Day: May 19, 2021

Silver… or bust?

Swiss forward Nico Hischier is among the top young players in the NHL

By Andrew Podnieks – IIHF.com

The Swiss have made it to the gold medal game twice since 2013, more times than all other nations except Canada, Finland, Russia, and Sweden. These successes have been the result of greater and more skilled player development, and suggest perhaps the start of a new era in Swiss hockey when getting to the quarter-finals is no longer seen as a success but as the starting point to playing on the final weekend of the World Championship more regularly.

Goal

The Swiss will be led by Reto Berra and Leonardo Genoni. 34-year-old veteran Berra played the U18 in 2005, his first of many tournaments over the next 15 years, notably the 2014 Olympics. He was also on both silver-medal teams at the World Championships (2013, 2018), and this will be his 8th World Championship. 

Genoni led Zug to the Swiss championship a few weeks ago. He also was a teammate of Berra at the 2005 U18 as well as at the 2018 Worlds. He will be appearing in his 7th World Championship. The third goalie is Melvin Nyffeler, a 27-year-old who is making his debut at the senior level for the Swiss.

Defence

The 35-year-old Raphael Diaz will be back for his 8th World Championship. He captained the last three tournaments, as well as the 2018 Olympic team. Alongside him will be a nice blend of youth and veteran talent. At the top end will be four players from the 2018 silver-medal team, notably Michael Fora, Lukas Frick, Mirco Muller, and Ramon Untersander. Romain Loeffel is playing in his fourth WM since 2015. 

Relative newcomers include Janis Moser, who at 20 is the youngest player on the team, as well as 21-year-old Tobias Greisser. Jonas Siegenthaler, who played three U18s and three U20s, is making his debut at the senior level. Santeri Alatalo is the year’s feel-good story. The 31-year-old has played for Zug for years but is only now representing his adopted country at an IIHF event for the first time after gaining Swiss citizenship. 

Forwards

Andres Ambuhl joins record-setting company this year as he dresses for his 16th World Championship. He ties countryman Mathias Seger for the most top-level World Championship tournaments of all time, and at 37 he still has a bit of time to improve on that. He has also played in four Olympics, won silver at the 2013 Worlds, and captained the 2016 team. 

Joining him will be three of the best young players in the NHL, starting with New Jersey’s Nico Hischier. Drafted 1st overall by the Devils in 2017, he became one of the youngest captains in NHL history when he was given the “C” this past February at age 22. 

Also accepting an invitation is Philipp Kurashev from the Chicago Blackhawks. The 21-year-old started the season in Lugano before joining the Hawks and making his NHL debut in January. And the third NHLer who has developed by leaps and bounds in San Jose is Timo Meier. The 24-year-old has been one of the Sharks’ top forwards the last few years for both his scoring and two-way play. 

Three late bloomers who have become top members of the Swiss national team later in their careers are Tristan Scherwey, Joel Vermin, and Samuel Walser, and other veteran include Sven Andrighetto and Gregory Hofmann, who scored two goals for Zug a couple of weeks ago to secure the team’s first league championship in 23 years. 

Dario Simion will be making his senior debut after a successful junior career in which he made two U18 appearances and three more at the World Juniors.  Alessio Bertaggia, 27, and Killian Mottet, 30, will also be making their belated debuts. Enzo Corvi, who finished fourth in scoring this past season in Switzerland, just behind Andrighetto, will also be in the lineup.

Head Coach

The 45-year-old Patrick Fischer is now in his fifth consecutive World Championship. He was also behind the bench for the 2018 Olympics and took the team to the gold medal game of the 2018 Worlds. He is the first Swiss coach in more than a quarter century and has taken the team to the quarter-finals in three of the previous four years. 

Projected Results

This is a formidable Swiss lineup. Take them lightly at your own risk. Given the level of commitment from the team’s best players, this is a group that would be disappointed if it didn’t at least qualify for the playoff round. After that, who knows, but a podium finish would not be out of the question or too much to expect.

Kazakhs return after five-year gap

Nikita Mikhailis, the head coach’s son, was among the key players in leading Kazakhstan to promotion

By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

There’s good news and bad news for Kazakhstan. The Eagles are back in the top division for the first time since 2016 and, in the absence of relegation this year, are certain to remain among the elite for the first time since its 2004-2006 run. However, the team’s preparations were disrupted when a member of the party tested positive for COVID after a warm-up game against Belarus, and Yuri Mikhailis’ roster has been hit by the withdrawals of forward Nigel Dawes and goalie Henrik Karlsson. While two prominent dual-nationals sit it out this year, the class of 2021 features several new faces, prompting hopes that the Central Asian country might be looking at a positive handover to a new generation.

Goalies

Henrik Karlsson, Kazakhstan’s naturalized Swedish goalie, is unavailable for this year’s tournament. The 37-year-old was unable to agree an extension after five seasons with Barys Nur-Sultan in the KHL and does not wish to risk injury while he looks for a new contract elsewhere. Sergei Kudryavtsev, often Karlsson’s understudy for club and country, played just five games in 2020/21 and is not expected to be involved in Riga. No other Kazakh-eligible goalie featured in the KHL this term, so the door is open for the goaltending prospects learning their trade in Kazakhstan’s Pro Hokei Ligasy. Nikita Boyarkin, 22, recently backstopped Saryarka to that championship and got the nod for Kazakhstan’s warm-up game against Belarus on May 13. He did his hopes no harm with a shut-out in a 2-0 victory.

