Swiss LNA preview 2005/06
At first glance it might be tempted to think that, with all last year's NHL stars gone back to North America, the Swiss elite league might suffer a harsh return to business. However, if it is obvious that such stars as Thornton, Nash or Brière won't be replaced, the teams can now enroll a fifth import instead of four (two have to be from the European Union though). In other words, a coach can now send a complete block of non-Swiss players onto the ice should he deems it necessary.
On an pure economic standpoint, it is a double edged sword : whereas more pressure is being put on the Swiss players salaries, on the other hand this change will increase personal costs. A parallel can be drawn with what is happening in the NHL: there will always be enough money to invest for a premier player, while 'victims' will be the younger and role players.
The arrival of numerous Finns will obviously bring a more European touch for the upcoming matchups and hopefully a more wide open and skating kind of game.
However, is Swiss hockey taking the right direction by offering more room to imports who undoubtfully will take some ice out of young home grown players? Results of late do already bring some answers and do raise some concerns about junior's strength: for the first time since several years, no home players has been drafted by an NHL franchise last summer. Time will show if this proved to be more than a bad omen.
This cultural change will certainly affect SC Bern more deeply than any other squads. Theater man, Finn Alpo Suhonen is back at the helm this year (he replaced Alan Haworth during last season) and brings along two countrymen in his wallet: thirty-year-old forward Kimo Kuhta and defenseman Toni Söderholm, both IFK Helsinki members last winter. It will certainly raise fond memories to older fans when their countrymen Lauri Mononen, Reijo Ruotsalainen and Risto Siltanen were the heroes in the Swiss capital.
Suhonen let go tough power forward Yves Sarault to Geneva and signed Quebec offensive defenseman Pascal Trépanier, DEL's best defenseman with Nurnberg Ice Tigers last season when he scored 54 points. Countryman Eric Perrin is lesser known in Europe, to his credit though the Tampa Bay Lightning summoned him four times in their winner year of 2004. He also spent four seasons in Finland.
Forward Thibault Monnet was signed from county rival Langnau Tigers and should be able to perform better in a more talented environment. He also has to come back from a disappointing season. French Canadian Sébastien Bordeleau has too redeem himself as well and must prove his demeanors wrong. We trust his pride.
Marco Buhrer proved everyone he his the right man between the pipes, especially since he has led the team through difficult times last season, when Bern was fighting for a play-off spot and brought them far once the play-offs were reached and ousted regular season winner Lugano in the first round. A clutch goaltender who definitely assured the succession of legend Renato Tosio.
13000 season tickets have been sold up to now and the full arena capacity has been increased to an attendance of 16789. An NHL-like screen has also been added in the Allmend. Much like the Edmonton vs Montreal heritage game, a similar open air event between old rivals Bern and Langnau could take place in the Swiss capital's brand new soccer stadium. With deep pockets and a deep roster, Bern Bears have to be counted on as a strong title aspirant.
What about Swiss title holder Davos on the eve of this new season? Obviously NHL star players such as Boston's Joe Thornton, Columbus' Rick Nash or Florida's Nikla Hagman never will be replaced. Moreover, forward Laurent Muller leaves the champs to be the first Swiss hockey players to try his luck in Finland. JYP Jyväskylä will be his new squad.
Also on the move is national player, defenseman Beat Forster, leaving for Zurich Lions. His loss will be largely compensated by the arrival of American defenseman and former Oiler Brett Hauer, a more complete player than his predecessor. He left good memories in Geneva and Zug. Incidentally, he is the first import defenseman being signed by the boiling coach Del Curto since Petteri Nummelin back in 1999.
Thus, the unsung hero Joseph Marha will have at least the opportunity to be recognized as a premier player. He scored the decisive goal in overtime last year. Too bad a Selke-like trophy isn't awarded in Switzerland, because the Czech and former Av's player would be a strong candidate. A Guy Carbonneau-like type of player with more gentle manners nevertheless.
American power forward Landon Wilson was an Av's member at the same time as the Czech citizen before being traded to the Bruins, then to the Coyotes and Penguins. He spent last season with the Espoo Blues in Riku Hahl's native Finland, also a former Av. The latter was to be found at Hämeenlinää. Shane Willis will complete them. He played twelve games for the Tampa Bay Lightning in their winner year and it will be a first experience for him overseas.
