Coming into the 2013 World Junior Championship, Team Germany’s head coach Ernst Hofner went about his preparatory business knowing right from the beginning that his country was fighting to avoid relegation, that an appearance in the relegation round was just short of pre-programmed, and that Germany would be using the preliminary round to prepare for what would likely come down to a game between Germany and – should there be no surprises – Latvia. This may have been the forecast made by most beforehand, and it was exactly how things ended up.
To begin the tournament, Germany managed to surprisingly generate three goals against Team Canada in what ended up being a 9-3 Canadian victory. Generating 28 shots was considered a plus, but those nine goals against came on only 46 Canadian shots. The team then faced the USA one night later and was just plain outmatched right from the first face-off, allowing a goal against after only 19 seconds and ultimately losing 8-0, giving up another 46 shots against in the process. The team picked up its pace two nights later with Russia, playing a heady game that matched that of Russia and even having managed 41 shots on goal, but the score told a different story as the Germans participated in their third blowout in a row, losing 7-0. It was a bitter loss, because several of the goals against came at the hands of some costly and generally unnecessary individual errors.
By this point, Germany found itself completing the preliminary round against an opponent it felt it could play with, and one it simply needed to earn points from. In its game against Slovakia, Germany’s most important player was goalie Marvin Cupper, who made 40 saves on 42 shots while his teammates only mustered 18 all game long. Fortunately, the team scored a nice power play goal by Edmonton Oilers prospect Tobias Rieder to take a 1-0 lead in the 34th minute. Nonetheless, Slovakia tied the game in the 45th minute and kept the pressure on right on up to overtime, where an unnecessary penalty by veteran Sebastian Uvira led to a power play goal for Slovakia. As disappointing as the loss was, Germany had indeed earned a point that it could take with it going into the relegation round.
Things weren’t made any easier when Germany found out that it would first square off against surprise relegation round participant Finland, a team they only mustered 15 shots against and who they wound up losing to, 8-0. Just as Coach Hofner had envisioned, his team now found itself playing its last game of the WJC against Latvia in a match whose loser would be relegated, regardless of any other tournament results. Fortunately for Germany, they brought their A-game and won a hard-fought contest against the desperate Latvians, 5-2. Germany outshot Latvia 40-27 and Rieder collected a goal and two assists while the 2014 draft-eligible Leon Draisaitl took the bull by the horns up front with two goals and two assists. It was by far Germany’s best performance of the tournament, but a game that went to show that there’s a pretty clear delineation between the world’s top seven or eight nations in this age group, and those who follow.
All in all, Germany had accomplished its chief mission and will now attend back-to-back WJC's for the first time since 1998 when it suits up in Malmö right after Christmas late this year. This team entered the tournament with serious question marks in goal and on the blueline and while Shawinigan’s Marvin Cupper was able to step up to the challenge in goal, getting better as the tournament wore on, Team Germany’s group of eight defensemen had an incredibly rough time of things throughout the tournament, regularly being outskated and lacking the skill, speed, agility or overall hockey sense to keep up with the world’s more advanced hockey nations.
In general, the team had serious problems getting the puck out of its own zone, even at times where it appeared to safely be in possession of the puck, often senselessly handing it over to opponents within inches of their own blueline. A true shame too, considering this team featured some great size and a number of players already playing pro hockey in Germany, with six having seen a decent amount of ice time this season in the country’s top league.
On the bright side, this German squad is graduating a good 85% of its current players and they’ve left a very early Christmas present of class retention for an upcoming WJC generation widely considered to be amongst the best Germany has produced in quite some time. In addition, the players eligible for this or next year’s NHL Draft were already the best skaters and most talented kids on this year’s entry. For all intents and purposes, Germany has a lot to look forward to approaching the 2014 WJC.
Top Forward – Leon Draisaitl
Although Tobias Rieder is the only NHL-drafted player on this team and clearly possesses the most CHL experience, it was his younger linemate Leon Draisaitl who stole the offensive spotlight. Young, talented, big (6’2”, 200 pounds), yet rough around the edges, the 17-year-old Prince Albert Raiders' rookie delivered when it mattered most, scoring four points in the decisive relegation game against Latvia and putting up six total points in six games, thus contributing one sixth of the team’s total offense. His -9 rating was of course alarming, but he was given an extraordinary amount of responsibility and ice time against every country’s best line and on a team whose defense was lacking in almost every facet of the game. Also of interest was his regular appearance on the point for the team’s first power-play unit, a position in which he showed a great deal of poise and offensive creativity, even if he was hesitant to shoot. There’s little doubt that he is and was the most interesting German player in the eyes of NHL scouts and will be of great interest to follow at the U-18 WJC in Sochi this upcoming spring, where he’ll have an even bigger role. At the moment, he’s back in Prince Albert and has 10 goals, 33 points and a +14 rating in 37 games.