Andrei Shutov (Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk) and Demid Yeremeyev (Temirtau) complete the goaltending line-up. Both are youngsters preparing for their first major international tournaments as adults.

Defence

The contribution of several of Kazakhstan’s dual-nationals may be a matter for debate, but the performances of Darren Dietz are universally welcomed. Dietz, an Alberta native, joined Barys in 2017 with the unenviable task of filling Kevin Dallman’s skates. And the 27-year-old has delivered in fine style. A leader on and off the ice for club and country, he has also won favour with local fans for his willingness to engage with local culture, reciting Pushkin – in Russian – at the 2020 KHL All-Star Game and referencing the great Kazakh writer Abai during last year’s anniversary celebrations. At times, he can be poetry in motion on the ice as well, with an impressive record of 141 (50+91) points in 213 KHL games, plus 10 (3+7) in eight competitive games for the national team.

Dietz is joined by two other imports, Jesse Blacker and Viktor Svedberg. Blacker debuted for Kazakhstan in Olympic qualification in Feb. 2020, while former Chicago Blackhawk Svedberg is poised to make his first appearances for Kazakhstan this month. Previously the Gothenburg native played 10 exhibition games for Sweden but has since transferred his sporting citizenship.

There are no survivors from the 2016 roster this time as Kazakhstan looks to promote a new generation of players. Among the home-grown talent on display, there is excitement about Valeri Orekhov, a 21-year-old who has already established himself on the Barys roster in the KHL. Samat Daniyar, 22, makes his senior international debut after securing himself a place in the KHL, while 25-year-old Ivan Stepanenko of Beibarys is the only representative from the Pro Ligasy on the blue line.

Forwards

Nikita Mikhailis, son of head coach Yuri, isn’t in the team just because Dad says so. Two years ago, the 25-year-old led the scoring as Kazakhstan won Division IA gold on home ice. Mikhailis potted 6 (4+2) points in five games there. He also cleared 30 points in his last three seasons with Barys, despite competing for ice time with the team’s imports. He’ll be expected to lead the offence in Riga, along with Kirill Panyukov, a 23-year-old who caught the eye in the recent KHL play-offs. The Astana-born left winger scored 7 (4+3) in six post season outings, reminding everyone of the potential that saw him captain Kazakhstan’s juniors in 2017 and earning himself a recall to the national team plus a move to KHL powerhouse Ak Bars Kazan.

Panyukov isn’t the only Kazakh forward heading to a big Russian club. Dmitri Shevchenko is set to join Gagarin Cup winner Avangard after four seasons with Barys. The 25-year-old centre isn’t a prolific scorer, but his physical presence – 195 cm, 101 kg – make him a formidable opponent on both sides of the puck.

In the past, Kazakhstan has called on several dual-national forwards – Dawes, most prominently, but also the likes of Brandon Bochenski and Dustin Boyd. This year, however, Curtis Valk is the only import on the forward line. The 28-year-old, whose solitary NHL appearance came for the Florida Panthers in 2017/18, made his international debut in last year’s Olympic Qualifying tournament and recently signed up for a fourth season with Barys.

Three players return from the previous team to represent Kazakhstan at this level: Roman Starchenko, Yevgeni Rymarev and Alexander Shin all played in Moscow in 2016. The latter is one of four players from Pro Ligasy to be in contention, along with Sayan Daniyar (Nomad Nur-Sultan), Artyom Likhotnikov and Kirill Savitski (both Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk).

Coaching

Yuri Mikhailis takes charge of his country’s team for the first time at these championships. The 52-year-old spent most of his playing career on the blue line in his home town of Karaganda and had four seasons in the Russian top flight immediately after the break-up of the USSR. His coaching career began in 2007 with Barys-2 and he has worked almost exclusively within the Barys organisation since then. Mikhailis’ first international experience came in 2010 when he was an assistant coach for the U18s Division I campaign and he has since contributed at all levels, including the Asian Winter Games and the Universiade.

In 2014, Mikhailis was named head coach of Nomad Astana, the Barys farm club, and he led the team to the Kazakh title in 2017. This season was his first behind the bench in the KHL with Barys, where he led the team to the play-offs despite struggling with strict COVID restrictions in Kazakhstan and playing almost the entire season without spectators. Mikhailis admitted that stepping up to coach in the KHL and at international level represented a significant learning curve, but hopes that his team can make an impact in Riga.

“At one of our early meetings, I told the players that the national team won’t face the same pressure as usual,” he said in an interview with KHL.ru. “That’s liberating, and when we have the right to make mistakes, that can play into our hands. In every other season that Kazakhstan played in the elite division, there was always this big task to halt the elevator and preserve our status. Of course, that piled on the pressure, the guys often got nervous and risked burning out in some games. Now, though, everyone is preparing in a good mood, everyone is getting into shape and looking forward to it.”

Prospects

Although Kazakhstan’s Minister of Sport and Culture, Aktoty Raimkulova, believes that Kazakhstan has every chance of following its promotion in 2019 by making the playoffs in Riga, few others share that optimism. An elevator team since 2006, the Kazakhs will be hoping that this season, in the absence of relegation, they can start to build a team capable of establishing itself in the top division for an extended period. Outperforming Italy will be regarded as a minimum target this time around, while signs of success against the likes of Norway, Latvia or Germany would be evidence of genuine progress.