligible to play for Team Switzerland at the World Juniors for two more years and he admits that he is already looking forward to next winter's tournament in Malmo, Sweden.
"The World Juniors are always something special. It's great to play against the best of your age on an international level, so I'm looking forward to that already again and I hope we finish better than we did this year."
A native of Winterhur, Switzerland, Mueller played the last two seasons as a member of the Kloten organization before making the decision to jump to the Everett Silvertips and the WHL this year. Although moving over 8000 kilometers away from home would be a formidable challenge for any teenager, Mueller says he was already aware of the benefits of the WHL and the CHL thanks to other Swiss players who have made the leap before him.
"I always wanted to play outside of my country and with (Nino) Niederreiter, (Luca) Sbisa, (Sven) Baertschi, those were guys who made the step to Portland and Lethbridge and so they kind of brought the WHL and the CHL over to Europe and Switzerland. I think many guys got interested, myself included, because the level is really high, I think the teams are very skilled and you have to be ready for every game, the teams are all at the same pace and there are a lot of games. You're really treated like a pro and I enjoy it. I really like it."
Mueller joined a young Everett team, who presently sit fourth in the U.S. Division and seventh in the WHL's Western Conference. The team opened the season slowly with just two wins in their first ten games, but Mueller credits the camaraderie developed during an early season road trip in helping them pull through.
"We had a rough start, we have a pretty young team and so I think we all had to get used to WHL hockey and that wasn't easy, but the guys really stuck together, especially during the big road trip, the Eastern swing through Brandon and all those teams, we really wanted to take some points home."
He is also quick to praise his teammates for helping him adjust to a new league and new surroundings.
"The team helped me a lot. They're great guys, just a great group of guys. We have a lot of fun off the ice and of course, on the ice too. Especially the D-men, like Ryan Murray, he helped me a lot, gave me tips on how to play. I think I'm still getting better every day, just with little small things, like you play different in a smaller rink."
With two goals and 18 points in 36 games for the Silvertips, Mueller is second on the team in defensive scoring. He describes himself as a two way defender who moves the puck well.
"I bring some playmaking skills and some offensive ability, a good first pass and stuff like that. I want to quarterback the power play if it's possible. Also, of course, playing solid defensively. I also fight for the team. I'm not really a goal scorer. I think everybody knows that. I'm more the playmaker. I don't want to get goals and that's my style of play."
Listed at 6'3" and 184 pounds, Mueller is well aware of the parts of his game that he needs to work on to continue to improve.
"I can be heavier and add some more muscles. My stick handling has to get better, I have a very long stick which helps me in the defensive zone but it's a bit of a disadvantage if you have the puck. But I don't really think that it's part of my game to dangle and stuff like that. That's for the other guys. "
To start the season, Mueller found himself paired with Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Ryan Murray, but he explains that after the star player went down with injury, things have changed significantly.
"I used to play with Ryan Murray, but unfortunately he got injured in November. So that kind of mixed up everything and we're changing a lot because there are injuries all the time and new guys, young guys who are mixed up from game to game."
Some other changes hit the Silvertips while Mueller was away at the World Juniors, as the team relieved head coach Mark Ferner of his duties earlier this month. While he has been away, Mueller has been trying to keep up with the news back in Everett, however he admits that it is difficult and he is eager to return to the Silvertips lineup.
"I don't know really what was going on over the last couple of weeks because I wasn't there, but from what I've seen from the results, they've done pretty good and I'm really proud of the boys. They've won a couple games. Now, with the coach. Mark Ferner got sacked, so I think there will be some changes going on in the system, so we will see what it will bring."
In the meantime, he is enjoying the experience of the Top Prospects Game but admits he tries not to put too much thought into the upcoming NHL Draft.
"I don't really think much about it. It would probably change your game, so I just play like I always did if there weren't any people watching me. In the end, it's just you and the team and you need to play like you always do. You're here for a reason. You're here because you play like you should play, so I don't really think about all the scouting stuff and I think that's probably the best idea."
So far, Mueller's approach has been working. In the mid-season rankings recently released by the NHL's Central Scouting Service, Mueller was ranked 12th among North American skaters.
Mueller and the rest of Team Cherry will face off against Team Orr on Wednesday, January 16th for the 2013 Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
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