Austria returns to the World Junior Championship for the first time in tournament history, and they’ll be itching to make the most of it. Last year was their fourth appearance in the Top Division, and although they finished last, the relegation round was scrapped due to scheduling around the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantines. So, yes, they return thanks to a technicality, but they’re back nonetheless and will have a chance to stick around for the third year in a row.
Sticking around won’t be easy, though. Future NHL star and 2021 team captain Marco Rossi is no longer eligible, leaving the team with a huge gap on offence. But even with him in their lineup last year, the Austrians struggled against the tournament regulars, scoring just one goal in four games. This year, they’ll have to overcome Canada, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Germany, all of whom will have bigger stars on their roster.
However, Austria’s situation may not be as dire this time around. Last year was the Austrians’ first appearance in the Top Division since 2010, and a year of experience can do a world of good. Add that to the fact that Austria sent a very young team to Edmonton in 2021, many of whom will be returning in 2022. Then there’s Marco Kasper, who’s aiming to take over from Rossi as the nations’ premier prospect. There’s a lot going right for Austria, but will it be enough to stay in the top group? Here’s a look at the players who will be trying to make that happen.
Forwards: Kaspar and Peeters Provide Much-Needed Firepower
The World Juniors is often considered a 19-year-old’s tournament for a variety of reasons, but largely because of the significant development gap that can exist between the ages of 18 and 19. It’s one of the reasons Canada opted not to invite the highly-talented defenceman Brandt Clarke to camp. So, when a player comes into the tournament at 16 years old, they have to be a very special talent in order to handle the high competition level. Famous examples include Connor McDavid, Rasmus Dahlin, Sidney Crosby, Nico Hischier, and Wayne Gretzky.
So, when a 16-year-old Kasper suited up for the Austrians last year, people took notice. While he didn’t make much noise, scoring just a single assist, that was hardly his fault, as the team as a whole were outmatched in nearly every contest. Now he’s back as a 17-year-old and ready to do some serious damage on behalf of the Austrians. He’s been playing in the Swedish Hockey League for most of the 2021-22 season with Rögle BK, where he has four goals and six points in 20 games. Look for him to also be picked in the first round of the 2022 NHL draft.
Five more players are set to return from last year’s roster, giving Austria a very experienced top-nine. Lucas Thaler and Mathias Böhm played in the ICEHL, Austria’s top league, this season, while Finn van Ee has been playing in the Alps Hockey League (AlpsHL). Leon Wallner took a different developmental route and decided to follow Kaspar to Sweden, and he’s been starring for Södertälje at both the U20 and Allsvenskan levels.
However, it’s likely Senna Peeters who will have the biggest impact. The undrafted 19-year-old right wing has been with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Halifax Mooseheads since 2019-20 and was one of the team’s best forwards last season. He’ll be returning to the Austrian U20 team for the third time this year, having helped them get promoted from Division 1.
After that, it’ll be stiff competition to fill out the last remaining roster spots. One player who has a leg up on the rest is Vinzenz Rohrer. Like Kaspar, he is eligible for the 2022 NHL Draft and has started to catch a few scouts’ eyes. He joined the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s this season and already sits fourth in scoring on the team with 17 points in 22 games. There’s a good chance he could push for a top-six role over some more experienced players, despite playing in his first U20 tournament.
Another 17-year-old to keep an eye on is Luca Auer. He started this season playing in Austria’s junior league but has since rocketed up the ranks and is now playing with EC Salzburg in the ICEHL. It was in the AlpsHL with the Red Bull Hockey Juniors where he really caught the attention of fans, however, as he led the team in scoring with 33 points in 23 games. Nineteen-year-old Oskar Maier is another good bet to make Austria’s final roster, as he’s been playing in the ICEHL and also served as team captain for the Red Bull Hockey Juniors. He’ll likely be joined by Red Bull teammate Maximilian Hengelmüller, another 19-year-old who brings size and depth to Austria.
My last two spots will go to Tim Geifes and Janick Wernicke. Geifes has been playing in the United States Premier Hockey League this season for the South Shore Kings, which makes him an invaluable addition. European juniors rarely get a taste of the North American style, and bringing in a 6-foot-2 player who’s excelling in one of the nation’s top development programs will be invaluable when Austria faces down the Canadians. Wernicke returned to Austria after playing all his junior hockey in Norway and has been lighting up Austria’s Young Stars League with 33 points and 13 goals in 15 games.
