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Thursday, January 13, 2011

WJC Scouting Reports: Switzerland

Welcome to the World Junior Championship scouting reports on 2011 draft-eligible players series.

Today, we kick things off with Switzerland, who has quietly become one of the more competitive countries in the Under-20s after stunning Team Russia a year ago in the medal round before falling to Canada in the semifinal. This year, they pushed Team USA hard in a 2-1 loss in the final preliminary round game, and also put a scare into Canada in the quarterfinal after scoring the first goal before succumbing to Canda's superior size, skill, speed and depth.

One player who is gaining traction in this draft is forward Gregory Hofmann, who made a positive impression last year at the Under-17s, and then at the World Jr. A Challenge before stepping up his game in Buffalo last month.

Goaltender Benjamin Conz was again a difference-maker for Team Switzerland, and is once again eligible for the NHL draft by virtue of his 1991 birthdate. Going against him is his short, squat (read: he's a dumpy, heavy guy) frame, but man is this guy ever a puckstopper/battler. At some point, you have to put the size/conditioning concerns aside and concede that when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net, he's a proven commodity.

Skill winger Sven Bartschi, who has been highly productive with Portland of the WHL this season was one of the more disappointing forwards in the tournament overall, though there is no denying his offensive talent level. He had a chance to make a real statement and didn't, but you can't put a ton of stock in the short tournament, either. Still, if I were an NHL scout watching him in Buffalo, I would have some red flags in my report and much more scrutiny would be required going forward in his WHL games.

Gregory Hofmann, C 6-0, 170 Ambri-Piotta (Switzerland): Superb skater with quick initial burst and shifty, lateral elusiveness. Always keeps his feet moving. Not all that big, but plays much bigger than his size with an impressive energy level and underrated physical game. Doesn't look to make the big hit nor is particularly crushing with his physicality, but he embraces making initial contact and smartly rubs opponents out along the boards and uses leverage to gain the upper hand. Quick hands and stick; nice release on his shot, but could stand to improve accuracy. Missed several glittering scoring opportunities from inside the slot, which could have added to his totals. Excellent vision and creativity. Made an immediate impreswas sion with a dynamite pass on Switzerland's first goal of the tourney; he gathered the puck along the wall and held it until the last possible second, waiting for his linemate to gain the needed separation from the defender. The perfect saucer feed was put into the back of the net, while Hofmann's man blasted him into the boards. Hustled on the backcheck throughout and seems to have an OK feel for where he needs to be in the d-zone. Has a lot of work to do in the weight room: is not very physically mature and looks more like a 15-16-year-old than a prospect who just turned 18 in November.

Overview: In this blog space's opinion, Hofmann was by far the most consistent and dangerous of any of the 2011-eligible forwards at the WJC, and his skill level isn't too far off from the Bartschis, Joel Armias and Tobias Rieders of the tourney. Although he had high marks from scouts coming into Buffalo, Hofmann actually raised the bar and did not look at all out of place, showing very good chemistry and offensive prowess with linemate Inti Pestoni. Nino Niederreiter was the focal point for the Swiss on offense, but Hofmann was underrated in his role as the secondary scoring go-to guy for them who wasn't just a one-dimensional presence. There is a lot to like about Hofmann, but in Boston's case, they don't have a track record of ever drafting Swiss players, so the likelihood he would end up as a Bruins selection is significantly diminished. Still, don't be surprised if you hear Hofmann's name called pretty high in St. Paul next June-- maybe early-to-mid second round? One small caveat-- check out comments on Inti Pestoni at the bottom of this post for one potential contributing factor to Hofmann's strong play, but overall, he has the game to project well to the NHL. Hofmann is 19th on Central's mid-season rankings for European skaters. Too low, in the opinion of this blog, but expect a rise by season's end.

Sven Bartschi, LW 5-11, 177 Portland Winterhawks (WHL): Very good skill levels: Fast skater with strong first step quickness and very good straight-line speed and separation gear. Also strong laterally, can weave in and out of lanes and back defenders up. Very good hands; handles the puck at top speed and has a nice wrist shot that he can get off quickly. Not very physical; stayed almost exclusively on the perimeter throughout the tournament and didn't show much inclination to take the puck into traffic. Dangerous offensive player when the puck is on his stick and he has time and space to work with, but didn't get much of that in Buffalo.

Overview: How do you spell disappointing? Given how productive he's been with Ty Rattie in the WHL this season, more was expected of him in Buffalo, but then again, he wasn't skating with Rattie. Spent most of his time on the outside and looking disinterested in going to the net or getting his nose dirty in the prime scoring areas. Even his one goal of the tourney was scored on the outside (albeit from a blistering shot), and he refused to get "greasy" time after time, staying on the perimeter and letting others go into traffic for him. In talking with several NHL scouts, there is little doubt that he'll go pretty high in the draft- probably in the first round and ahead of Hofmann. But in all honesty, Bartschi just doesn't strike as a player you win with at the highest level. He looks like a player and comes off as a nice kid, but acted soft and with his high-end talents, that was something you didn't expect, especially with Niederreiter and Hofmann doing all the little things to keep Switzerland in contention throughout. As the 6th player on Central's North American skaters rankings at mid-season, that's a reflection of the pure skills and talent he brings to the mix. But, he's not a complete player like his countryman and junior teammate Niederreiter.

Benjamin Conz, G 5-10, 207 Langnau (Switzlerand): Built like a bowling ball, Conz is not what you would call the prototypical modern NHL goaltender. Gets low to the ice in his stance and invites top-shelf shots. Extremely effective at stopping the low shots/pucks along the ice with quick pads. Slightly unorthodox battler who manages to get a piece of equipment on shots that appear labeled for the back of the net. Calm and poised under pressure; can steal games by himself. Has the kind of focus and concentration you want from your netminder. Good glove and blocker. Not much of a puckhandler, but excels in the one trait all goalies must possess: stopping the puck. 4th on Central's list for European goalies.

Overview: For the second consecutive WJC, Conz made a name for himself. He was particularly good against Canada in the quarterfinal, when they threw more than 50 shots at him, but he kept his team within striking distance. He was a tad shaky early (particularly against the Germans and Finns) before he pulled it together and played his best against some of the top teams like USA and Canada. For those wondering why Conz has not yet been drafted, there appears to be a pretty simple explanation: short and dumpy doesn't play all that well to NHL scouts. Conz needs to shed some weight, but doesn't need major tweaks to his game. He's the kind of player who, if drafted, could come over to North America and start in the AHL right away. His competitive drive is second to none, and now that's he's put together two very strong WJC performances against top global competition among his peers, the third time just might be the charm for Conz in the draft, though it would happen in the mid-to-late rounds if at all.

Other Swiss on Central's list, but limited viewing/notes:

Tristan Scherwey, LW 5'9, 176 Bern (Switzerland): Small, quick little waterbug was noticeable at times, but didn't accomplish a whole lot. Knocked around a bit and not able to fight through traffic all that effectively. Small and appears to have limited NHL potential. 80th on Central's European Skaters list at mid-season.

Inti Pestoni, RW 5-9, 174 Ambri-Piotta (Switzerland): Small, but skilled little scorer made some noise with Ambri teammate Hofmann. The fact that the two played on a line together and have done so in Switzerland was not lost on one NHL Western Conference team's director of amateur scouting, who mentioned it to this blogger. It's a small but not necessarily inconsequential factor used when evaluating Hofmann's overall performance and projection. 137th on Central's mid-season rankings.

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