The four bottom teams at the WJC don’t give you a lot of reason to tune in as collective, but each of the four nations have standout players worth keeping an eye on.
SWITZERLAND The heady days of
Nino Niederreiter and Benjamin Conz are gone, and though Switzerland has cemented itself within the top bracket of WJC teams, the famously neutral nation has become, well, stuck in neutral. The Swiss win just enough to make the medal round but not enough to threaten for a medal. Good talent is still coming through the country and Nashville first-rounder Kevin Fiala is in the spotlight. He was one of the nation’s best players at last year’s dance in Malmo and has been playing lights-out against men in Sweden this season. One player who could make a similar impact is 2015 draft prospect Timo Meier. A second-year right winger with the Quebec League’s Halifax Mooseheads, Meier has upped his game and was one of the team’s top scorers through November. San Jose released with rookie defender
Mirco Mueller for the tourney, and that helps Switzerland’s depth on the back end, taking some of the pressure off of
Phil Baltisberger of the Ontario League’s Guelph Storm. In all, this will be an inexperienced Swiss team, with just five players eligible from last year’s squad. Fortunately, there are nice young reinforcements coming up, including another Sharks pick, Noah Rod, and the small but skilled Denis Malgin, a 2015 prospect who was great at the world under-18s. As per usual, Switzerland will have to take care of business against the minnows in round-robin play (in this case Denmark) and then hope for an upset or two against a traditional power. They’ve done it before and have given the Russians fits, in particular, but how far can this squad go overall? Straight to the lower middle, most likely.
SLOVAKIA While the teens of the Czech Republic have found new life on the international stage, their former countrymates from Slovakia are more like a whipped dog. Last year they could have sent the Czechs to the relegation round but instead handed them new life in a 4-1 loss. Then Slovakia got waxed 6-0 by Sweden in what was a less-than-competitive quarterfinal loss.
And even before that you had Columbus pick Marko Dano berating 16-year-old defenseman Erik Cernak in the press for taking “stupid penalties,” which wasn’t a good look. Dano has turned pro now, but Cernak, up for the draft this summer and playing well against men back home, will return. At 6-foot-3, 203 pounds, he’s a big boy on the back end, but he’ll also be the only returning member of the D-corps.
This team will draw from the country’s Orange20 program, which is like the U.S. NTDP but plays against men in Slovakia and struggles for wins. The program hasn’t had the same success as the U.S.’s, and none of this year’s players managed more than a ‘C’ rating on Central Scouting’s draft watch list. Simply put, it’s been tough sledding for Slovakia, and even when they’ve had intriguing goalies lately (a past savior), the team has still been bombed, such as at the under-18s when Adam Huska and Matej Tomek manned the crease. One player who can make an impact is left winger Martin Reway, a Montreal pick playing in the Czech Republic after a QMJHL stint with Gatineau. He was one of the top scorers at last year’s WJC and is putting up numbers against men now. He and Bruins pick Peter Cehlarik will move the offense.
DENMARK Denmark is the newbie in the pool, earning promotion up from Division I and taking Norway’s slot with the big boys. Will the Danes be chum? Don’t count them out so fast. Denmark brings back all five of its top scorers, including Winnipeg first-rounder
Nikolaj Ehlers and Columbus pick
Oliver Bjorkstrand. All told, 12 players from last year’s promotable squad are available, and that cohesion goes a long way. Along with Ehlers (QMJHL Halifax) and Bjorkstrand (WHL Portland), Denmark has a couple other kids playing in North America, including Mads Eller, who is coming off a nice season helping the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings to a league crown and a Memorial Cup title. Mikkel Aagard is in his first campaign with the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs, and that familiarity with Canadian ice and the pace of the elite junior game will be a boon for the Danes, who still go into pool play as heavy underdogs. Their first chance for a win will be against the Swiss, but a more likely opportunity will come in the relegation round against Germany. There, the Danes can try to outscore the Germans with the 1-2 punch of Ehlers and Bjorkstrand. While neither player is huge, each has a season of more than 100 points in major junior. Bjorkstrand has a 50-goal campaign under his belt, while Ehlers scored 49 last season. In net, the Danes return George Sorensen, who gave up just two even-strength goals in last year’s Division I tourney and handles the puck so well that he once scored at the under-18s. He will be peppered with a lot more shots this time out when Russia and Sweden replace Austria and Poland at the other end of the ice.
GERMANY Hopes of a German renaissance are next to none after Edmonton decided not to release
Leon Draisaitl. The highest-drafted German ever, Draisaitl was picked third overall by Edmonton and has remained with the NHL team since camp. One-third of the way through the season, he was still in the lineup, getting bottom-six minutes and popping in the odd point or two. But his impact on the Germans would have been huge. Draisaitl admitted he put too much pressure on himself at last year’s tournament, where his squad had to stave off Norway in a tense three-game relegation series. Draisaitl led the Germans in scoring, but he also led the team in penalties and was suspended for a game after hitting Team USA’s Andrew Copp from behind. Like Denmark, Germany will have a lot of experience on its roster. Former Sudbury Wolves center Dominik Kahun (now in Germany) is back and 13 players from last year’s squad are eligible to return. Does the team have enough talent to stay up in the top echelon? It will be a fight to avoid relegation and without Draisaitl, the Germans will have to revert to traditional Teutonic defensive hockey. Marvin Cupper has aged out in net, but his backup, Kevin Reich, is an option. Reich has been playing in the United States League and found his footing since leaving Dubuque for Green Bay. Germany has a slight chance of upsetting Slovakia in the round-robin, but otherwise it’s all about another best-of-three to avoid relegation, most likely against Denmark. So this may be the last we see of Germany for a year or two.
This feature appears in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.