GROUP A: SWITZERLAND
Last year’s finish: Fifth
Last year’s round-robin record: 2-0-0-2
Yahoo! Sports has asked current Canadian Hockey League imports – some of whom are playing in the tournament – to break down their national teams.
The Swiss junior team in this year’s tournament, much like its home country, could be classified as holding the middle ground. The Swiss are too good to be easily dismissed by the competition, but not expected to be good enough to challenge for gold.
“The bigger teams like Sweden, Russia or Canada, they don’t really expect much from us,” said returning Swiss defenceman Dario Trutmann, who plays for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers. “They think that Switzerland doesn’t have enough good players, but I’m still sure they’ll be ready for us.
“We’re not going there to lose.”
The fact the Swiss have continued to produce top talent is testament to the program considering the small nation only has 13,775 junior players registered. That number will only continue to grow with players like New York Islanders fifth-overall pick Nino Niederreiter and Calgary Flames prospect Sven Bärtschi (13th overall) taken in the NHL draft.
Since Niederreiter is out with a concussion suffered in an NHL game on Dec. 3, it looks like Bartschi will be the player to pick up Switzerland’s offensive slack. The Portland Winterhawks forward has 12 goals and 42 assists in 25 WHL games and is one of seven players returning from the 2011 squad.
“I think we’ll have a pretty good mix of big, strong forwards and some smaller skilled forwards,” said Trutmann. “But Bartschi offensively for sure. There’s also Gregory Hofmann, he was drafted by Carolina (103rd overall), and another guy, Samuel Walser, who plays in the Swiss pro league (with Kloten) he’s a tall big forward who can bring some weight to our lineup.”
Among the smaller, skilled set is 5-foot-8, 160-pound Brandon Wheat Kings forward Alessio Bertaggia, who will be getting his first taste of world junior action after being a late cut last year. The rookie believes the key to Swiss success will rely on their defence.
“We have to play well defensively,” said Bertaggia. “If we do that our chances will arrive during the game.”
With his 17 goals and 34 points in 35 WHL games, Bertaggia, 18, should provide some secondary scoring and – he hopes – catch the eye of some NHL scouts.
“It’s more motivation for the young guys when they see that scouts are looking for Swiss guys, too,” said Bertaggia of having players like Bartschi and Niederreiter taken high in the draft. “It’s positive. It makes all the young guys work hard to try and reach the NHL.”
Defensively, two players who call North America home during the regular season – Trutmann and Dave Sutter of the Seattle Thunderbirds are expected to anchor the blueline. At a towering 6-5 and 211-pounds, Sutter’s size should help him on the smaller ice surface.
Now that fan favourite and goaltending workhorse Benjamin Conz has graduated, it looks like last year’s backup Lukas Meili will get an opportunity to play. Meili, who plays for the GCK Zurich Lions, has a 3.24 goals against average in 12 games with the Swiss club team.
“He’s kind of like Benjamin Conz,” said Trutmann of the 19-year-old netminder. “He’s quick and he has a good style. He can really read the game. He was on the team last year so he really knows what to expect in the tournament.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Forward Sven Bartschi (Portland Winterhawks, WHL) This will be a homecoming of sorts for the 19-year-old first-round draft pick of the Calgary Flames (13th overall) since Group A will play out of the Saddledome. The 5-11, 187-pound winger has very deft hands, a good shot and is an offensive threat whenever he has the puck.
Forward Gregory Hofmann (HC Ambri-Piotta, NLA) Back again for the Swiss, Hofmann was a big part of last year’s offence contributing four points in six games at the 2011 tournament in Buffalo. He’s comfortable playing both on the wing and at centre giving head coach Manuele Celio some versatility up front.
Forward Joel Vermin (SC Bern, NLA) As the top ranked NHL draft-eligible player in Switzerland, scouts will have their eyes on the 5-11, 192-pound winger. Despite a foot injury this season, Vermin has still been able to produce 12 points in 21 games in Switzerland’s pro league.
MUST WIN GAME: In the pool with perennial powerhouses Russia and Sweden, the fate of the Swiss team might be decided by their Dec. 31 game against Slovakia the day after they take on Latvia – who recently moved up from Division 1A.
Said Trutmann: “Those are our two biggest games if we want to make the quarter-finals. Obviously we want to win every game, not just two, but (Slovakia) is going to be a huge game.”