There’s no question that Austria will be in over their heads once again at the World Juniors. Armed with arguably the best Austrian player ever in Marco Rossi last year, they still finished without a win and with a minus-28 goal differential; the next lowest, Switzerland, had a minus-15. Had the 2021 tournament been a regular World Junior Championship, Austria would have been relegated back to Division 1-A and had to start back at square one. But thanks to a global pandemic, it was far from normal, and thus, the relegation series was scrapped, giving Austria a second chance to prove they deserve to be in the top division.
For that to happen, however, everyone will need to play the best hockey of their careers. Austria is in a challenging Pool A with Canada, Finland, Czechia, and Germany, all of whom have more experience and talent on their rosters. But Austria won’t sit back and welcome defeat. Nine players from last year’s young roster are set to return to Edmonton, many of whom have been playing in Austria’s top hockey leagues. Here are three players who could end up making the biggest difference in the team’s pursuit to avoid relegation.
Currently, only three Austrians have been firs-round selections in the NHL Draft: Thomas Vanek, who went fifth overall to the Buffalo Sabres in 2003; Michael Grabner, who went 14th overall to the Vancouver Canucks in 2006; and Rossi, who was snapped up ninth overall by the Minnesota Wild in 2020. Marco Kasper is looking to add to that number this year. Easily the team’s most skilled player, the 17-year-old top prospect will be relied upon heavily in order to keep Austria in the top division.
Unlike many of his teammates on the World Junior team, Kasper opted to leave his home country last season and play at a higher level of competition in Sweden with Rögle BK, and that decision has thrust him into the international spotlight. He’s been one of the best teenagers in the league since arriving, and this season, he ranks fourth among all U20 players with six points in 24 games. His team has fallen in love with his physicality, two-way presence, and intelligence on the ice, giving him an increased role despite his age and even bringing him along to the Champions Hockey League tournament, where he’s scored six points in nine games against some of the best teams across Europe, the highest total from any U20 player there.
It may be tempting to compare Kasper to Rossi, who had a similar task of leading the Austrians last year, but they bring very different styles to the table. Rossi, a high-flying offensive forward with incredible hands, wasn’t able to get much going on a weak Austrian roster and ended up going pointless over their four games. Kasper, on the other hand, is much more of a power forward, using his 6-foot-1 frame to protect the puck or dig it out from a scrum along the boards. When asked about Austria’s chances this year, he responded confidently, “I always hope that we’re gonna do better, and I think we can do better. Last year was tough for us with some players getting sick before the tournament, but I think we can do better this year, and I think we’re capable as a team.”
Another player who will inevitably draw comparisons to Rossi is Vinzenz Rohrer, who, like his Austrian counterpart, also made the decision to join the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Prior to the team’s selection of him in the 2021 CHL Import Draft, Rohrer was a star in Switzerland’s U17 league, where he scored an incredible 28 goals in 26 games and racked up 47 points. It was the fourth-highest pace in the entire league and caught the eye of the U20 squad, who called him up to finish the season with them. Still just 16 years old, he played 22 games with the GCK Lions U20, scoring two goals and seven points.
Fans weren’t entirely sure how Rohrer’s experience in the U17 and U20 leagues would translate to North America, but he quickly put any questions to bed, taking just three games for the rookie to score his first goal and assist. Since then, he’s been remarkably consistent in setting up teammates and putting pucks in the net. After eight games, he already had two goals and eight points, and after 28 games, he has eight goals and 22 points. Prior to the World Juniors, he sat second in team scoring, just six points back from veteran Cameron Tolnai. He’s adapted very well to Ottawa and the North American game, which has no doubt helped his success this season.
While scouts weren’t paying much attention to the winger before the season started, he’s now firmly on everyone’s radar for the upcoming 2022 draft. Given his smooth skating and high intelligence, as well as his developing physicality, he should mix well with Kasper. The pair are almost guaranteed to line up with him on the first line, which will give Austria a dynamic top unit and the potential for them to blow up at the tournament.
I would be curious to find out whether a goalie at the World Junior Championship has faced more shots than Sebastian Wraneschitz did in 2021. In just three games, he faced a whopping 194 shots, turning away 173 of them and ending the tournament with a .892 save percentage. To put it into perspective, that’s an average of over 64 shots per game. Only six NHL goalies have faced more shots in 60 minutes or more, none of which has come since 1991, and only four of them had a higher save percentage than the Austrian junior.
Wraneschitz’s performance ensnared the imagination of hockey fans all over the world. Despite Austria’s 10th-place finish in Edmonton, he was an easy choice for one of the team’s three Stars of the tournament, and he even caught the attention of the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Royals, who signed him after selecting the goalie in the first round of the 2021 CHL Import Draft. The transition was a tough one for him, however, and his stint with the team didn’t go smoothly. After two games, a 0.750 save percentage and a 10.14 goals-against average, he returned home to Vienna, where he’s played one game since and put up a 0.904 save percentage.
There’s no question that the 5-foot-11 Wraneschitz will return as Austria’s starting goaltender this year and will likely see a similar onslaught of pucks that he experienced last year in Edmonton. But that may not bother him all that much, as he seems to be a reliable high-volume goalie, thriving under increased workloads. He’s not the flashiest, but he moves across the crease and tracks the puck well, and can make the blue-collar saves that Austria will need to stay competitive in this tournament.
Bottom Line for Austria
Austria has a lot of ground to make up to avoid relegation this year, but their roster is far more prepared than they were a year ago. Kasper, Rohrer, and Wraneschitz proved that they have the skill to go toe to toe with the best players in the world, doing so either at the tournament last year or in the OHL. Along with Senna Peeters, Lucas Thaler, and Leon Wallner, this Austrian team has the best shot at remaining in the top division of any team before them.
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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.