Switzerland comes into the 2020 World Junior Championship on the heels of their best finish in 10 years after placing fourth in 2019. Last year’s tournament saw a young, inexperienced team go head-to-head against the best hockey nations in the world and give them a run for their money. They even managed to send home the Swedes in the elimination rounds, despite only having three drafted players on their roster compared to Sweden’s five first-round NHL draft picks. However, since becoming a tournament regular in 1996, they’ve only won a single medal – a bronze in 1998.
Could this year’s team capture their second medal in national team history? It’s entirely possible. Switzerland will be icing the most experienced roster with an unprecedented 10 returning players, including three who will be playing in their third tournament. Several players also play in the nation’s top league (NLA), which has improved steadily over the years to become one of the best leagues in Europe behind Russia’s KHL, Sweden’s SHL and Finland’s Liiga. Switzerland also has the best attendance in Europe, allowing teams like SC Bern to invest more in player development.
With a new coach in Thierry Paterlini and more North American based prospects than ever before, they have all the pieces in place to be a dangerous team. They’re in a difficult Group A with Sweden and Finland, but also with Kazakhstan and Slovakia, and could easily find themselves in a favourable playoff matchup if they can manage to steal a game or two. The goal is no longer to just stay in the top division – the Swiss are competing for medals.
Luca Hollenstein (EV Sug), Akira Schmid (Omaha Lancers), Stephane Charlin (Geneve-Servette HC)
With the Swiss only inviting three goalies to their pre-tournament camp, there were no surprises in their selection. The only question is who will be the team’s starter. Currently, Luca Hollenstein has the advantage. A member of the 2019 World Junior team, he was by far the team’s best netminder. He registered two shutouts in the tournament and the only wins for Switzerland while posting a respectable 2.43 goals-against average (GAA) and a .917 save percentage (SV%). While his 5-foot-10 stature could raise some concerns, he’s thrived so far despite the height disadvantage. As the most experienced goalie on the roster, he will likely be given the majority of the starts in 2020.
However, don’t count out Akira Schmid, who after a rough 2018-19 season, has been the better of the two goalies internationally in 2019-20. His three games last year saw him post a disappointing 4.23 GAA and a .878 SV%, and his single appearance with the Lethbridge Hurricanes was a disaster as he recorded a .741 SV%, forcing the team to immediately place him on waivers. He went to join the United States Hockey League, where he was able to regain his confidence. This season, he’s been Switzerland’s best U20 goalie by a wide margin. A strong game could see the 6-foot-5 goalie upset Hollenstein for the starting job.
The final member of Switzerland’s goalie trio is Stephane Charlin. While he’s been excellent in the NLA, posting a 1.41 GAA over two games, it’s almost guaranteed he rides the bench for the entirety of 2020 World Juniors. This year will be the 19-year-old’s first tournament and Switzerland has a habit of bringing three goalies but only playing two.
Nico Gross (Oshawa Generals), David Aebischer (Gatineau Olympiques), Janis Jerome Moser (EHC Biel-Bienne), Tim Berni (ZSC Lions), Mika Henauer (SC Bern), Rocco Pezzullo (Ambri-Piotta U20), Bastian Guggenheim (Langnau U20)
Although they don’t have the same name recognition as the Canadians or the Swedes, Switzerland’s defence corps could be one of the best at the 2020 World Juniors mainly due to experience. Tim Berni and Nico Gross are both entering into their third U20 World Junior Championship and have both served as captain at other international tournaments. They were also both drafted by NHL teams in 2018: Berni was selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Gross was a pick by the New York Rangers. They will be the core of the Swiss’ blue line and be cornerstones for the team this year.
The second pairing will likely consist of David Aebischer and Janis Moser, who will be playing in their second tournament. Moser tied for the most points by a Swiss defenseman in 2019, collecting two assists in seven games. Aebischer only managed a single assist at last year’s tournament but has been just short of a point-per-game in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, scoring 13 points in 18 games as of Dec. 17 with the Gatineau Olympiques. They will round out Switzerland’s defence, making it one of the most experienced at the 2020 World Juniors.
Mika Henauer has the greatest potential to be a difference-maker among defensemen making heir World Junior debut. In six pre-tournament games, he’s scored three points and has appeared in 11 NLA games so far this season. Bastian Guggenheim and Rocco Pezzullo are the lone 18-year-olds on the blue line this year. Pezzullo has played in all eight pre-tournament contests despite being one of the youngest defenders, and Guggenheim brings some much needed size with his 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame.
