Switzerland is not one of the traditional international hockey powers.
While the nation has produced occasional NHL players, it does not rank with Scandinavian powers Sweden and Finland and doesn't compare with strong Eastern European powerhouses like Russia, the Czech Republic or Slovakia.
But the Swiss do play a solid brand of hockey, and when they compete in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, they will find themselves in a very reasonable Pool C that includes the Czech Republic, Sweden and Latvia.
Let's take a look at a roster projection for Switzerland, predict the best lines/pairings and determine where it will finish in Sochi.
Here's the preliminary roster for Team Switzerland, according to NHL.com:
Goaltenders: Reto Berra, Benjamin Conz, Lukas Flueler, Martin Gerber, Jonas Hiller, Tobias Stephan
Defensemen: Goran Bezina, Severin Blindenbacher, Eric Blum, Alessandro Chiesa, Rafael Diaz, Felicien Du Bois, Philippe Furrer, Robin Grossman, Roman Josi, Romain Loeffel, Tim Ramholt, Luca Sbisa, Mathias Seger, Mark Streit, Julien Vauclair, Patrick Von Gunten, Yannick Weber
Forwards: Andres Ambuhl, Sven Baertschi, Matthias Bieber, Simon Bodenmann, Damien Brunner, Dario Burgler, Luca Cunti, Ryan Gardner, Denis Hollenstein, Thibaut Monnet, Simon Moser, Nino Niederreiter, Inti Pestoni, Benjamin Pluss, Kevin Romy, Ivo Ruthemann, Gregory Sciaroni, Juraj Simek, Julien Sprunger, Victor Stancescu, Reto Suri, Morris Trachsler, Julien Walker, Roman Wick
Switzerland has been an emerging hockey nation long enough that there will be strong competition to make the 25-man Olympic roster. Here are the toughest roster cuts that head coach Sean Simpson and the Swiss Olympic Committee will have to make prior to the start of competition.
Benjamin Conz, Goalie
Conz appears to be a legitimate No. 1 goalie prospect for Switzerland at the 2018 Olympic, but it is going to be difficult for the 21-year-old to beat out Jonas Hiller, Martin Gerber and Reto Berra. The third goalie spot is likely to come down to a battle between Conz and Berra, and the Swiss will agonize before giving it to Berra. Conz had a 2.24 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage for his Swiss-A League team last year.
Roman Wick, Forward
Wick is a good but not great forward who has been given adequate opportunity to become a star. He is not at that level but has become a decent role player. The Swiss may decide they need more than a forward who scored 15 goals for Zurich in the Swiss-A League last year. Wick played seven games for the Ottawa Senators in 2010-11 and did not score a point.
Severin Blindenbacher, Defenseman
Perhaps the other nations should take a cue from the Swiss because they use four defensive pairings instead of the standard three. Blindenbacher will compete hard for the No. 8 or 9 defense spot on the roster, but it appears to be a losing battle. He scored eight points in 35 games for Zurich in the Swiss-A League and was plus-three. He's a decent player but not special by any means.
Here's a look at my final 25-man roster for the Swiss Olympic hockey team:
Goaltenders: Jonas Hiller, Martin Geber, Reto Berra
Defensemen: Roman Josi, Rafael Diaz, Mark Streit, Luca Sbisa, Yannick Weber, Goran Bezina, Mathias Seger, Julien Vauclair, Patrick Von Gunten
Forwards: Sven Baertschi, Andres Ambuhl, Damien Brunner, Nino Niederreiter, Benjamin Pluss, Reto Suri, Luca Cunti, Denis Hollensteien, Julien Walker, Kevin Romy, Simon Moser, Julien Sprunger
Projected Starter: Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks
Hiller is one of the most dependable assets on the Swiss team. He has been a solid NHL goaltender for the last five seasons.
Hiller had a 2.36 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage in 2013. Hiller's strength is his ability to position himself well and cut off the shooter's angle. When he is on his game, opponents are looking at postage stamp-sized openings. When he has problems, it's usually because he gets beaten upstairs.
Projected Backups: Martin Gerber, Kloten; Reto Berra, Calgary
Gerber gives the Swiss an experienced backup who has played with five NHL teams. He is a solid but not spectacular goalie who makes up for knowledge and anticipation what he lacks in overall talent. Berra is a longtime Swiss-A League veteran who had a 3.01 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage last year.
