The Swiss took a major step forward at last year’s World Junior Championship. Despite having one of the youngest teams in 2019, Switzerland came within a goal of toppling the heavily-favoured Canadians in the round-robin, prompting coach Christian Wohlwend to share how proud he was of his team. They would go on to stun the undefeated Swedes in the opening round of the playoffs with a 2-0 shutout and rolled to a fourth-place finish, their best result in almost a decade.
Coming into the 2020 World Junior Championship, Switzerland may be the team to watch. Ten players are projected to return to the team, giving the small nation an unprecedented level of skill and experience at the tournament. They’ve also been steadily improving their junior program each year since becoming a tournament regular in 2009, with many of their best performers coming from their national leagues.
While there are still some questions regarding offense, changes in the coaching staff could provide the necessary boost. Thierry Paterlini, last year’s U18 head coach, will step behind the bench for the first time at the U20 level, replacing the popular Wohlwend who left to coach in the Swiss National League (NLA). He’ll be joined by U18 assistant Reto von Arx, who played briefly in the NHL and was one of Switzerland’s most experienced international players. They’ll be tasked with getting the Swiss through Group B that’s headlined by medal-favourites Sweden and Finland, but also underdogs Kazakhstan and Slovakia.
Here’s THW’s prediction as to how the final roster will look.
Goaltending will be a strength this year as Switzerland will get their two top goalies from last year’s tournament. The starter will almost certainly be Luca Hollenstein, who earned both of Switzerland’s wins in 2019, including a 41-save performance against Sweden. The other was also a shutout against Denmark, where he made 21 saves. While slightly undersized at 5-foot-10, he’s been one of the best goalies in Switzerland’s top league (NLA) this season, posting one of the highest save percentages as of Dec 13. If he starts strong in the Czech Republic, there’s a good chance he could see every game for the Swiss at this year’s tournament.
Also returning is last year’s backup Akira Schmid. Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the fifth round of the 2018 Draft, the 6-foot-5 netminder provides a solid option for the Swiss in the event Hollenstein stumbles. While he struggled in last year’s U20 tournaments, he’s begun to fill out his massive frame and has been much more reliable this season, posting the best numbers in U20 games for Switzerland.
The final invite to Switzerland’s World Junior camp is Stephane Charlin, who will likely assume third-string duties. Despite being 19 years old, it will be his first World Juniors, although he’s appeared for the Swiss at other U20 tournaments. While it’s unlikely he sees action in 2020, he has all the skills to step in if needed. At 6-foot-3, he has the size many look for in a goalie, and has been nearly impenetrable in his two appearances in the NLA, posting a better save percentage and goals-against-average than Hollenstein.
Defense will be Switzerland’s strongest area in 2020, with four returnees and two drafted players among the team’s pairings. Nico Gross is the best of the bunch and will be returning for his fourth World Junior tournament. The fourth-round pick of the New York Rangers had just two points at the 2019 WJC, but has been excellent with the Oshawa Generals this season, leading all defensemen on his team in points. He will likely be the captain for the Swiss at this year’s tournament and a key factor of the team’s success.
He’ll be joined by 2019 teammates David Aebischer, who is the assistant captain and top point-getting defenseman on the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Gatineau Olympiques, as well as Tim Berni, a 2018 Columbus Blue Jackets pick and currently playing with the ZSC Lions, the NLA’s top team right now. The final returnee on defense is Janis Jerome Moser, who played in both the World Junior tournament and the World Championships in 2019, and was named the NLA’s Youngster of the Year last season. They will be relied on to make the Swiss one of the most difficult teams to play against in 2020.
One player to watch at camp is Inaki Baragano. At 18 years old, he’s one of the youngest invites among the defensemen at the Swiss World Junior camp, so he’ll have his work cut out for him to make the team. However, he’s been very reliable in his rookie season with the dominant Kamloops Blazers, registering five points in 27 games. He has high-end offensive potential, which he demonstrated in Switzerland’s U20 league before coming to North America, and has played in several international competitions already.
