Bernhard Starkbaum is likely to do the bulk of the hard work this year. The 33-year-old was the main man last year and his back for his 10th World Championship campaign. The Vienna Capitals goalie stopped 91.8% of the shots he faced last time and got the shut-out in Austria’s victory over Belarus to preserve the team’s top flight status. David Kickert is back as well, looking to add to his solitary taste of World Championship action last season. Lukas Herzog of Salzburg completes the goaltending trio; the 26-year-old gets his first call-up for a World Championship. He replaces David Madlener.
The Austrian blue line is patrolled exclusively by home-based players. One name that stands out is Steven Strong, son of one-time Leafs hopeful Ken Strong. Strong Snr headed to Austria after failing to break the NHL and went on to represent his adopted nation at the 1994 Olympics; Steven was brought into the national team when Roger Bader took over as head coach, but injury robbed him of the chance to make an impact in Denmark. Two 23-year-olds are poised for World Championship debuts: Philipp Lindner has just moved from Innsbruck to Graz in the EBEL, Raphael Wolf divided his time between the EBEL and the Alps Hockey League last season.
Michael Raffl is the sole NHLer on the team. Last season he flew in after the Flyers came out of the play-offs and had four goals and one assist in five games, including one in that crucial 4-0 victory over Belarus. This year, he’s here from the start – a big boost for the team. Konstantin Komarek also had 5 (2+3) points in the tournament and he arrives in Slovakia on the back of his best ever season in the Swedish League. Komarek had 39 points in 49 games for Malmo Redhawks in his third SHL campaign.
New faces this year include youngster Benjamin Baumgartner. The 19-year-old spent last season with Davos in Switzerland and has worked his way up through U18 and U20 World Championship action to be in line for his senior debut here.
However, with the likes of Grabner and Vanek unavailable, scoring is likely to be a challenge once again.
Roger Bader continues behind the bench. The Swiss-born coach has been part of the Austrian national program since 2014/15 and took on the role of head coach of the senior team at Division IA in 2017. With a roster that closely resembles last year’s, his main task is managing expectations and banishing any complacency that might have come from the success in Copenhagen.
“I always tell the players, ‘We aren’t one class better than we were last year just because we stayed up,’ so we have to go and prove ourselves again, which won’t be easy. We know that,” he said.
According to Bader, Austria still has it all to prove despite last year’s successful survival mission. The coach rates his team as the underdog in six of its seven games and anticipates a 50-50 battle with newly-promoted Italy in a likely relegation showdown on April 20. It’s hard to disagree with that assessment, although Bader insists that his team can cause an upset or two along the way to pick up extra points and go into the Italy game in a stronger position.