Defence: Austria Faces an Uphill Battle
While there are several intriguing and experienced prospects on Austria’s forward corps, the same cannot be said for their defence. The team will be bringing a very young group on the back end, with only one 19-year-old in Martin Urbanek and one returnee in Lukas Necesany. The pair will have the huge task of containing the likes of Canada’s Mason McTavish, Finland’s Topi Niemela, Czechia’s Jan Mysak, and Germany’s Lukas Reichel. That’s a tall order for any defender, especially considering McTavish already has NHL experience. Still, the two Austrians are some of the best defencemen in the AlpsHL, and if anyone is up to the task, it will be them.
Luca Erne is another Austrian playing in the USPHL, where he has 17 points in 20 games, and thus a good bet to make the team. It also helps that the 17-year-old blueliner is already 6-foot-3, 209 pounds and can bring some grit to a difficult tournament. Speaking of grit, Lorenz Lindner is another strong contender for a depth roster spot, as he’s played a shutdown role in the AlpsHL this season with the EC-KAC Future Team.
The Austrians may look to add some international experience to their roster with their last picks, giving David Reinbacher and Lukas Hörl good chances to make the team. Reinbacher has spent his hockey career in Switzerland and made his Swiss League debut this year, despite being only 17 years old. Hörl, on the other hand, joined the Red Bull U18 team in the Czech U20 league, where he may have faced Czech World Junior hopefuls Tobias Handl and Tomas Machu.
Goaltending: Austria Has a Chance to Surprise
There may not have been a better story at the 2021 World Juniors than Sebastian Wraneschitz, who was tasked with bailing out starter Jakob Brandner. No one could have guessed that the 5-foot-11 netminder would end up stealing the show for Austria, keeping them in some very crucial games that they had no business being in. He allowed just four goals on 65 shots against the Swedes, then allowed seven goals on 61 shots against the Czechs. Once the tournament concluded, no goalie was more shell-shocked than the Austrian, and he earned a much-deserved nomination as one of Austria’s top three players. Despite a rough go in the Western Hockey League this season, he’s practically guaranteed the starting job at this year’s tournament.
Providing him with support will be Leon Sommer and Lukas Moser, two 19-year-olds who have been playing largely backup roles in the AlpsHL. Sommer has the better record, going 6-4-0 in 10 games and posting a .920 save percentage with the Linz Steel Wings, which earned him a call-up to the ICEHL’s Linz Black Wings, although he has yet to play with the team yet. Look for him to be the backup to Wraneschitz.
Austria Has an Uphill Battle Ahead of Them
There’s a lot going for Austrian hockey right now. The small nation had three players selected in the 2020 NHL Draft and possess a top-15 pick in the upcoming draft in Kasper. Several Austrians have also made their way over to North America to play junior hockey, showing just how much their development program has progressed in recent years. And if last year’s tournament was any indicator, there are several players, like Wraneschitz or Peeters, that could step up and steal a win for Austria.
However, when comparing Austria to the rest of the competition at the 2022 World Juniors, they just don’t have quite what it takes to avoid relegation. There’s little hope they can upset Canada or Finland, and they’ll need everything to go right to beat the Czechs or Germans. But that doesn’t make it a wasted experience. The more appearances they can make in the Top Division, the better their development programs will become. And who knows? Maybe Austria will become the next Switzerland, Denmark, or Germany and upset a regular in order to claim a permanent spot for themselves.
Here is THW’s final prediction for who makes the final 23-man roster for the Austrians:
Goaltenders – Sebastian Wraneschitz, Leon Sommer, Simon Moser
Defensemen – Martin Urbanek, Lukas Necesany, Luca Erne, Lorenz Lindner, David Reinbacher, Lukas Hörl, Tobias Sablattnig
Forwards – Marco Kasper, Senna Peeters, Leon Wallner, Lucas Thaler, Vinzenz Rohrer, Mathias Böhm, Finn van Ee, Luca Auer, Oskar Maier, Tim Geifes, Janick Wernicke, Maximilian Hengelmüller, Killian Rappold
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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.