It is somewhat surprising that Davyd Baradun, who played on the 2018 and 2019 teams, did not get an invite to the 2020 World Juniors. One possible reason for the snub is his history of rough play. Last year, he collided knee-on-knee with Finland’s Santeri Virtanen, and in the NLA championship in March, he was suspended for a game and fined after a hit against former NHL player Maxim Lapierre. In a year where the Swiss have the potential to compete for a medal, a liability like Barandun could cost them a crucial win.
Although the offense will take a dip from last year, Valentin Nussbaumer is entering his third World Juniors and will be expected to be a top point producer for Switzerland. Last year, he had three points in seven games despite a limited role behind stars Nando Eggenberger and Philipp Kurashev, and with an increased role in 2020, it’s likely he rises to the challenge. After being named alternate captain at the 2018 U18 tournament, he was one of the team’s best wingers. The Arizona Coyotes prospect has also been a bigger impact with his junior team, scoring 25 points with the QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes so far this season.
Also expected to be an important offensive contributor is Sandro Schmid, another 2019 returnee. He registered just a single assist last year, but he’s looked much stronger this season, having scored two points in five international contests and has served as the team’s captain. Matthew Verboon and Jeremi Gerber also will aim to be big parts of the offense. As 18-year-olds on the 2019 team, they had limited roles, but will see a boost in ice time as the two of them are now two of the more experienced players.
Despite being just 17 years old, there’s a good chance Simon Knak could make the Swiss team in 2020. Last year, he was the captain of the U18 team, scoring four points in seven games, and he has also dressed for the U18 squad already in 2019-20 at the Hlinka Gretzky tournament. He currently plays for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey LEague, where he has 18 points in his rookie season and has been ranked as the 61st best prospect for the 2020 NHL Draft. While it’s possible he’ll be cut due to his age, the Swiss have never been afraid to use draft-eligible prospects on the rosters and Knak’s skills are just too good to be left at home.
Several others could make an impact at the 2020 World Juniors. Gian-Marco Wetter is currently the leading scorer for the Swiss in U20 competition so far this season, and Kyen Sopa is over a point-per-game with the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs. Elvis Schlapfer could also make the team based on his familiarity with the coach – he played on the U18 team with Paterlini, where he was one of the top scorers, and his father, Swiss hockey legend Kevin Schlapfer, is reportedly good friends with him. However, his age may hold him back his year, as there are more experienced players at camp this year and he’s only been used sparingly with the NLA’s EHC Biel-Bienne.
The Swiss will look to build on last year’s fourth-place performance in 2020, and they have all the tools to do so. Their goaltending duo in Schmid and Hollenstein, along with newcomer Charlin, has been very solid for the Swiss so far this season internationally and can compete with any other tandem in the tournament. Their defense, led by Gross, Aebischer, Berni and Moser, is also one of the strongest of any teams, with four players with multiple tournaments under their belts.
The only area that could cost the Swiss is their offense, as Nussbaumer is the only drafted prospect among their forwards. However, it’s only a slight downgrade from last year’s squad, which was led by Philipp Kurashev, a relative unknown prior to leading the 2019 tournament in goals. Additionally, most of Switzerland’s team will consist of players familiar with the international-sized rinks, and could gain an advantage in the Czech Republic against teams more used to the smaller North American style.
Switzerland has done much with little so far, and with their national programs improving every year, as well more prospects making significant impacts with North American junior and college leagues, the Swiss may have emerged as one of the teams who could steal a medal in 2020.
Here is THW’s prediction as to who makes the final 23-man roster for Switzerland:
Goaltenders: Luca Hollenstein, Akira Schmid, Stephane Charlin
Defence: Nico Gross, Tim Berni, David Aebischer, Janis Jerome Moser, Inaki Baragano, Mika Henauer, Rocco Pezzullo
Forwards: Valentin Nussbaumer, Sandro Schmid, Jeremi Gerber, Matthew Verboon, Gian-Marco Wetter, Kyen Sopa, Simon Knak, Stephane Patry, Gilian Kohler, Yves Stoffel, Joel Salzgeber, Simon Wuest, Fabian Berri