Top Defenseman – Florin Ketterer
It’s extremely difficult to pin down any one defenseman who had much to report on of a positive nature in this tournament, as the blueline crew was truly outmatched in every which way despite the players giving all that they could. Florin Ketterer can be singled out almost by default in light of his ability to play a simple, conservative game with more defensive awareness than a number of his colleagues, finishing the tournament with a -1 rating in six games. Unfortunately for Germany, all of the other defensemen had some glaring weaknesses and some individual errors that just couldn’t be overlooked or compensated for.
Team MVP – Marvin Cupper
Even if Draisaitl could easily be given this title, the undrafted, 18-year-old Cupper entered the WJC knowing that he’d likely assume the bulk of the goaltending duties and that’s exactly how things turned out. In clear losses to the USA and Russia, Marvin made some outstanding saves while allowing a few goals of a weaker nature, seeing a boatload of shots in the process. He was then nothing short of outstanding in leading Germany to an overtime loss against Slovakia. There was little he could do against Finland, allowing eight goals on 56 shots, but when it came down to the do-or-die situation, he was solid against Latvia. In the course of the tournament, Marvin showed himself to be even-keeled and in good control of his emotions while seeing the overall picture in a realistic manner. He also wasn’t bothered by seeing a lot of shots, as that’s exactly what has been happening all season long in the QMJHL. Once the tournament smoke had cleared, Cupper had proven to be the competitor his country desperately needed in goal.
Unsung Player – Tobias Rieder
Rieder not only led the team with three goals and finished second on the team in scoring with five points, including three in the final game, he did all this coming straight off an ankle injury that had kept him out of action for a month before the WJC and threatened to keep him out of the tournament even as he was on the plane to Ufa. He ended up toughing it out, facing the opponent’s top lines in every game and had to lead a talented yet inexperienced line featuring two 17-year-old's. It is clear that, had he missed this tournament, Germany likely wouldn’t have managed to remain with the big boys in the top group, and doing this despite the injury speaks volumes about what the kid is made of. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if his next outing for the black, red and yellow is for the Men’s team, maybe as soon as this spring in Helsinki.
2013 prospect to watch – Dominik Kahun
He’s just a little tyke at 5’9” and 175 pounds, but the Sudbury Wolves rookie – who speaks not only German and English, but is also fluent in Czech – showed a lot of moxy, gumption, agility, skill and general wherewithal in Ufa. Skating with the aforementioned Rieder and Draisaitl, the latter of which he’s spent several years playing with in the increasingly noticeable Mannheim Junior Adler talent factory, Kahun showed little fear and no respect for the bigger and more well-known opponents, while displaying an aptitude for being aware of oncoming players, usually escaping checks while simultaneously maintaining puck control. Despite a -9 overall rating, he was on the ice in all sorts of even strength and power-play situations and his three assists were among the most precise and skilled passes in the entire tournament. Like Draisaitl, he too should have a leading role at the U-18 WJC in Sochi this spring. He currently has eight goals, 26 points and a -1 rating in 34 OHL contests this season.
On a team that generated little offense, played some painstakingly poor defense and just couldn’t prevent opponents from attacking at will, overager Sebastian Uvira left everything he had on the ice. Despite some mistakes when sacrificing himself for a few big hits, and one too many untimely penalties, he was a heady player who played a two-way game and could move north and south or dipsy-doodle when necessary. He has a big frame (6’2”, 202 pounds) and knows how to shield the puck in a manner that can drive opponents to frustration, displaying some strong board and corner work. He’s clearly improved in recent seasons and although his offensive game hasn’t yet become what it sometimes looks like it could be, he does have offensive acumen and is very capable of taking on whatever role his coach gives him, which has been of a predominantly yeoman-like nature to date. Another player who can speak comfortably in German, English or Czech, Sebastian is a likeable character kid who has the type of attitude teams generally place considerable value on. Against better competition in this tournament, he showed himself to be up to the challenge.
Having just gotten back to North America, he was just traded from the Oshawa Generals to the Plymouth Whalers, where he’ll likely be required to take on a larger role and more responsibility than was the case in Oshawa.