Valentin Nussbaumer (Shawinigan Cataractes), Matthew Verboon (Colgate U.), Sandro Schmid (HC Fribourg-Gotteron), Jeremi Gerber (SC Bern), Simon Knak (Portland Winterhawks), Stephane Patry (Geneve-Servette HC), Kyen Sopa (Niagara IceDogs), Gian-Marco Wetter (SC Rapperswil-Jona Lakers), Gilian Kohler (EHC Biel-Bienne), Fabian Berri (GC Kusnacht Lions), Joel Salzgeber (Langnau U20), Julian Mettler (EHC Kloten), Gaeten Jobin (Charlottetown Islanders)
The offense will not be as strong as it has been in previous years, but a few players could come up big for Switzerland in 2020. The most obvious candidate is Valentin Nussbaumer, who will compete in his third tournament and has been the best forward for the Swiss in pre-tournament play. In five games, he’s scored three goals and five points, the highest on the team. Back in the QMJHL, he’s currently the highest-scoring winger with the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL.
He’ll be joined by 2019 teammates Sandro Schmid and Jeremi Gerber, both of whom play in the NLA. Schmid is a talented goal-scorer who has served as team captain in pre-tournament action and last season, he played in Sweden’s SuperElit, where he scored over a point-per-game. Gerber is more of a playmaker, but also the biggest skater at 6-foot-1 and 192-pounds, which will make him very difficult to knock off the puck.
Matthew Verboon, who’s been playing for Colgate University, could also be an important contributor for Switzerland. His freshman season with Colgate has been fraught with growing pains, but he’s looked right at home on international ice, scoring twice in three U20 pre-tournament games. He’ll be playing in his second tournament along with Sandro Schmid and Jeremi Gerber, both of whom have been playing in the NLA this season. Schmid has been serving as captain for the Swiss in pre-tournament action and has played in all but one game for Switzerland this season.
Gian-Marco Wetter could be an important player for the Swiss in 2020. He’s spent most of 2019-20 in the NLB, scoring six points in 20 contests, but in pre-tournament action, he’s tied Nussbaumer with five points and played in all eight games. Joel Salzgeber has also played in all eight games, scoring once while adding two assists. He’s been one of the most dangerous forwards in Switzerland’s U20 league, scoring at a pace of 1.75 points a game. Only Gerber and Henauer have higher points per game.
Kyen Sopa has emerged as a top forward in the Ontario Hockey League with the Niagara IceDogs. So far in 2019-20, he’s scored 31 points over 30 games, playing regularly with top prospects Philip Tomasino and Akil Thomas. He’s also tied for third in pre-tournament points with two goals and an assist. Simon Knak is a draft-eligible prospect who’s begun to slow down lately as he adjusts to the pace of the Western Hockey League, but still has 18 points in 25 games and has drawn some comparisons to former Portland Winterhawk and fellow countryman Nino Niederreiter.
Gaetan Jobin is somewhat of a surprise inclusion for the Swiss team. Playing in his first season with the QMJHL’s Charlottetown Islanders, he has been relatively quiet, scoring just 12 points in 30 games. However, seven of those points have been goals and with the Swiss offense needing a boost in 2020, his goal-scoring prowess could be vital to a playoff berth. Fabian Berri could also be used to score big goals for the team, as he currently leads the U20 league with 22 goals in 25 games.
I initially thought Simon Wuest would make the team but he was an early cut for the 2020 World Juniors. He’s 19 years old and 6-foot-2, which would make him one of the bigger players on the team, and has scored two goals and an assist in three U20 games this season. However, he doesn’t have a strong history in international contests and it seems coach Paterlini has gone for experience more than anything.
Switzerland comes into the 2020 World Juniors as the most experienced team, which will be crucial when facing teams like Finland and Sweden, who will be relying on talented draft-eligible players like Lucas Raymond, Alexander Holtz, and Aatu Räty to play major roles this year. With goaltending and defence being two of Switzerland’s strongest areas, it’s entirely possible the Swiss could post their best finish ever at the World Juniors, especially if the younger teams get off to a rough start.
I am convinced that we are competing in the Czech Republic with a strong and powerful team and that we have the potential to annoy the big nations.Swiss Coach Thierry Paterlini (translated from German)
However, the Swiss will have some hurdles to overcome to upset the powerful Fins and Swedes. Offense will once again be an area of weakness, even more so that in previous years, as they are lacking a blue-chip prospect on their forward lines. Nussbaumer and Knak have proven their abilities but will need others to step up if they plan to steal a medal this year. They also will be fairly undersized, with only four skaters standing 6-foot-1, and the majority of forwards under 6-feet. It should be mentioned, though, that they are roughly the same average height they were last year, so it shouldn’t be too much of a hindrance.
Switzerland will play their first game of the 2020 World Junior Championship on Dec. 26 against Kazakhstan, then face Sweden on Dec. 28, Slovakia on Dec. 30, and finish the round-robin against Finland on Dec. 31.
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An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.