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RULE THE ROOST

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Even before the medal ceremony at this year's World Championship in Russia, our columnist Thomas Roost provides you with ten general observations about international hockey plus five Swiss-specific comments. 

Photo  Thomas Roost

I write this résumé before the semi-finals. I guess all four semi-finalists performed pretty well, so there is no need to wait for some more observations until the very end. I will look at some overall tendencies but will also have some specific comments on team Switzerland.

What did this World Championship show us?

1. Except for Russia, the top nations didn’t show up with high-end rosters. Too many potential player-additions were missing and the World Cup of Hockey next September is probably a reason for that.

2. Although most top-nations did show up with B- or even C-rosters (Sweden), all of these top nation-teams managed more or less easily to qualify for the quarterfinals. When I look a bit deeper – means at the probable and not only at the real results in all these games - and I also take into consideration the latest U20- and U18-developments - I come to the conclusion that the gap between the top-six nations and the growing next group (rankings 7-14) widened up again. Not very long ago the teams ranked 4-6 were not that far away from this group but now I notice that the best teams of the 7-14 group are more or less stagnating in their attempts to improve further.

3. On the very top, I start to notice a growing “traffic jam.” Times are long gone when Canada and Russia were ahead of everybody. Sweden and the US improved significantly in the past 10 years and if they all can bring their best players to a tourney – e.g. the September 2016 World Cup – it’s impossible now to make out a favorite when they play each other.

4. But stop, not so fast, I see even more traffic at the very top: Finland gained significant ground to these top 4 nations, in 2016 they are U20- and U18-World Champions plus now, one of the semi-finalists in the senior World Championship. The improvement of Finnish hockey from an already high-level to top-level is indeed impressive! I also notice some rebound-signs in Czechian hockey. They are not on the Finnish level quite yet in terms of player development, but after some painful years, it seems to go into the right direction again in this traditional hockey powerhouse-country.

5. Some extremely young guns impressed a lot in this World Championship. The epic duel between the two 18-year-olds Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine was one of the highlights, plus, we could witness the unbelievable puck-carrying speed of Connor McDavid and the great potential of Noah Hanifin, Nikolaj Ehlers, Leon Draisaitl, Sebastian Aho, Dylan Larkin, Sasha Barkov, and David Pastrnak, just to name a few. This World Championship was a showcase of the next wave of high-end hockey players, future NHL-stars, and superstars.

6. I couldn’t see a really new trend in terms of game plans, strategies, systems, and so on. I feel that the NHL is still the trendsetter in hockey and there we have the Tampa Bay Lightning – as I already mentioned in an earlier column - with the tendency to stay away from typical scoring and checking lines and stay away of one-dimensional offensive or defensive defensemen. In the future, one needs to have skilled, fast, mobile, gritty top players in all four units in offense and defense.

7. Coming back to the World Championship: I did witness some great goaltending here and there in certain games, but maybe not a real high-end goaltender, although the Finnish duo was very solid and Czechian late bloomer with a lion-heart, Dominik Furch, confirms once more that goalies can also develop at an older age. Furch appeared more or less out of the blue one or two years ago and now he is probably on the NHL-radar.

8. Russia, the “Big Red and sometimes moody Machine”. This “Red Machine” confirmed that if the machine is amused it’s simply a great pleasure to watch it play. Tic-tac-toe – moves, dekes, puck-control and this at high-speed and under constant pressure from not that weak opponents. The beauty of the game of hockey! Respect!

9. The US showed up with a very young squad, younger than 23 years old on average and still quite competitive. They do a lot of things the right way in their NTDP development program…

10. The chasing middle of the pack group of nations is growing. Not long ago, it was Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany, and Latvia. Nowadays, we also have Denmark, Norway and Belarus and also the relegated nations never go home empty handed (Hungary won their first game in the top division, Kazakhstan beat SUI and last year, Austria got relegated although they won five points altogether). So, not only the group of nations at the very top is growing, but also the group of followers… but as I told before: In my opinion, the gap between these two groups widened up again, at least a bit. 

What about Switzerland?

1. Switzerland performed more or less as expected. Maybe the one or the other additional point would have been possible, but also fewer points and the danger of relegation were not that far away.

2. It looks like the silver medal in 2013 was full of poison because it raised expectations to unrealistic heights and this unnecessary pressure still haunts us.

3. Swiss hockey is in a stagnation phase and finds itself in the middle of the pack group ranked 7-12. And when I look into the future and analyze our U20- and U18-teams, there is no reason to assume that there is much improvement on the horizon. With the players we have, it’s naive to expect more than a 50% chance of a quarter-final-qualification- in the near future. (None of our players in this WC was younger than 23…). Just look at the results of the past five or ten years and accept where our hockey is really ranked. Dreaming is allowed but I guess it will cause more nightmares sweet-dreams…

4. This World Championship also confirmed that there is a quite significant gap regarding quality between our NHL and NLA players. I guess some people indeed overrate the quality of our league because it’s a high entertaining league. However, when we look at the performances of our best NLA players here at this World Championship, we have to admit that all of them are far away from being considered a WC all-star. However, the performances of Nino Niederreiter and Sven Andrighetto made me very happy! Swiss hockey is not bad at all and we have some decent and even a handful of good players, but we have to be confident enough to judge us realistically and not getting trapped with cheap positive thinking-rhetoric. Unrealistic positive thinking is as bad and dangerous as negative thinking. Focused thinking is what we need.

5. Our common focus, energy, and brainpower should be channeled into producing more and better players. But sad enough, for such an act of solidarity and collaboration, our “suffering” is not big enough yet. This means we are still talking way too much about coaches and players who should have played or should not have played etc. Of course, all these details are very important as well, but rest assured: A concentrated, critical, transparent, open-minded and passionate round-table discussion of all Swiss “hockey-brains” with the target to take national actions to further improve our player-development and to raise the number of kids who want to play hockey would be more fruitful. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Thomas Roost (@thomasroost) was born in 1960 and lives in Horgen, Zurich. Since 1995 he has been working as NHL-scout for Central-Scouting Europe, since 2010 also as scout for EHC Biel in the National League A.

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