Despite the loss of their NHL jewels, the Davos squad still possesses the best group of Swiss players with an asset many of their opponents cannot exhibit: their youth. Goaltender Jonas Hiller had a dream season last year, when boosted by confidence he shined in the domestic championship and during the the Spengler cup as well. It will be difficult for him to accomplish a better feat.
Moreover, the running champions will have to battle on several fronts: after the traditional Spengler Cup in late December, they'll participate at the European Cup thereafter. Considering it is a particularly long season with Olympic games, it remains to be seen whether the members of the national team will be able to sustain such a pace without going through slump and stay in shape until season's end.
The Zurich Lions will be glad to bring their show into the renovated Hallenstadion in front of numerous fans, unlike last season where they were confined in the tiny Kebo.
Two key players left the team though: firstly Randy Robitaille, simply the league's best scorer when he tallied 86 points, who goes back to Nashville, and their captain and Swiss' best player Mark Streit who will try his luck with the Montreal Canadiens to grab a spot on defense.
To compensate those heavy losses, the Lions signed three national team members: hopeful rearguard Severin Blindenbacher from local rival Kloten, tough defenseman Beat Forster and Adrian Wichser from Lugano. The latter still has to fully recover from an injury he sustained at the last World Championship in Austria where he was checked from behind into an open door bench by otherwise fair Joseph Stumpel from Slovakia.
Underrated veteran forward Dale Mac Tavish (no relation to Craig), Rapperwil's key player since several seasons is another valuable addition on their side, much like national member Daniel Steiner who left the Langnau Tigers.
Unfortunately, they are already going through roster problems: centers Zeiter and Camenzind are injured for a long period, that's why manager Simon Schenk was trying to convince raw jewel Kevin Romy out of Geneva.It was rumoured that 600'000 francs was the price to pay, but the guy from Chaux-de-fonds opted for rival Lugano instead. This is a blow for Christian Web(er) who will have to spin other links in order to fullfill his wishes.
Luganowas the first team ever to be eliminated in the first round of the play-offs after having dominated the regular season. Coach Larry Huras is already feeling the pressure (but he is already used to it since his stints in Zurich), even if Bern was a hard opponent at that stage.
Veteran Jean-Jacques Aeschlimann quit to land in Lausanne in the NLB, national player defenseman Olivier Keller went to Basle, hard worker Keith Fair called it quit, netminder David Aebischer crossed back the Atlantic to land in Colorado, while Paul DiPietro (who now owns the Swiss citizenship and played for Switzerland last year in Austria) and Mike Maneluk went through the Gothard tunnel northbound to stop at Zug.
To compensate those losses, the 'bianconeri' (the black and white) took members of Fribourg, i.e. Valentin Wirz, Lukas Gerber and Finn Jukka Hentunen who'll be brought together with countrymen Petteri Nummelin and Ville Peltonen.
Besides, the French connection keeps increasing in this Italian speaking part of the country: after Flavien Conne, Sandy Jeannin, Regis Fuchs, Sebastien Reuille and former Ottawa prospect Julien Vauclair, new comes Philadelphia's prospect Kevin Romy (as aforementioned already) who set up for Geneva's first to games before GM Mc Sorley could find the highest bid.
Much is expected from fast forward and former Washington Capitals Glen Metropolit as well. He spent his last two seasons with Jokerit Helsinki. Also awaited in the corner is power forward Ryan Gardner (1m96, 105 kg). Nonetheless, defense and goaltending remain a concern, especially for a title aspirant. A signing of another defensive defenseman wouldn't hurt either.
The Kloten Flyers clearly announce their ambitions for this campaign. Much is expected from Marcel Jenni's return from Färjestad, Sweden, where he spent the last six years. He will wear number ten, the same he had when he began his career with Grasshoppers Zurich.
