ZURICH – With more than a century of international ice hockey history and one of Europe’s best professional leagues, Switzerland has one of the hockey world’s most deeply rooted hockey traditions.
Nevertheless, it was not until recently that the Swiss national team became a credible threat to defeat the world’s top hockey nations in any given major international match. Likewise, it has not been until after the dawn of the millennium for Swiss-born players to gain widespread respect as viable recruits for the National Hockey League and other top circuits.
All along, there have occasionally been Swiss players who caught attention from the NHL and its scouting community. However, such players came along infrequently until recent years.
Moreover, the general lack of North American success of past Swiss talents – especially forwards – drafted and signed and signed by National Hockey League clubs led to players such as Michel Riesen (chosen 14th overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1997 NHL Draft), Luca Cereda (selected 24th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1999) and Reto Von Arx (taken in 9th round by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2000) to be pinned with the punning sobriquet “Swiss Miss”.
As recently as the early 2000s, there was a widespread belief among NHL scouting departments that, for the most part, even the most skilled Swiss players were generally a little too comfortable playing in the domestic National League A and lacked the ambition to work their way up to the NHL.
Slowly but surely, these longstanding beliefs started to be challenged and the walls started to come down as Swiss players achieved success overseas in the NHL. First it was Swiss goalies such as David Aebischer, Martin Gerber and Jonas Hiller. Next came a string of Swiss puck-moving defencemen who have become regular starters on their NHL teams, including the likes of Mark Streit, Raphael Diaz, Luca Sbisa and, most recently Roman Josi.
The final NHL frontier: Swiss forwards. The NHL goal-scoring success of late-blooming Damien Brunner – first with the Detroit Red Wings and now the New Jersey Devils – has begun to blaze a new trail. First, in 2011/2012, Brunner became the first native Swiss in 26 years to lead the domestic league in scoring. The next year, he established himself as a bona fide NHL scoring threat after being signed by the Detroit Red Wings. Brunner has carried that success over to New Jersey in the early part of the 2013/2014 regular season.
In the meantime, the Swiss national team opened the eyes of the entire hockey world by winning the silver medal and carrying an undefeated record into the final game of the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. As the old saying goes, nothing succeeds like success. Scouting departments throughout the NHL and hockey world at large have realized that today’s pool of Swiss players under the age of about 25 – encompassing both the junior and men’s levels of hockey – can no longer be easily overlooked.
“If you look at the growth of the number of Swiss players coming over to North America, I think it speaks to how much their program has improved,” said Chris Pryor, the director of scouting for the Philadelphia Flyers.
“It’s not just the guys who get drafted from there and come over to play in the NHL. I’m also talking about the number of young Swiss players coming over to play major junior hockey in Canada and having some success. Players like Sven Bärtschi and Mirco Müller and Luca Sbisa were outstanding junior players who showed they could play over here and became first-round draft picks.”
Over the last decade, the Philadelphia organization has employed a pair of Swiss players at the NHL level. Two other Swiss players have passed through either its minor league level or draft system.
Most notably, the Flyers drafted Sbisa 19th overall in the 2008 NHL Draft. The player made his NHL debut in a Flyers uniform before being traded in the 2009 offseason as part of the trade with Anaheim that sent superstar defenseman Chris Pronger to Philadelphia. More recently, in the summer of 2013, Philadelphia signed Streit to a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract.
Additionally, Swiss defenceman Tim Ramholt (originally a 2nd-round pick by Calgary in the 2003 Draft) briefly passed through the Flyers’ minor league system during the 2008/2009 season before he was traded to the Nashville Predators for tough guy forward Josh Gratton. Back in 2003, the Flyers drafted Swiss forward Kevin Romy in the fourth round. Although Romy never got signed by the NHL team, he has developed into a solid player in the NLA and has compiled 71 international games for Switzerland to date.
The Detroit Red Wings have also been a prominent organization in scouting Switzerland and Swiss-born players. It was, of course, Detroit that gave Brunner his first opportunity in the National Hockey League.
The organization’s famed head European scout, Håkan Andersson, notes that he has seen specific improvement in the inherent work ethic and team-oriented approach of the Swiss hockey program that have enabled the national team to become more competitive internationally and also started to increase the desirability of Swiss players from an NHL scouting perspective. At the same time, he also sees areas where further improvements are needed.
“I would say the single biggest reason for improvement with the Swiss is that they really compete well over the ice these days. They are second to none these days in their effort every shift. They have ways to go regarding their overall skill and their tactical development, but they really compete well,” said Andersson.
With each passing year, more and more Swiss junior players and undrafted free agents in their early to mid-20s enter the radar screens of NHL scouts. Swiss-based scout Thomas Roost, a member of the European scouting staff run by NHL Central Scouting European director Göran Stubb, believes that this growth in scouting attention reflects the fruits of many years of hard work within the Swiss program. Roost’s assessment echoes and expands upon Andersson’s judgment on the state of Swiss hockey.
“The single biggest improvement in the Swiss hockey program is in my eyes the growth in quantity of decent pro players,” said Roost. “We have now approximately 50 players who can play on the Swiss national team and the difference between the number one and number 50 player is not that big. All this did also lead to a significant level improvement of our B-League,” said Roost.
“The junior program produces a lot of capable pro players and they are all solid, most of them decent to good skaters. Their mobility is very often good. They are usually very good in terms of discipline and team play and in playing without the puck. It's usually not too easy to score against a hard-working Swiss team.”
“The silver medal at this year’s Worlds was a big surprise. Even a bigger surprise was how they won this medal. Not because of a special hot goalie or destructive defensive play; no, they played an optimistic, creative game with surprising skills and brave attacking style. So, yes, I think Swiss hockey did improve in the last couple of years, the junior program is good but there is still a lot to improve. Compared to high-level, world-class players most of the Swiss players still lack a bit stick handling and puck-control skills plus especially lack the shot qualities of the real world-class players.”
Generally speaking, NHL scouts still place a relatively high priority on the size and physical frame of a prospect. This is an area where many of the top Swiss players have been at a disadvantage.
“Yes, Swiss teams still have the slight tendency to be a bit smaller than opponents but also this gap was bigger years ago than nowadays,” notes Roost.
Roost emphasizes that while the silver medal at the World Championship and other tangible signs of improvement should be inspirational to the Swiss hockey community, that these are steps along the path of a bigger journey to becoming an elite talent-producing hockey country along the lines of Sweden, Finland or the Czech Republic.
“We, in Switzerland, should be proud of what we achieved but it's even more important not to overrate the latest achievements,” said Roost. “The silver medal has to be confirmed [with future medals]. Switzerland still lacks the one- or-the-other superstar, a true difference maker on the highest level. To produce a handful such players will be the next step to close the gap to the very best nations.”
“We also shouldn't overrate the number of Swiss players drafted in the CHL Import Draft and the number of players now playing in the NHL. The KHL is one reason why more Swiss players get a chance in the NHL. The strict rules in Russia and Sweden are also reasons why the CHL teams focus more on Swiss players nowadays but, yes, all this is also because of improvement in Swiss hockey.”
Roost notes that there is a pool of already-drafted Swiss prospects knocking on the door becoming NHL regulars, including Sven Bärtschi and Müller. There are other recent Swiss draftees who may also someday have a shot at cracking an NHL roster, including Tampa Bay Lightning draftee Joel Vermin (selected 186th overall in 2013), Minnesota Wild selection Christoph Bertschy (picked 186th overall in 2012) and Carolina Hurricanes prospect Gregory Hofmann (chosen 103rd overall in 2011).
The scouts believe that the volume of Swiss-born players selected in upcoming NHL Drafts is likely to increase even further.
“From the 1996 birth year prospects, I do expect Kevin Fiala [currently playing Sweden] to become a solid NHL Draft pick. From the Swiss CHL players, the ones I like most are 1996 forwards Timo Meier (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL) and Pius Suter (Guelph Storm, OHL), 1995 defenceman Phil Baltisberger (Guelph Storm, OHL) and 1994 forward Fabrice Herzog (Quebec Remparts, QMJHL),” said Roost.
“The ’97s look to be a very good age group for the Swiss. We have promising D-man Jonas Siegenthaler and smallish but extremely smart and skilled Denis Malgin, both of whom are playing in the ZSC Lions organization. The pro team of ZSC is coached by former NHL coach Marc Crawford, and Crawford followed the footsteps of Calgary Flames head coach Bob Hartley. So there is also high-calibre coaching available to these players.”
Among the older-but-still-young Swiss players with possible NHL aspirations, Roost said that there is still some higher-level potential among the likes of Reto Suri (whose free agent contract with Tampa Bay was voided in August), former Tampa draftee Luca Cunti, high-scoring winger Denis Hollenstein, HC Davos teammates Samuel Walser and Dino Wieser, 19-year-old ZSC forward Sandro Zangger and 18-year-old goaltending prospect Melvin Nyffeler.
“Cunti has some magic in his play and is highly skilled. He still looks a bit fragile but skill- and skating-wise he is the one Swiss forward with some world-class tools in him apart from the already mentioned NHLers. He is a hockey stylist with effortless acceleration, smooth hands and excellent small dekes and moves,” said Roost.
In the years to come, NHL teams hope to find many more Swiss players like Brunner who can weave some magic in their play. The time of the first true Swiss superstar in the NHL may not be here yet but with the numbers of Swiss prospects increasing with each passing year, that day might not be too far in the future.