Projected Defensive Pairings
|1||Roman Josi||Rafael Diaz|
|2||Mark Streit||Luca Sbisa|
The Swiss coaching staff is going to depend on its defense to keep the team in the tournament and possibly steal a game or two against opponents who have far more offensive talent than the Swiss. That's the only way they are going to survive and advance.
With five legitimate NHL defensemen, this team is capable of playing low-scoring games and taking advantage of mistakes. Roman Josi is a solid defenseman who can play the body. Rafael Diaz is experienced and clever. Mark Streit is a solid puck-carrier who is not going to make mistakes because he can read the play and make the correct pass. Goran Bezina, Luca Sbisa and Yannick Weber are adequate.
Since the Swiss are likely to go with nine defenseman, look for Mathias Seger and Julien Vauclair to get significant playing time as well.
Sven Baertschi of the Calgary Flames should be a key contributor for Switzerland.
Projected Forward Lines
|1||Sven Baertschi||Andres Ambuhl||Damien Brunner|
|2||Nino Niederreiter||Benjamin Pluss||Reto Suri|
|3||Luca Cunti||Denis Hollensteien||Julien Walker|
|4||Kevin Romy||Simon Moser||Julien Sprunger|
The Swiss team does not have the firepower that comes with a lot of well-known NHL names up front, but that does not mean they are not skilled players.
Brunner is a speedster who can make his own plays and get to the front of the net. He scored a big playoff overtime goal for the Detroit Red Wings last year. Niederreiter is another speedster, but he has largely been a disappointment. Baertschi has all the tools to become a future NHL star.
Mark Streit, Defenseman
Streit may be the best all-around defenseman on the team. He anchored the New York Islanders defense last year and played a key role in their postseason run. He can carry the puck out of his own zone and make the proper pass to his teammates. He has an excellent shot and understands his defensive responsibilities. He has seven years of NHL experience, so his teammates will look to him for leadership.
Damien Brunner, Forward
The Swiss Olympic team is going to have a difficult time matching the firepower of the established hockey powers like Canada, Sweden, the United States and Russia. They are going to need a strong showing from Brunner, who has shown an opportunistic attitude when it comes to scoring goals. Brunner had 12 goals and 14 assists in 44 games last year for Detroit, and he is not afraid to go into the dirty areas to make plays.
Jonas Hiller, Goalie
When Hiller is at his best, he is capable of shutting down the best teams because he understands what opposing shooters are looking for and he knows how to cut down the angle as well as anyone. He moves well in the net and has the ability to make opposing shooters think twice instead of playing instinctively. If he can make that happen in the Olympics, the Swiss team has a chance to make some noise.
Goaltending: Switzerland is going to to have to depend on Jonas Hiller to make key saves every game. The Swiss are good enough that they should not have to face an onslaught of shots each night and force Hiller to make 50 saves or more. However, they are bound to give up several excellent scoring opportunities, so Hiller is going to have to be at his best if the Swiss are going to compete for 60 minutes each game. Hiller had an excellent run in the 2010 Olympics with a 2.47 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.
Defensive Talent: The Swiss have more NHL players on the blue line than they do at any other position. Mark Streit, Yannick Weber, Roman Josi, Luca Sbisa and Raphael Diaz should be able to hold their own against most of the gifted forwards they will oppose.
Scoring Issues: Despite the presence of a future star like Sven Baertschi and an opportunistic scorer like Damien Brunner, the Swiss are going to have a hard time coming up with goals in the Olympic tournament. This is going to put incredible pressure on the defense and goaltending and make it very difficult to advance.
Lack of Depth: Even if their best players are able to hold their own, the Swiss don't have the depth to compete the Czech Republic and Sweden. If they managed to survive, they would be completely up against it vs. Canada, the United States and Russia.
The Swiss Olympic hockey team opens up the competition with a match against Latvia Feb. 12. Expect them to come away with a victory in that game.
They should be at their best against the Czech Republic and Sweden, but don't expect them to beat either team. In the 2010 Olympics, the Swiss were not respected. However, they shocked the international hockey world by getting into the qualification round and beating Belarus 3-2. They ultimately dropped a 2-0 decision to the United States in the quarterfinals, but they showed they were no longer pushovers.
As a result, they are not going to be able to sneak up on Sweden and the Czech Republic. Both of those teams can't afford to have any slip-ups if they are going to medal, so they will come with their best effort against Switzerland.
Prediction: The Swiss simply have too many holes to compete with the big boys, and they will go out after the preliminary round with a 1-2 record.