Another team's asset is undoubtefully to have Czech skilled and fast forward Jaroslav Hlinka again, who is back in town after his stay with Kazan in Tatarstan. Much of the offensive will also rest on the shoulders of Finn returnee Kimmo Rintanen and Canadian Dominic Pittis. Prospect Romano Lemm should go up another step this year and this is also true for Dallas Stars draft pick goalie Tobias Stefan, who already has seen international action since playing for the under 18 national squad only to lose to Kovalchuk's Russia some years ago.
Behind the bench is an old new face, a man who already knows Schluefweg's path well: Anders Eldebrink Kloten's best defenseman of all time and back from his hometown Södertälje where he finished his career. He also played in the 1982 Stanley cup final with the Vancouver Canucks along with countrymen Thomas Gradin and Lars Molin and the late Ivan Hlinka.
His long experience as a defenseman will be needed badly,as the Flyers sorely lacked depth and have a very young corpse in their own end. They have to compensate the loss of Blindenbacher who signed to the bigger and richer neighbourg of Zurich Lions and Deront Quint won't be able to do all by himself. Therefore more will be required from Guignard and Klöti who both will have to stay healthy, which hadn't been the case last season. Much hope will be directed at prospects Philippe Seydoux and team Ramholt to improve the defense' depth.
Zugcould turn out to be the trublion and much is anticipated from Finn imports (Finland is very popular this year with Swiss teams) Timo Pärssinen (IFK Helsinki) and Janne Niskala (Rauma).
Oleg Petrov without help is already feared by defensemen and now it is likely he will provide more spark now that he has former Montreal Canadiens Paul Di Pietro on his side.
Goaltender Lars Weibel still dreams of a comeback in the national team, but his defense lacks some depth after the Barry Richter, Niskala and Fazio. They also lost Voisard to Basle.
This team typically can win against a top team on a good day only to lose against an underdog when nothing works.
Small Ambrì-Piotta also enrolled skilled imports. Nothing original this year, they followed the Finnish path and found Eero Sumervuori at Oulu and Jari Korhonen at Jyväskylä.
Former Houston Aeros Jean-Guy Trudel and Hnat Domenichelli were already filling the nets last season. After his experience with the Bern Bears fell short, Luca Cereda finds his native ticinese region again and hope to rebound after having to undergo a heart operation when he was still wearing the jersey of the Leaf's organisation. He also owns a debt to the fans and the team who supported him through difficult times, because he signed to Bern instead of staying with 'his' team.
21 year old defensive defenseman Felicien Du Bois is steady in his own zone and was one of the last players cut by national coach Krueger for last year's World Championship. He played in all exhibition games. This time however, he will want to earn his ticket for 2006 national olympic squad. 33 year's old Tiziano Gianini will start his sixteen's season at the highest level and his fourteenth in the Leventine valley. The defenseman couldn't score last year and therefore hope to end his drought, even if it isn't his main... goal.
Inexperience in the net is a concern though and neither 23 years old Simon Züger nor 21 years prospect Thomas Bäumle are proven netminders at this level. Hopefully they make us wrong.
Swiss-born forwards aren't that much in the spotlight, eventhough Lars 'Laser' Leuenberger can be electrifying in the offensive zone with his speed, he must show more consistency though. Tall Vjeran Ivankovic looks sometimes uninspired and not always one hundred percent involved, whereas Paolo Imperatori gives his heart and soul for his team. Besides, Benoît Pont remains a shrewd versatile center, very conscious of his defensive duties, while able to put decent numbers in the attack.
The Rapperswil-Jona Lakers have been able to stay at the elite level since more than a decade, thanks to wise investments and not living beyond their needs. This won't change this season for this perennial underrated team.
Cyril Geyer had a dream season in defense in 2004-05 and it didn't escape national coach Krueger's mind who retained him for the World championships in Austria.
However they must endure the loss of veteran Dale Mac Tavish who signed in the 'little big city' of Zurich. Former Bruin Mikko Eloranta broke his leg during training camp and the staff reacted quickly and signed 25-year-old Swede Christian Berglund, who spent last year in his country with Farjestad, after three seasons in the NHL where he played 86 games for the Devils and Panthers. Countryman Mikael Samuelsson also had a short stay there before taking an offer from Detroit late September. Former Red Wing Stacey Roest will give some headaches to opponents, provided he stays healthy.
