For two years running, Switzerland’s U18 team hasn’t been able to prevent itself from winding up in relegation round play. Once there, the teams have been able to finish on top and thus, seventh overall in the tournament. This year’s team is confident it can get over that hump and it will look at the performance of its U20 team in Ufa for inspiration.
Coach Manuele Celio has put together a team consisting primarily of players who spent this past season in Switzerland’s top junior league, with the only exception being Mirco Mueller, who played for the Everett Silvertips this past winter and is currently ranked among the top 30 North American prospects for the upcoming NHL Draft. He’ll be heading the blueline corps at this tournament, where he’ll look to bring with him all the experience he gained at this past WJC, one that often pushed Mueller to his limits.
What Mueller won’t have to help him is a line-up full of players experienced at the U18 tournament. In fact, the team is only returning one other player from last year’s team, highly touted 2014 prospect Phil Baltisberger, who at age 17 is already 6’0” and 210 pounds and has been named the captain of the team. He spent this past season taking a regular shift for the Kusnacht Lions in Switzerland’s second tier pro league, the NLB.
The Swiss undoubtedly sees its most important preliminary round games as being those against archrival Germany and hockey traditionalist Slovakia. Victories against them will be mandatory in avoiding relegation round play.
Strengths: Switzerland has regularly been showing at just about every level that it is to legitimately be seen as one of the world’s top 8 ice hockey countries. The program’s younger teams have continued to produce exciting talent at a seemingly rapid rate in recent years, much of which has found its way to the Canadian junior circuits. This club also has its fair share of players who a number of pundits might expect to see in North America as soon as next season. What viewers should continue to expect is a team that will feature a good mix of players willing to switch between a rough and tumble style or a more skill-based game. Switzerland is no longer a team anybody can afford to take lightly in either capacity.
Weaknesses: All three goaltenders coming with the team may have Coach Celio’s trust, but none had particularly strong playoffs for his respective junior team. Nicola Aeberhard was clearly the best in the regular season in boasting a 2.58 goals-against average in 22 games. He and Maxim Mauerhofer do boast a little bit of international experience, but it’s unclear if either can capably take the bull by the horns and be a difference maker. In general, the team is a potpourri of players from a total of 11 different clubs and will feature five players who are 16 or younger, including 15-year-old defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler, who already weighs in at 6’1”, 230 pounds. Whether they can overcome any possible lack of chemistry or experience will be proven in the first four games in Sochi.
Key player: Mirco Mueller, who just put up six goals and 31 points in 63 WHL games, will be the young man with the responsibility for this year’s squad and will be counted on to be on the ice for all key situations, from the power-play on down to the penalty killing units. He’ll also be of great importance against North American clubs, starting with Canada in the preliminary round. One shouldn’t be surprised if he logs upwards of 25 minutes of ice time in tight games.
Who NHL scouts will be keeping a close eye on: Aside from Mueller, captain Phil Baltisberger will be closely watched, as this is the year he goes from being a pup on the team to a catalyst. Having played this winter with men, it will be interesting to see just how physical the young man will be with players his age. Another name scouts will be paying close attention to is that of Fabio Hogger, currently ranked 27th amongst Europeans for the upcoming NHL Draft. With an eye on the future, Timo Meier’s performance will also be watched closely. He’s a 185 pound 16-year-old who put up 38 points in 39 total junior games as an underager. Also of interest is Luca Fazzini, who played 27 NLA games this past season, assistant captain Luca Hischier and little tykes Tim Wieser and Marc Marchon. Any number of these players could pop up on CHL rosters next fall.
Unexpected gems: This year’s team features the son of former Olten star, Russian Albert Malgin. Youngster Denis Malgin is following in his father’s footsteps and is currently only 16 and 5’7”, 161 pounds. However, he put up 28 points in 28 games in Switzerland’s top U20 league and a whopping 10 goals and 21 points in nine international games for Switzerland’s U16 squad. It’ll be interesting to see what role he plays and what he can do against not only older, but bigger competition.