I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about this team here, the coaches here and I know now what to expect next year. I understand the game much more now. I understand that I have a big summer in front of me. - Sven Baertschi
CALGARY, AB -- "Roller-coaster" is a term that epitomizes Sven Baertschi's rookie season.
After a five-game cup of coffee with the Flames in the 2011-12 campaign in which he scored three goals, expectations were unreasonably high for the Swiss winger coming into his first full NHL season. Before the puck had even dropped on Jan. 20, there was talk of him being a Calder candidate and being one of the Flames scoring leaders.
In short, it was too much, too early.
In his first ten games of the season, his point total sat at one - an assist on Jay Bouwmeester's goal in Colorado on Feb. 28 - and his minutes were dipping below 10:00 a night as he struggled to get his game in order as pressure mounted.
"I felt like I started well and just couldn't get that many points that I wished for. It didn't go my way," he said candidly. "Confidence slipped away from me, certain things just didn't go the way I wanted it. I was upset about that."
Knowing the forward needed more minutes and more responsibility to boost his confidence, the team opted to reassign him to the Abbotsford Heat in early March. During the work stoppage, Baertschi logged big minutes with the Heat and racked up 18 points in 21 games. Asking to see that kind of consistency and production in his second stint in Abbotsford, given his performance last fall, wasn't unreasonable and after a few games with the Heat, Baertschi began to generate more offence.
In his last eight games with the Heat, Baertschi rattled off eight points (four goals, four assists) and regained the poise needed to make an impact with the big club.
"It was the right decision and so to go down there and play many minutes and the opportunity to play the power play for two minutes, that helped a lot," he admitted. "I came back up here as a confident guy and then I knew at one point if I scored that first goal that there was going to be a lot more coming.
"I wasn't even too surprised to get on that seven-game point streak."
That seven-game point, coming in the winger's last seven outings of the campaign, is impressive in its own right but the fact he accomplished it while the coaching staff was heaping more and more responsibility on him showcases the Baertschi's growth over the course of the truncated season.
"It was a big lesson, (this) season," he explained. "I understand everything. I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about this team here, the coaches here and I know now what to expect next year. I understand the game much more now. I understand that I have a big summer in front of me."
Baertschi's main focus in the off-season will be adding on muscle to his 5-foot-10 frame. Listed at 181 lbs., the 20 year-old's stature isn't overly intimidating and jostling against men with 30+ lbs. on him every night took its toll. Winning puck battles - something that came easily to him in his juniors days in Portland - was suddenly a challenge and his tenacity alone won't earn him the puck when he is in a war with a 230 lbs. opponent along the boards.
"I'm not going to get any taller, I guess, so I'm just going to get wider," he joked. "There's a lot more muscle I can build and I'm definitely going to come back a little heavier but still want to make sure I'm going to be quick and fast out there."
In addition to maturing on the ice, Baertschi evolved off it as well. Making the leap from the WHL to the pro ranks isn't easy. There are a plethora lessons to be learned for young players as they try to transition into the next step of their hockey careers and many go through rocky patches as they feel their way through their first year in the league.
Seeing someone like former captain Jarome Iginla handle himself away from the rink was an eye-opening experience for the youngster.
"Some day, I really want to be that guy who is the face of the franchise. I want to be able to do that. I understand now that it takes a lot and talking to a guy like Jarome and sitting beside him in the locker room, I've got a lot of respect for that guy. If you watch him do certain things, he (was) the best pro on this team. The way he handles things, after losses, it's mostly his problem. He got to talk to the guys and if you see that and how he handles everything, even on the ice too, he fights and sticks up for his teammates. You see a guy like him, you can learn a lot.
"On the way to get there, it's a long way and it's going to take a lot, but I'm sure some day somebody will be the new Jarome Iginla here."