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Josi ready for on-the-job NHL training

by Dan Rosen
BERN, Switzerland -- The 16,000 fans will come to PostFinance Arena to bang drums, sing songs and celebrate the NHL coming to Switzerland for the first time. They'll cheer on their hometown team, SC Bern, while they marvel at the New York Rangers.

While all that's happening Tuesday, an 18-year-old Swiss defenseman will be in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime work-study program.

Roman Josi, a 2008 second-round pick by the Nashville Predators, never has seen an NHL game live. He has no idea how fast the pace is, how physical it can get, or how taxing it is on the body.

After Tuesday's game Josi will know exactly what he has to do to one day be on the other side of an international hockey spectacle like the one taking place in Bern this week.

"It's going to be fun to play against them and I think it's going to be really good experience to play against an NHL team," Josi said after SC Bern's practice Monday. "I don't know how they play. I only see them on TV, on highlights or on the Internet. I have never seen a game live, so to play against an NHL team will be really fun. Now I can play against them, I'll know how it is."

Nashville traded up eight spots to select Josi, the sixth-ranked European skater by NHL Central Scouting, with the No. 38 selection in June's draft. Predators General Manager David Poile said he felt lucky Josi was still around eight picks into the second round.

"We really think he's a good player," Poile said, "and maybe one of those guys that we were surprised that got that far down in the draft."

Josi is regarded as offensively gifted and mature for his age, and his first pass out of the zone is considered a strength. Goran Stubb, who runs Central Scouting's European department, said "Josi is probably the best skater Swiss junior hockey has produced."

When asked about Josi's development, SC Bern coach John Van Boxmeer gets excited as if he was talking about a future star in the making.

"Oh, he's playing great," said Van Boxmeer, who has given Josi more responsibility now that he's no longer a rookie in the Swiss National League A. "He's a puck mover and he's really smart for a young kid. He plays the game with his head. He can slow the game down and create space for himself. It'll be a challenge for him (Tuesday) as an 18-year-old. Physically they get overmatched, but he won't be intimidated by the pace of the game."

After the draft, Josi attended the Predators' development camp. It was his first time playing on an NHL-size rink, which is 15 feet narrower than the international rinks Josi is used to.

"It was tighter," Josi said. "I don't think I was affected by it, but we didn't play a real game. We just did drills, and the 3-on-3 was new for me. It was smaller, but faster, because you have less time than you do here."

Josi said the drills and the off-ice conditioning is similar to what he's used to in Bern, but that has a lot to do with Van Boxmeer, who played 11 NHL seasons and served as an assistant coach in Buffalo and Los Angeles.

"He was the reason why I stayed here," Josi said of Van Boxmeer. "Coach Van Boxmeer can really help me get to the NHL. He knows the game there and he knows what it takes to get to the NHL."

So does SC Bern teammate Christian Dube, who played in the Rangers organization from 1996-99, including 33 NHL games. Dube doesn't believe Josi is ready to make the transition to the NHL just yet, "but maybe in a couple of years.

"He's still young and it's a different game over here, but he's 18 and he's one of our best defensemen," Dube said. "It's a lot of pressure on an 18 year-old-kid playing in front of 16,000 already, but I think it's good. I think he has to still put some weight on his body, but he's got a great first pass and he's really intelligent with the puck."

Josi has been with SC Bern since he was 16, but last season was the first time he saw significant game action, when he had 8 points in 35 games. He also stood out for Team Switzerland at the 2008 World Junior Championship and was a key player at the Under-18 World Championships, with 1 goal and 4 assists.

"Sure, I want to develop here and get the basics down, get physically and mentally ready to play in the NHL, but then I want to get there as fast as I can." -- Roman Josi

"Last year we had him the whole time and he was good," Van Boxmeer said. "By the end of the year he was in our top four."

He still is, but only because SC Bern picked up former Minnesota and Phoenix defenseman Travis Roche, a North American transplant. If not for Roche, Josi would probably be in SC Bern's top defensive pairing.

Even in Switzerland, that's unheard of for an 18-year-old.

Josi, though, doesn't appear to be the typical 18-year-old defenseman. He plays and acts well beyond his years, but Tuesday's game against the Rangers should give Josi a chance to see how much further he needs to go in his development.

"My goal is to get (to the NHL) as fast as I can," Josi said. "Sure, I want to develop here and get the basics down, get physically and mentally ready to play in the NHL, but then I want to get there as fast as I can."

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