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Devils’ Hischier latest in line of skilled Swiss forwards

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When Nico Hischier was born in 1999 in the mountainside town of Naters, exactly one Swiss born-and-trained player had been in the NHL – for exactly one forgettable game.

After Pauli Jaks tended goal for two periods in 1995, it took until 2001 for Reto Von Arx to become the first Swiss skater to make his NHL debut and many more years before the country had its first international hockey hero in Mark Streit.

Switzerland sent goaltenders David Aebischer and Martin Gerber, Streit and fellow defensemen Yannick Weber and Roman Josi to the NHL as its population surpassed 8 million and more money went into developing the sport. Last year, Switzerland finally topped the charts when the New Jersey Devils made Hischier the first Swiss to go No. 1 in the NHL draft.

He is the latest in a suddenly strong line of skilled Swiss forwards emerging as NHL stars.

”It starts at a young age,” Hischier said. ”There are some good coaches and some really good teams that you can develop (with). … They do a great job to be able to go practice and be able to do school. There’s special schools where you can do both. It’s all part of it.”

Hischier is in the spotlight this weekend as he and the Devils return to his junior town of Bern, Switzerland, to practice and play an exhibition game before facing the Edmonton Oilers in Sweden to open the season. He is the poster boy for this generation of Swiss talent that includes Minnesota’s Nino Niederreiter, San Jose’s Timo Meier, Nashville’s Kevin Fiala and Vancouver’s Sven Baertschi.

Those five players have already combined to play almost five times the number of games of all the Swiss forwards who came before them.

”Swiss hockey’s been growing a lot over the years and we’ve been making steps,” Meier said. ”Mark Streit and then Nino Niederreiter got drafted pretty high. That was the age where I was kind of realizing that’s where I want to be and that’s what I’m working for. Just kind of watching these guys work their way into the NHL was pretty exciting and made me want to be there some day.”

Streit, who retired last year, understands his place in Switzerland’s hockey pantheon, right there with Aebischer and Gerber as pioneers. He’s proud of how Swiss hockey has finally earned some respect internationally.

”Ten, 12, 15 years ago, nobody really talked about Swiss hockey,” Streit said. ”Only a few, a handful, had been drafted. I think now, a few guys left a mark, so the teams know Swiss guys can play hockey.”

Streit is still Switzerland’s standard-bearer in hockey after playing parts of 10 seasons for the Canadiens, Islanders, Flyers and Penguins, and winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2017. He was an inspiration to Josi, Weber, Devils defenseman Mirco Mueller and Capitals defensive prospect Jonas Siegenthaler.

”Mark Streit was the first player, not goaltender, who made it in the NHL, and he showed a lot of people in Switzerland, including me and a lot of other guys, that it’s possible to make it with a lot of hard work,” said Josi, who is now captain of the Predators. ”He kind of opened the doors for us, and since then it’s more and more.”

Hischier is opening the door for the next generation of players. Last summer, he skated with younger players and recalled that it felt weird to be admired. He realized he had a duty to help grow the sport back home and serve as a Streit-like inspiration.

”There’s more hockey players who’s going to play hockey in Switzerland,” Hischier said this week. ”They have a lot of young players. It’s just a good thing for our country.”

It might take some time for another transcendent talent like Hischier to come along, but forward Valentin Nussbaumer is a top prospect for the 2019 draft and center Theo Rochette a top prospect in 2020. Not surprisingly, those players followed the path through the Canadian Hockey League junior ranks that worked so well for Niederreiter, Meier and Hischier.

Streit notices the trend of more Swiss players playing in the CHL and how programs with combined schooling and hockey training have helped create better habits. But he attributes the breakthrough of so many talented Swiss forwards mostly to a more mature approach in the process of trying to make it in the NHL.

”We were lacking a little bit of the perseverance – the hard work and perseverance,” Streit said. ”I think now guys have that. They had a lot of skill back in the day, but guys came over and they just couldn’t really make their way through and establish themselves. I think now the guys are willing to work hard and suck it up even in the minors and go play in the CHL.”

Niederreiter went to the Western Hockey League, while Meier and Hischier played for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to get used to North America and the smaller ice surface. Hischier didn’t look out of place at all as a rookie last season, putting up 20 goals and 32 assists and playing all 82 games as an 18-year-old.

”I don’t think he gets the credit that he deserves for how good of a season he had and so far this season he looks even better,” Devils linemate Taylor Hall said. ”Nico, he’s only played two seasons really in North America, so he’s still getting used to the amount of games we play and how much hockey we really have to go through. That’s why I really think the sky’s the limit for him and the more and more he plays over here on the small ice and just with the pace of play, he’s only going to get better and better.”

With Nussbaumer, Rochette and others Swiss players taking their talents to North America at young ages and a pipeline developing, Hischier won’t be the last Swiss likely to make a major impact in the NHL.

”We’re such a small country, it’s actually crazy,” Siegenthaler said. ”There’s more players going over to North America every year. It’s a good development for us. I think the next few years there should be even more players. I think it’s going pretty good for Switzerland so far.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

The Buzzer: Tarasenko’s three-point night; Nyquist nets OT penalty shot

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Three Stars

1. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues: The Blues forward had a hand in all three of their goals during a 3-1 defeat of the Avalanche. The loss was Colorado’s first regulation defeat of the season, while St. Louis snapped a four-game losing streak. Tarasenko assisted on goals by Brayden Schenn and David Perron before being on the receiving end of this nice bank pass by Jaden Schwartz:

2. Michael Raffl, Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers built up a 5-0 lead by the end of the second period en route to a 6-2 win over the Golden Knights, snapping a four-game losing streak in the process. Raffl chipped in a pair of goals and added an assist for his first multi-goal game since March 15, 2016. Oskar Lindblom and Travis Konecny each recorded a goal and an assist, while Brian Elliott turned away 33 shots.

3. Anders Nilsson, Ottawa Senators: The Senators netminder put forth a strong effort during a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars. Nilsson stopped 41 shots as the Stars won consecutive games for the first time this season. This was the second straight start for the Swedish netminder where he faced at least 43-plus shots.

Highlights of the Night

• Raffl showed off his moves on this one:

Gustav Nyquist‘s penalty shot goal in overtime put the Blue Jackets over the Maple Leafs 4-3:

Factoids

Scores
Flyers 6, Golden Knights 2
Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT)
Blues 3, Avalanche  1
Stars 2, Senators 1

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Avs’ Rantanen leaves game with ugly-looking foot injury

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The last thing the red-hot Colorado Avalanche wanted to see was an injury to one of their star players. Off to a 7-0-1 start and atop the Central Division, things have been going well for a team many expect to take a large leap forward this season.

But now they might have to deal with a blow to their lineup after Mikko Rantanen suffered a lower-body injury during Monday’s 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues.

The Avalanche forward was skating alongside the wall when his skate got caught in the ice and turned his foot in a very wrong direction. Rantanen, who did not make contact with any Blues player during the play, limped to the dressing room and was later ruled out for the remainder of the game.

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Your foot should not be looking that way…

Rantanen has five goals and 12 points through eight games this season. He’s been relatively healthy in his three full NHL seasons, missing only 16 games since 2016-17.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Heavy Lifting: Five NHL lines that are carrying their teams

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Let’s take a quick look around the NHL at five lines that are doing the most to carry their teams (or at least their offense) through the first month of the season.

This is always kind of a good news/bad news situation because the good news is your team has a dominant top line that can change a game every night. The bad news is that one line teams do not tend to do very well in the long run. Balance is important!

We are focussing on 5-on-5 production with this look and right now these five teams are fairly dependent on these lines to carry the play.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Edmonton Oilers
The Line: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zack Kassian

This line might be the definition of “heavy lifting.”

This trio has been on the ice for nearly 30 percent of the Oilers’ total 5-on-5 minutes, a substantial workload even by top line standards. Individually, McDavid and Draisaitl are the top-two forwards in the league in even-strength ice-time per game (Kassian is 22nd), both averaging more than 18:30 per game (Mathew Barzal is the only other forward that plays more than 18 minutes of even-strength ice-time per game).

Then we get to the production.

In 124 minutes this trio has outscored teams by an 11-3 margin and been completely dominant. That is 60 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 goals, while the team has been outscored by a 6-8 margin at 5-on-5 when this trio is not on the ice.

It is the same story as it has always been for the Oilers where they need to skate McDavid and Draisaitl into the ground to compete. So far this season it has worked. But we have seen over the past four years that it is not really the best long-term recipe for sustained success.

Boston Bruins
The Line: Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand

When these three are together they are as good as it gets in the NHL.

Bergeron and Marchand are two of the best all-around players in the league, while Pastrnak is quickly turning into one of the most dangerous goal-scorers around. The big question for the Bruins has always been their depth around this line and if they can get enough offense from lines two through four to complement them. Through the first month of the 2019-20 season that concern is still very much the same.

This line has only played 86 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together (about 22 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 total) and has already scored seven goals in those minutes. The Bruins have just six 5-on-5 goals in the remaining 306 minutes of 5-on-5 time that they have played this season, and two of those goals came when Marchand and Pastrnak were together without Bergeron.

As this line goes, so go the Bruins.

Winnipeg Jets
The Line: Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler

With the Jets’ defense in shambles following the offseason, the team has had to rely on the strength of its forwards to remain competitive.

The big line of Scheifele, Laine, and Wheeler has certainly done its part to make sure that happens. Not only in terms of their own production, but also in how much the rest of the team has struggled when they are not on the ice. In nearly 300 minutes of 5-on-5 play without any of these three on the ice, the Jets have managed a grand total of four goals.

Pittsburgh Penguins
The Line: Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Dominik Simon

You could put together a pretty good forward lineup with the players the Penguins have out of the lineup right now. One of the biggest reasons they have kept winning through all of the injuries has been the play of their top line of Crosby, Guentzel, and Simon.

The latter member of this line is a point of much contention in Pittsburgh because he never scores goals himself, but the team loves him on the top line alongside Crosby and Guentzel and the overall numbers justify his existence on that line (it scores more goals with him than it does without him). So far this season Crosby is playing at an MVP level, