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Swiss have experience, blueprint to get to medal round

by Brad Holland / NHL.com
Back in 1997, goaltender David Aebischer helped lead the U-20 National Junior team to its finest moment,  capturing the bronze medal in the only top-three finish for the Swiss in WJC history. 
The Swiss National Junior team enjoyed its finest moment in the World Junior Championship almost 10 years ago to the day.

In 1997, Swiss defenseman Mark Streit was named to the World Junior All-Tournament team. The following season, he and Swiss netminder David Aebischer led the U-20 Swiss national team to the bronze medal in Helsinki, Finland, the only top-three finish for the Swiss in World Junior Championship history.

Fittingly, the Swiss team brings one of their best teams in recent years to this year's tournament as a celebration of that anniversary.

If coach Jacob Kolliker hopes to lead his Swiss team to its former glory, he might just be looking to do so at the right time. The Swiss took sixth place at the 2007 World U-18 Championship this past spring, losing in overtime, 4-3, to Team Russia, the eventual champions, in the quarterfinals.

In that tournament, the Swiss finished ahead of both Finland and the Czech Republic, who took seventh and ninth, respectively.

You can bet Kolliker and his team will be looking to build on that momentum. For while Kolliker did not coach that particular U-18 team, 17 of his current players were on the roster and chemistry can't ever be overlooked in tournaments such as the World Junior Championships. The Swiss team will be ready.

The Overview

Including its bronze-medal performance in 1998, the Swiss team went on a run from 1998-2002 that saw them place in the top six in four of five competitions. After an impressive fourth-place finish in 2002, however, the Swiss have been unable to climb higher than seventh.

In 2008, Kolliker will have more talent at his disposal than he has in recent years. The '89- and '90-born crop of Swiss players, the same group that was a goal away from the top four at this year's U-18 tournament, is among the strongest in the country's history.

In addition, last season the U-20 program played a regular schedule against the National B League, and its success as a team pressed the Swiss management to continue that experiment this season.

The Swiss, under Coach Kolliker, should be ready to turn some heads in 2008.

Leadership

Kolliker is the WJC's longest-tenured coach, having served his country's U-20 program as head coach since 1999. He is also extremely experienced in the international game; Kolliker holds the record for most Swiss national games played at 213, and for his efforts, he was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame last May.

This is the sort of coach his players will be able to relate to, which will be valuable, because he'll be leading a group of players far younger than any other team in the tournament. You can bet Kolliker will be relying on his veterans to show a good example, and he'll be expecting quite a lot out of his younger skaters.

You can also bet he'll be looking forward to leading this team in the Czech Republic, as he legitimately has a chance to earn a quarterfinal berth, and from there, anything is possible.

Goaltenders

The Swiss goaltending situation boasts two very strong candidates in both Robert Mayer and Lukas Flueler. Either goalie could wind up as the No. 1. Based on which player comes out of the gate stronger, either goaltender could emerge as the go-to guy, or they could end up sharing time.

However, Mayer, the younger of the two, just might find himself with a bit of an edge to earn the starter's role. He was excellent at the U-18 tournament this season, posting a 2.17 GAA (second in tournament) and a .924 save percentage (first in the tournament). He was especially sharp in the game against Russia.,turning away 27 shots as an overwhelming underdog. For his performances, he narrowly missed out on All-Tournament goaltender honors. If he does not start the bulk of the games, he will at least challenge the elder Fluleler for minutes.

For his part, Flueler traveled to Sweden with his teammates on the 2007 Swiss WJC team, but in six games he did not see a single minute of action. He enters the tournament as the more experienced goalie, and as the most traveled as well. Flueler skated for the CHL's Ottawa 67's last season and played well -- a 9-11 record with a 3.55 GAA and a .903 save percentage -- but returned to his native Switzerland this season and now backstops the GCK Lions of the Swiss Junior League.

Goaltending could be the key to the Swiss medal hopes, for the Swiss will enter just about every game they play as an underdog, save perhaps in their game against Team Kazakhstan. The goaltending will have to be just as good as it was for the U-18 team, though either Mayer or Flueler will get some help from one of the best Swiss defense corps in recent seasons.

