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Swiss, Danes gear up for Division I World Juniors

by Bill Meltzer
When the dust settled at last year's World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Denmark found themselves relegated to Division I as the bottom finishers in the tournament. The countries received the consolation prize of hosting the two brackets for the 2009 IIHF Under-20 Division I World Championships.

The relegation was a major disappointment for the Swiss, who play at the elite level of every other tournament, and have spent a lot of time and effort in recent years in upgrading the national U-20 program.

At the very worst, the Swiss expected to finish ahead of Kazakhstan and reserve a spot for the "big" 2009 tournament in Ottawa, which starts Dec. 26. A 3-1 loss to the Kazakhs in the preliminary round, coupled with a 5-2 loss to an undermanned Slovakia in the relegation round, sealed Switzerland's fate.

As a result, the Group A portion of the 2009 Division I WJC will be held in Herisau, Switzerland, from Dec. 14-20. The rest of the field is comprised of Belarus, Slovenia, Poland, France and Estonia. The tournament is conducted in a single round-robin format, with the first-place club promoted to the elites in 2010 and the last-place team relegated to Division II.  Most observers believe Belarus presents the only opposition capable of keeping the Swiss from first place.

To date, only France and Estonia have released preliminary rosters for the tournament, from which there will be cut-downs and possible substitutions before the final lineups are set. Nevertheless, it's a safe bet the Swiss will rely on a core of 19-year-olds who gained valuable experience in last year's tournament and who have experience in either the Swiss National Liga A or in Canadian junior hockey.

This time around, the Swiss won't have Montreal Canadiens prospect Yannick Weber or last year's leading scorer, Arnaud Jacquemet. Both players turned 20 earlier this year and no longer are eligible for WJC play. Perhaps even more significantly, the Swiss won't have 18-year-old defenseman Luca Sbisa because he is playing in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers.

On the flip side, SC Bern defenseman Roman Josi (drafted by the Nashville Predators in the second round of the 2008 Entry Draft) is available for duty. Likewise, the Swiss can call upon forward Etienne Froidevaux, who averaged a point per game in last year's tournament, Servette Geneva's Reto Suri (2 goals, 4 points in last year's tourney) and SC Bern's Pascal Berger. Luca Cunti, the Tampa Bay Lightning's third-round pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, could be called upon from the QMJHL's Rimouski Oceanic, for whom he's compiled 21 points in his first 26 games.

The Group B WJC tourney will be held in Aalborg, Denmark from Dec. 15-21. Opposing the host nation will be arch-rival Norway, Austria, Hungary, Italy and Ukraine. On paper, this tournament field is weaker than the Group A bracket,

For Denmark, the 2008 World Junior Championships were more of a learning experience than a let-down. The tournament marked the Danes' first trip to the elite level, and the team was in the tougher of the two preliminary brackets, playing against the likes of gold-medalist Canada, silver-medalist Sweden, the host Czechs and their former Slovak countrymen. Not surprisingly, the Danes went winless.

At the elite level, the Danes only had one forward line and two defensemen capable of keeping up with the higher-grade opposition. This year, the Danes are a cut above their Division I opposition on the top lines, and its secondary players should match up well with the other teams.

The Danes will not have two-thirds of last year's top line available. Mikkel Boedker, the Phoenix Coyotes' first round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft, is playing in the NHL. Nichlas Hardt, now playing in Sweden's Allsvenskan (highest minor league) with the Malmö IF Red Hawks, has aged out of the World Juniors. Morten Paulsen, the top scorer at the 2007 Division I WJC also has turned 20.

Even so, Denmark should have a superior crop of forwards available. Start with Lars Eller, the St. Louis Blues' first-round pick in the 2007 Entry Draft. Now a regular starter with Swedish Elitserien team Frölunda Indians Gothenburg, Eller had an uneven tournament in the Czech Republic last year, but finished with a team-high 3 goals and 6 points in six games. At 19, he's experienced at the junior and senior levels. However, he recently missed several games with a foot injury.

A couple of well-regarded fellow Frölunda junior products also will be available to Denmark. Forward Sebastian Svendsen played in last year's WJC at 16 (he turned 17 in July), and should get more ice time this year. Mark Mieritz, 17, played in the Under-18 Worlds last year and seems likely get his first taste of the Under-20s. Svendsen and Mieritz have had some growing pains at the Swedish J20 level this year, but are capable of performing well internationally against Division I juniors.

On the backline, the Danes have a trio of prospects who have drawn attention from NHL scouts. Last year, Philip Larsen (a Dallas Stars fifth-round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft) often was under siege by opposing forecheckers and posted a minus-13 defensive rating at even strength. Nevertheless, the Frölunda Indians defenseman is a fine skater and good puck handler who should help trigger his team's breakouts and power plays.

Oliver Lauridsen, 19, is a hulking (6-foot-6, 220 pound) defensive defenseman. In last year's WJC, he had 2 assists and was minus-9. He now is playing college hockey at St. Cloud State. His season got off to a late start due to injury and delays in eligibility clearance. Simon Gronvaldt, 17, now with the OHL's Kitchener Rangers, also dressed in all six WJC games last year. He'll be back, playing more minutes this time around.

While upsets always are possible, the Danes seem poised to return to the elite level next year. Among the opposing teams in the Group B field, Austria is the most likely to usurp the Danes. Hungary is the most likely relegation candidate.

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