|Roman Josi is the top-ranked Swiss player available for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Central Scouting has ranked him No. 8 among European skaters.
Over the last decade, in fact, the Swiss have gone from being a Division I nation to a top-10 fixture at the elite level. In nine of the last 11 World Championships, Switzerland has finished no worse than ninth, including a seventh-place showing at the 2008 event in Halifax and Quebec City. The country scored a sixth-place finish in 2000.
The most significant pair of victories, however, took place at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. There, the Swiss polished off the Czech Republic, 3-2, and Canada, 2-0, in a span of three days before falling to Sweden in the quarterfinal round to finish in sixth place.
“Switzerland isn’t all about soccer,’’ Anaheim Ducks backup goalie and Swiss native Jonas Hiller told NHL.com. “The hockey is quite big and the major pro league does a nice job nurturing the talent. The money is good and hockey is pretty popular; there are a lot of spectators at all the games.’’
Still, NHL executives have yet to really open their arms or their wallets for the Swiss at the NHL Entry Draft. Over the last three seasons, just four players from Switzerland have been picked, including 2007 Montreal Canadiens third-round choice Yannick Weber. Not since 2003 have there been at least five Swiss players taken in the draft; an all-time high of seven players were taken in 2000.
“Swiss hockey has been working hard on their youth and junior program for the last 12-15 years,’’ said NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb. “That’s the main reason why the hockey is getting closer to the other big European hockey nations.’’
There’s a possibility that as many as seven Swiss players could be tabbed at this year’s draft, to be held June 20-21 in Ottawa. In addition to mobile defenseman Luca Sbisa of the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, the No. 12-rated North American skater by Central Scouting, there are six Switzerland natives among the top 84 on Central Scouting’s European chart. Roman Josi, a play-making defenseman, heads that list at No. 6.
“The hockey in Switzerland has definitely improved,’’ Josi told NHL.com. “Especially in Bern with (head coach) John Van Boxmeer. Being a former NHL player, he has taught us that North American style and we’re now getting up to speed with everyone else.
“Van Boxmeer stresses a hard forecheck and physical type of game. If they hit us, we need to respond and play physical as well.’’
Josi (6-foot-1, 177 pounds) was extremely reliable for Team Switzerland at the 2008 World Junior Championships and a key performer at the Under-18 World Championships, posting five points and four assists.
”Josi is probably the best skater Swiss junior hockey has produced,’’ Stubb told NHL.com. “He is a complete player with a high overall skill level and very good understanding of the game. He played most of the 2007-08 season with the top team in the Swiss League, Bern.’’
Sbisa (6-1, 191) also has witnessed a vast improvement in the Swiss game over the years.
Sbisa, who represented Switzerland at the 2008 World Junior Championships and at the 2007 Under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, certainly is one of them. He played with Zug of the Swiss Junior Elite League and was selected in the second round (69th overall) by Lethbridge in the 2007 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft. Sbisa certainly lived up to expectations, registering 33 points and 63 penalty minutes in 62 games and winning the Carl Trentini Memorial Award as Lethbridge’s Rookie of the Year.
“One would say that, a lot of times, Luca’s calmness with the puck is misinterpreted as either slowness or laziness, but that’s not the case,’’ said NHL Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire. “He’s a smart player who moves the puck at the right time and supports the rush. He’s adjusting very well to the North American game.’’
According to Atlanta Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell, exposing the elite Swiss players, like Sbisa, to the North American style of play will pay off on Draft Day.
“I think the game really started to flourish several years ago when (Massachusetts native) Billy Gilligan coached their national team,’’ Waddell said. “You could really see them bringing a structure to their system while making a concerted effort to elevate their elite players. For some time, the Swiss game evolved around team play and, while that was important, it really didn’t give their better players an opportunity to take that next step. But that is changing, and now they’re putting their best players in a situation to really succeed and get recognized. That’s how the Swiss elite players will be able to make that jump to the NHL.’’
Hiller played for Davos of the Swiss League for three seasons prior to signing a free-agent contract with the Ducks in May 2007.
“Not all the guys want to take the challenge of coming over to the NHL and fight through the tough times, so I think that’s why you don’t see that many Swiss players in the NHL,’’ Hiller said. “I think the country has shown in the Olympic Games and World Championships, though, what it’s capable of doing. Despite the fact it’s small, Switzerland does play a high level of hockey.’’
New Jersey Devils Director of Scouting David Conte also has seen a rise in talent among Swiss players.
“There’s no doubt hockey in Switzerland has improved,’’ he told NHL.com. “The country has the resources and now the tradition. There have been simulations of Canadian coaches, Russian coaches and Finnish coaches, so they have a nice hybrid of their own. I definitively see a tremendous competitive balance for them; they aren’t just emerging anymore – they are there.’’
According to Sbisa, Swiss players have shown a greater desire to play a more physical game.
“We’ve always been known as guys who can skate well with good skills, but now we have players who have stepped up their physical game,’’ he said. “We’re emulating that physical North American-Canadian style and it has helped.’’
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.