You may be asking yourself... the Swedes, the Russians, then... the Swiss? I'm not necessarily going in order of quality or quantity here, so don't read too much into that. I'll get to the Finns and Czechs in a bit (sorry Slovaks), and I'm leaving the North Americans out on this one since there's plenty on them out there right now. Switzerland has made great strides in developing junior hockey players, and 2011 might be their best year yet at the NHL Entry Draft. Following up on last year's Nino-mania, getting a top 5 selection for the first time, the Swiss are going to be successful at this year's draft with a mix of quantity and quality.
But let's keep the expectations a bit down here: for the Swiss, 5 drafted players would be a great result, possibly an all-time high (not sure on that). And I expect them to hit that mark, and quite possibly beyond.
1. Sven Bartschi, LW, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
Portland, Oregon is becoming a nice little spot for young Swiss wingers to get noticed. Bartschi projects to be the second Swiss product to come out of The City of Roses to go in the first round of the NHL Draft in two years, following up in Nino Niederreiter's footsteps. He's more of a crafty player than El Nino, using his stickhandling and passing in order to create offense, rather than the power game, of which Bartschi doesn't have. He's a small player with good speed, but his real strength comes from that ever elusive 'hockey sense'. He finds openings in defences and exploits them, he backchecks and can play the PK quite well, and he rarely overcommits to a shot or pass, keeping defenders and goalies off guard.
Quite simply, Sven Bartschi has almost everything a team is looking for in an offensive winger. Of course, that is except for one thing: a physical game. In Portland, this works quite well, as players like Nino, Brad Ross, and Ty Rattie could do plenty of that. A team who takes him will probably have to look for a physical player elsewhere for him to play with... if you're a big believer in the physical side of the game opening up offence, that is.
Quite simply, Bartschi ripped up the WHL as part of an offensive powerhouse. He could very well go in the top 10, and I can't see any scenario in which he slips past #15.
2. Gregory Hofmann, C, Ambri-Piotta (NLA)
When teams go looking for a safe, dependable centre in the second round, as so many teams will, Hofmann should hear his name called. Hofmann is a great skater, better than Bartschi, and quite simply seems to be involved in every aspect of the play through sheer determination. He's already played 60 professional games in his young career, even if it has been in a supporting role on a bottom feeder (Ambri-Piotta finished last in the NLA this year, but avoided relegation). In international play, all of those good habits really have paid off, as he is able to create turnovers and lead the counter-attack. He has the tools and work ethic to become a 'tough minutes' centre, with his speed being the big asset that allows him to be dangerous.
3. Alessio Bertaggia, RW, Lugano (NLA)
Bertaggia caused some controversy in the WHL pre-season when he scored three goals in a Portland Winterhawks scrimmage, and no one knew who he was. He was in the camp illegally, and Portland got a slap on the wrist for it, and Bertaggia was back in Switzerland, where it looks like he'll be staying for the next couple of years. He's already cracked the pro team, something very difficult to do before your 18th birthday, and he was Switzerland's top scorer in various U18 tournaments... until the actual big show in Germany where he only had 3 points. Bertaggia is a small player, like a lot of Swiss forwards, but he's a willing competitor who goes into the 'dirty areas' of the rink, usually coming out with the puck.
4. Benjamin Conz, G, SCL Tigers (NLA)
Conz played the whole NLA season on loan from Geneve-Servette, who hold his rights. Its an interesting situation, and it appears he'll be loaned out again next year to Lugano. The Tigers are going to miss him: the club made the NLA playoffs for the first time in their history with Conz back there, the most prominent teenager in the league. Contrary to some reports, Conz was not the NLA's top goalie, but he came in around the average and played every night as well, while several ex-NHL goalies occupied starting positions for other teams. Conz's small frame and tendency to commit to low shots have made NHL GM's a bit weary when it comes to draft day, but there's no way Conz is passing through this draft, particularly after a small goalie just won the Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophies in the same year.
5. Samuel Guerra, D, HC Davos
Flying under the radar right now, Guerra is a strong defensive prospect who has played a lot of games without showing a lot of offensive flair. Guerra played a small role in HC Davos' NLA championship in limited ice time, but he played a lot of international hockey and was counted on at the U18 and U19 level to be the team's top defender. He's a decent skater with a good sized frame at 6'1", and while he doesn't command attention with his offensive abilities, he is a steady, calming influence on the ice. His junior stats do point to some offensive ability, but he's being trained to be a 'Keep it Simple, Stupid' kind of d-man.
6. Dean Kukan, D, GC Küsnacht Lions (NLB)
While Guerra is the steady type, Kukan provides a bit more of the offensive ability that is coveted in today's NHL. He's a strong two-way type who moves the puck efficiently and can contribute on the PP. At 6'2", nearly 200 lbs, he's already got a professional frame to work with, and he did get a two game call-up to the big club, the ZSC Lions of the NLA. Kukan is flying under the radar a bit, but impressed enough at the U18s that a good scout should tip the hand of his team's director of amateur scouting and take him.
7. Lino Martschini, RW, Peterborough (OHL)
I'm all for looking past the size issue, but.... this guy was listed at 5'5", 126 lbs. to start the year. Still, he went into the OHL and was scoring a point per game the year he turned 18. He followed that up with a strong U18 tournament. He's small, fast, and talented... there really isn't much else to say. Will a team take a chance on skill in this small of a package?
Missed the Cut: Samuel Walser, C; Into Pestoni, RW; Dario Trutmann, D; Luca Boltshauser, G.