There was a time when a game against Switzerland was enough to make opponents a little nervous. In the late 1990’s, the Swiss junior program peaked, as both its U18 and U20 teams were able to score an occasional upset and finish in the top six. But gone are the days of the dangerous Swiss. Half the Swiss roster here in Vancouver consists of players that previous competed in the U18 Division I championship, which means they’re not necessarily used to facing competition of the caliber they’ll experience in Vancouver. The rest of the team includes players that were on the U18 team that was relegated last year--ouch. It’s not that the Swiss have gotten worse, it’s simply that they’re not improving. The rest of the hockey world has moved forward, but the Swiss have kept the same junior development program in place since the heyday of the 1990’s. Times are changing and so must the Swiss if they hope not only to win a surprise game, but also to stay among the elite 10 junior teams.
Coaching: It seems only appropriate that the man who holds the record for most Swiss national team games played is the heart and soul of the Swiss junior program. Jakob Kolliker has done a commendable job of making Switzerland perform at the World Juniors, no matter what talent he inherits from the younger national teams. Kolliker takes a hands-on approach: he’s always out at the junior games scouting and always on the phone looking for the next young talent. He is also the assistant coach for the senior men’s national team, meaning he’s no stranger to big events.
Goal: The saving grace for Switzerland may be its two young goaltenders. Leonardo Genoni and Reto Berra are teammates during the regular season, playing professional hockey in the Swiss B League (the second-highest league in Switzerland). Both goaltenders are well above average, both for their age and for their nation. Berra tends to turn the scouts’ heads because he is the bigger of the two netminders. But during the regular season, it is Genoni who is considered to be the starting goaltender, although the two have split time pretty evenly. If Switzerland is able to steal a surprise win, it will be thanks to one of these two masked men.
Defence: There’s really no one to write home about on the Swiss blueline. Of course, in general, the Swiss league isn’t known for its aggressive style, and it shows here. Of note, however, is the fact that the Swiss defencemen may have a leg up on the competition with the heightened standard of officiating. Switzerland started using the new rule structure mid-season, and so some of the defencemen will be ready for tighter-called games, which may help them stay out of penalty trouble.
Forward: The Swiss forwards are small, skilful, and fast. How they compete against the elite nations such as Canada and the USA will be interesting. Juraj Simek is the standout among the group, but ably backing him up are Mattias Bieber, Julien Sprunger and Julian Walker, who have all spent time playing in the Swiss A League (the top league in Switzerland). Janick Steinmann, who’s amassed three goals and 11 assists with the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers this year, may be able to give his mates tips on how to survive on the smaller North American ice surface. If the goaltenders live up to expectations, it will take the pressure off this group of forwards to perform, which is a blessing because simply put, they won’t be able to produce too many four or five-goal games.
Projected Results: If Switzerland finishes any higher than seventh or eighth, it will be considered an extremely successful championship. Most likely, the Swiss have what it takes to avoid the dreaded #9 and #10 positions, but it is unlikely that this group of players, who have underachieved on the international stage thus far, will have what it takes to overtake the established elite nations.