Sochi Preview: Is Switzerland Ready To Become A Contender
If the medals went out to the countries that produced the most NHLers, Switzerland wouldn’t be near the podium. That’s not the case however, and while most people look at the Swiss hockey team with sort of a “never an easy win, but we should definitely beat them” attitude, the day is soon approaching where Switzerland will move from plucky underdog to trendy dark horse.
Their team nickname is Eisgenossen, which is pretty cool when you don’t think about it.
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As far as modern Olympic performances go (they’ve won bronze twice, the last of which coming in 1948), the Swiss have yet to really accomplish much, although they will always have that win against Canada (2006), and then that time they took Canada to a shootout (2010). The Swiss won’t have the speed, skill or strength to match the traditional hockey powers, but by sticking to their system, they can keep the shots to the outside while waiting patiently for their chance to strike. It’s not hard for a team to fall into a lull, cycling the puck around the giant international ice surface feeling like they’re much farther ahead on the scoreboard than they actually are. Such a strategy would obviously falter amidst an 82 game NHL season, but the Olympics are a short tournament where Corsi need not apply.
At the last World Championships, the Swiss got hammered 5-1 by host Sweden in the finals, but had made an impressive run before then, beating those same Swedes (minus the Sedins who were in the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the time) in the preliminaries, as well as Canada. They beat the Czechs twice (once in the quarterfinals) and USA in the semis, as they took another step towards joining hockey’s powerhouse nations in respectability. If they keep trending this way, it won’t be long before a nervous Canada tries to poach their hockey program for talent. Oh wait, that’s already happened.
So let’s take a look at the personnel of a team that plays better than the sum of its parts would suggest.
If you’re going to be giving up as many shots as the Swiss will most likely be giving up, you better have a sturdy option in goal, and with Jonas Hiller in net, Switzerland can at least say that there’s one position where they won’t be outmatched against any team on any given night. Hiller is having a fantastic season with the first place Anaheim Ducks, and he’s been the hero on a huge underdog before, leading his Ducks to a five game shocker of an upset against the Presidents’ Trophy winning San Jose Sharks in the 2009 NHL Playoffs.
In an age where every goalie tries to have as much white in their pads as possible, (ever since Marc-André Fleury was advised by an optometrist to do so), Jonas Hiller goes against the grain (and science) by rocking black pads. This has little to with anything, but I think it’s awesome. There is no doubt in my mind that Hiller will be Team Switzerland’s MVP. In case of injury, the Swiss will turn to Reto Berra of the Calgary Flames, while Tobias Stephan is their third option.
Switzerland’s defensive corps has four NHLers. The Nashville Predators’s steady Roman Josi, and the Philadelphia Flyer’s Mark Streit look to make a decent pair that can move the puck. Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber should know each other pretty well, given that they are both Montreal Canadiens castoffs that are now with the Vancouver Canucks. Mathias Seger is the team captain, and once he plays his first game he will have set the record for most appearances on the Swiss national team. According to his Wikipedia page, he was also named to Norway’s roster for these Olympics. Gutsy move, Norway.
At 37 years of age, Seger is one of Swtizerland’s oldest players, along with Streit and forward Martin Plüss. Like Seger, the rest of the Swiss defensemen all play in the top league in Switzerland, and are: Julien Vauclair, Severin Blindenbacher, and Philippe Furrer.
Up front is where Team Switzerland is in dire need of a game breaker, a true star they can rely on to generate offense. Slovenia has Anze Kopitar, Austria has Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner, but Switzerland has yet to produce anyone of that calibre.
They do have Damien Brunner and Nino Neiderreiter, the latter having experience coming through for his country, as he did at the 2010 World Juniors, scoring two goals in a quarterfinal upset of Russia. Here’s a video of his play in that tournament:
While Neiderreter has yet to fully live up to the potential that led him to being a fifth overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, he has some skill that Switzerland will definitely need. Brunner, was a highly sought after undrafted free agent who currently has 17 points with the New Jersey Devils. He’s no game breaker but he’s good.
Simon Moser, who will turn 25 in March, has played a bit with the Nashville Predators and is worth keeping an eye on. Roman Wick, a former Ottawa Senators fifth round pick, scored five points in five games at the last Olympics, and will be counted on to put up similar production this time around. All in all, it’s a group that will most likely score by committee.
When the hockey writers here at LWOS were asked to make our picks, I got a little overzealous and took the bold stance of picking the Swiss as my shocking silver medallists. Eventually I chickened out and gave that spot to the Swedes, but I do believe this is a team that can go farther than most expect. Top six is maybe still stretching it, but this is a short tournament where the unexpected can happen.
At some point the Swiss are going to make the leap from being expected to be a tough opponent to being a tough contender for a medal. It may very well be these Olympics where that happens.
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