GROUP A: SWITZERLAND
2012 finish: Eighth
2012 round-robin record: 1-0-1-2, 12 GF/16 GA
Yahoo! Canada Sports has asked North American-based players, some of whom are playing in the world junior championship, to break down their national teams.
A matchup with the Swiss unfolds like clockwork — two-plus hours of trying to break through a forcefield of small but swift defensive-minded forwards.
That devotion to their system has helped Switzerland often stymie the most talented teams at the world junior championship in recent years. Their trouble has sometimes been that they play up or down to the calibre of opponent, which is why they — but also has a knack for frustrating itself.
"We're going to be a hard-working team — we won't be the most skilled team," says centre Tanner Richard, a standout for the OHL's Guelph Storm who was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in June. "We usually have pretty good battles against the top teams. Lately, we haven't been dominating in games that we should. Last year, we lost a game against Slovakia that we should have won, but against Sweden and Russia, we had our two best games.
"I think we'll be fine against the bigger teams. We have to work more on controlling the play against the teams who are more or less in our range, at our level and a bit lower than us."
Team USA's freefall to the relegation round in 2012 led to the Americans being with Canada and Russia in a loaded Group B. Coach Sean Simpson's Team Switzerland is in a pool the Czech Republic, Finland, Latvia and defending champion Sweden. The club boasts only two NHL draft picks, Richard and Minnesota Wild sixth-rounder Christoph Bertschy. The hope is that they can patch together enough offence by committee to complement a veteran defence corps led by Samuel Guerra and the goaltending of likely starter Luca Bolthauser, who plays for Farjestad Karslbad in Sweden's top junior league.
"We don't have superstars this year but we have a pretty good team and everyone is very close in terms of skill," says 17-year-old defenceman Mirco Mueller, of the WHL's Everett Silvertips.
"Our goal is to make the quarter-final for a first step," adds Mueller, a 6-foot-4, 185-pounder who will likely be chosen in the next NHL draft. "I think we have a pretty good chance ... we have a lot of guys who play pro in Switzerland. We should have a pretty solid defence."
Up front, though, there is nary a individual threat on the level of Sven Bärtschi or Nino Niederreiter, both recent NHL first-round picks. Switzerland will count on the likes of Bertschy, Richard and Sven Andrighetto, who is a top-10 scorer in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The Brandon Wheat Kings' Alessio Bertaggia and former Peterborough Petes right wing Lino Martschini, a 5-foot-5 speedster, also are expected to chip in.
"We have some guys on our team that have proven themselves in the CHL over the last few years," Richard says. "If we get in that quarter-final, all you need is two lucky bounces. We usually do pretty good at playing a defensive trap. Once you get in the medal round, anything can happen. I think we got pretty lucky in the group situation. We only really have one big team on our side with Sweden."
Switzerland has four 19-year-olds gracing its blueline, including fourth-year Swiss leaguer Samuel Guerra, along with Cedric Hachler, Dean Kukan and Christian Marti. Mueller is waiting in the wings to become a leader at the back end across the next two WJC cycles. In goal, Bolthauser is pencilled in to start.
"I don't know if we'll have the goaltending we did like when Benjamin Conz was standing on his head in the past like he did against Canada," Richard says. "But Bolthauser is pretty good, he'll be our clear No. 1."
Much of Switzerland's non-CHL nucleus already played together this fall during the World Junior A Challenge in November, where they earned a bronze medal. (Canada's entries in the event are drawn from the Canadian Junior Hockey League.) Richard notes that while the North American teams have only about three weeks to adapt to playing on the wider IIHF rink, the Swiss know it well. That might help a team which is going to live on the margins.
"It might help us with making the little plays, like reading the boards. We use the big ice in training camp and tournaments."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Forward Sven Andrighetto (Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, QMJHL). The 19-year-old, along with Team Russia's Nikita Kucherov, is a go-to scorer for Team Canada assistant coach André Tourigny in the Quebec League. Andrighetto has 50 points in 28 games and has helped the Huskies to the fourth-best point percentage in the Q.
Forward Tanner Richard (Guelph Storm, OHL). The Tampa Bay Lighting second-round pick is a playmaker although he has one of the oddest statlines in major junior, with just three goals and 36 assists for 39 points. "I think I can take over one of those leader-type roles," he says. "Win faceoffs and shut down other teams' top lines and lead by example on and off the ice."
Forward Christoph Bertschy (Bern). The dervish-like forward got a taste of the WJC in Calgary as a underaged player and showed enough that the Minnesota Wild selected him in the sixth round.
"I think he's pretty underrated," Richard says. "He's a small guy like most of our Swiss forwards [at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds] but he's a very good player."
Forward Alessio Bertaggia (Brandon Wheat Kings, WHL). The 19-year-old has 34 points in 29 games with precious little help in Brandon. "I think he will help, very much," Mueller says. "He is one of the leaders in the offence and he's a very a good player. Very fast and very skilled. He'll be one of our leaders with Tanner Richard."
Defenceman Samuel Guerra (HC Davos). Stay-at-home defender is already a fourth-year pro with Davos and heads up an experienced top four with Hachler, Kukan and Marti, who have each spent time in the top European domestic leagues. (Marti plays for the QMJHL's Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.) "Our top four D will be consistent," Richard says. "I trust that they'll do their job well."
MUST WIN GAME: Finland (Dec. 30, 2:30 a.m. ET)
The Swiss, if history counts for anything, should be 1-1 halfway through the group stage after beginning with Sweden and Latvia. They have a decent track record against the Czech Republic, their New Year's Eve dance partner. The Finland game is thus their swing contest, with the Nordic squad is under pressure to end its medal drought.
"Finland is definitely within range," Richard says. "They're a pretty good team but if we bring our A-game, we can definitely beat 'em."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.