Defense

Montreal Canadiens prospect Yannick Weber is the most experienced and talented member of the Swiss blueline. 

The most experienced and talented member of this group is Kitchener Rangers blueliner Yannick Weber (MTL, 2007). Weber currently sits second in OHL scoring by defensemen, behind only Team USA's Bobby Sanguinetti (NYR, 2006), with 15 goals and 36 points in 31 games. In addition, Weber's Rangers are currently the CHL's top team, the host of the 2008 Memorial Cup and a team that knows how to win. Weber's leadership and sense of just what it takes to win will be instrumental as he attempts to lead a talented, but relatively young, Swiss blue line.

The Swiss defense, while young, is full of raw talent. In CSS's Preliminary Rankings of all Swiss skaters, the top three players on the list were all defensemen, and each will be a member of Team Switzerland. Lukas Stoop, Roman Josi and Patrik Geering are the big three of draft-eligible blueliners for the Swiss

In last season's tournament, Josi was the youngest player on a national team roster. It showed, as he finished the tournament with no points, a plus-1 rating and three shots. But he has improved markedly since then.

These three exciting players will be joined by Weber and the returning blueliners from last year's team, March Welti and Marco Maurer.

Finally, Luca Sbisa, of the WHL's Lethbridge Hurricanes, will be a wild card for his team. Sbisa has enjoyed a very successful start to his WHL career, scoring three goals and assisting on 20 others for 23 points in 34 games. While he was listed on the Entry List for the Swiss team at the U-18 tournament, he was unable to crack the final lineup. His play in the WHL should earn him a few more looks from his coaches this time around.

 With that group of seven, the Swiss boast an aggressive, offensive-minded defense corps that will excel at getting the puck up to the Swiss forwards.

Forwards

Luca Cunti who is arguably the most talented Swiss forward eligible for the WJC will not be in uniform for the Swiss team.

The bulk of the offensive load will have to be carried by three '89-born skaters who skated with the Swiss team at last year's WJC, and, perhaps more importantly, skated as a line with the 2007 Swiss U-18 team. That means that Denis Hollenstein, Pascal Berger, and Roman Schlagenhauf will be under the spotlight.

In the U-18 tournament, Schlagenhauf, Berger and Hollenstein combined for five goals and six assists in the six games, and connected for all three Swiss goals against the Russians in their 4-3 overtime defeat.

The Swiss will also be paced offensively by Kooteny Ice forward Arnauld Jacquemet, who has scored 12 goals and 20 points in 34 games this season in the defensive Western Hockey League of the CHL. Gregory Sciaroni, who finished the U-18 tournament tied for the Swiss team lead with forwards Berger and Hollenstein and defenseman Muller with four points each in the six games, is also back.

The most enigmatic personality at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft and likely the most talented Swiss forward eligible for this event, Luca Cunti will not be in uniform for the Swiss team.

A purebred offensive talent, Cunti was selected in the third round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning, and is currently practicing and working with the St. Cloud State Huskies, pending a decision on his amateur status and eligibility for NCAA hockey. He has not been named to the Swiss roster at present time.

 While his loss will be felt, the remaining Swiss skaters will know going in that a team-first approach will best serve their purposes. Sitting and waiting on an offensive outburst out of Cunti is no longer an option. His absence could actually benefit the Swiss team.

The Intangibles

Team Switzerland boasts one of the most talented teams it's iced in many years, but that still leaves it behind the 8-ball in matchups with three of the four other teams in its pool. The goal for this team is to remain in the top-8 for next year's tournament, but with some luck -- and performances out of the right people -- it could actually fare much better.

The play of the Swiss goaltenders and the chemistry built by this team during its one-and-a-half seasons competing together as a team in the National B League will also serve the team well.

Switzerland has the most experienced coach in the tournament leading a young and energetic group complemented by a more experienced, talented old guard. It has not one, but two goalies capable of stealing a game. But, in the end, it will take every last player pulling the same way if this team hopes to make waves, and a return to the medal round on the tenth anniversary of their one and only WJC top-3 finish.

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