Bill Gilligan's boys also signed an interesting player: Brady Murray is the son of LA Kings coach Andy Murray (who has been coaching in Switzerland for a long time) and owns the dual American and Swiss citizenship. Incidentally, he has been drafted by the Californian organisation.
Genève-Servetteshow one of the thinnest of the league's payroll (roughly 7 million Swiss francs), however they are willing to climb in the standings This might sound weird but they have a balanced roster despite their lack of depth. This is the courtesy of GM-coach Chris Mc Sorley (Marty's brother) iron's hand who is also owns most of the team's action since Anschutz group retired. 'Big Mac' has recruited players beyond hope. This is the most intimidating roster of the whole league.
Tough Yves Sarault comes from the Bern Bears (many fans are looking forward to the next matchup with his former team), while world champion Jan Hlavac left Sparta Prague to sign in favour of Calvin's city. Yanick Lehoux also signed there and played a couple of games but he has since been sold to Basle. Jason Krog who failed to make the roster in Colorado's training camp has landed to replace him. Power forward and former Jet and Sabre Mikael Grosek, when healthy and not sitting in the sin bin, remains a important factor. Besides he has played for the Czech national team again during the Euro Hockey tour in September.
Former NHLer and Swede national player Andreas Johansson hasn't been at one hundred per cent yet after a shoulder injury, but once healthy he'll turn out to be one of the key elements of the squad. He'll also wear the 'c' on his chest. French born player Yorick Treille will also be given a chance and it's up to him to seize the opportunity. This won't harm, especially since French best player of all time Philippe Bozon has retired this summer and prospect Kevin Romy was sold to Lugano a month ago.
In addition to six imports, Geneva counts several players owning dual citizenship on its roster. 42 year's old rearguard Valeri Chiraiev played for the former Soviet union together with Fetisov on the first unit during the 1989 world championship and had Makarov, Larionov and Krutov in front of him. After the split of the country the Kiev skater captained the Ukrainian national team for several years. Another veteran in the lineup is Igor Fedulov who played for the Russian national team in the nineties(a.o. in the 94 World Championship), but doesn't count as an import anymore. He first arrived at Ambri from Traktor Tcheliabinsk more than a decade ago.
Mike Knoepfli, whose father has origins from the Luzern area, comes from Cornell (NCAA). Tough rearguard Wes Snell brings a North American style at the blue line and former Rimouski Oceanic Jan Cadieux is the son of Paul-Andre, one of the most famous imports Swiss hockey ever brought in both as a player and as a coach. The man who came from Ottawa in the late sixties is now behind the bench at Chaux-de-fonds in the NLB, always carrying the same contagious passion for his profession.
Prospect and hometown boy Yvan Benoit has found himself in the coach's doghouse and his status is unclear, unlike Paul Savary and 17 year old hopeful from small town of Saint Imier Gaetan Augsburger who had the opportunity to shine in preseason exhibition games.
The fact that soon to be 38 year old netminder Reto Pavoni will start his twentieth season at the highest level always with the same enthusiasm is of course very valuable for Mc Sorley's boys but what will happen, should he get injured? Because the French-speaking-based team doesn't possess an experienced backup. Another cause for concern with several veterans filling the ranks are the injuries and, by playing physical, Sarault, Grosek and co are more prone for to pay a visit to the medical staff in addition to the penalty box.
Kevin Romy's departure is a hard blow and maybe Bobby Clarke would have appreciated his 2003 prospect could have stayed in a team playing a physical game.
The Langnau Tigers used thirteen imports last year and by doing so they broke the Swiss record. However there is no reason of being proud of that feat. It rather shows a lack of orientation by management much to the disgust of their trustful fans. They had to go through the play-out to confirm their stay at in the league. This tradition club lost some of its soul compared to the unforgettable champion team of 1976 when most of the players were born and raised in the club (think about Schenk, Berger, Horisberger, goaltender Grubauer or the Wutrich or Lehmann brothers).
Young Bruno Aegerter replaced Jim Koleff at the helm, but he will have to do without last year's best performer Daniel Steiner, who opted for Zurich, and Jeff Shantz who crossed the Rhein to sign with Mannheim in Germany. Mikael Liniger is back in town after a stay at Ambri and perhaps he will be the leader the team so badly needs.
Swede Oscar Ackerstrom, a former Vancouver Canuck prospect, also comes from Ambri and hope to show what he is able to, now that he has recovered from nagging injuries. Finn Marko Tuomainen left Lausanne after the team's poor showing last winter (which saw them finish last) and he will be expected to provide offensive spark. He will receive much needed help from center Cory Larose, who turned out to be Chicago Wolves second leading scorer in the AHL in 2004-05, behind NHLer J.P. Vigier.
Loic Burkhalter will have pressure on his shoulder and comes back from a disappointing season where he only scored 9 goals in 44 games. He must redeem himself and this is also true for his winger, Ukrainian born Vitali Lakhmatov.
Fribourg-Gottéron(Gotteron is the name of Fribourg's most famous brook) had a strong outing during the exhibition games which saw them beat Czech champion HC Moeller Pardubice and European champion Avangard Omsk... but this was in August.
Last winter, they saved their spot in the 'A' league thanks a victory in a best-of-seven play-out serie agains rival Lausanne. They face a difficult season and there won't be another opponent as complacent as Lausanne to escape a place near the bottom.
There is an old saying in hockey which pretends that you start building a team with goaltending. Fribourg thought they grabbed a reliable goaltender in Gianluca Mona. However he has been too inconsistent too often. He didn't receive much help from his defensemen though.More is expected from Slovak offensive defenseman Richard Lintner, who will be given another chance to break through. He will receive help from Cory Murphy who spent the last couple of years with Ilves Tampere in Finland.
Canadian countrymen Frank Banham (Laapeerenta) and 1996 Vancouver first round draft pick Josh Holden will carry most of the burden in the attack, along with big Finn Hannes Hyvönen, who is being said to possess Europe's hardest shot.
However, there are consequent losses, as former national team player and one of the best Swiss forward of the last decade Patrik Howald retired and Lukas Gerber, Valentin Wirz and Jukka Hentunen left for more lucrative offers from Lugano. Moreover, Thomas Rhodin returned to Sweden and will lace his skates with Farjestad, Mark Mower will try his luck in the deep Detroit organisation and defensive center Bernhard Schumperli rejoined Lausanne at the lower level.
Minnesota Wild draftee Julien Sprunger is perhaps playing his last season in the Saint Leonard rink, which isn't certain yet for veteran Gil Montandon (born 1965). Former Neuchâtel Young Sprinter midget (it was still at the time of the open air ice rink of Monruz and its rotten wooden board) won't bring new blood (he says not without irony being nearer from retirement than from a call for the junior national team) but plenty of experience, leadership, enthusiasm and hopefully many goals.
Hard to predict what will happened in the Zahringen city, some time will be required to find some chemistry in a team comprising so many newcomers. However, a good start would be much desired in order to work with some serenity. But that remains to be seen.
HC Baslehas remained an unnoticed entity in the 'lakerli' city so far, much because the soccer team is the talk of the town and draws most of the sponsors and catches the media attention. Former Winnipeg Jet Kent Ruhnke works in anonymity since he took place behin the bench in the Sankt Jakob arena. He has been able to build a solid hard working team around. The newly promoted team doesn't play a fancy game, rather a very effective style of play which allows them to take the opponent out of their game. This tactic could also bear fruit at the Swiss elite level this winter, especially since the Canadian coach has already had a lot of success in the past with other teams, Bern being the latest.
Up front, the city boarding both France and Germany will rely mostly on its imports, namely unselfish Swede Niklas Anger (last year 'B' league's best scorer and dominating with HC Sierre). 26 year old Newfoundland native Harold Druken will experience a first stay in Europe after his promising start in the NHL was hampered by an ankle injury in 2001-02. The Vancouver Canucks then traded him together with Czech Jan Hlavac (now with Geneva) to the Carolina Hurricanes before being claimed by Toronto in the waiver draft. He can play both center or winger and he'll receive supply from French Canadian Éric Landry, a former Habs, who spent the last year in Lausanne.
Former Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL) but Swiss citizen Daniel Manzato will stand between the pipes and his backup will be former Zug netminder Patrick Schöpf.
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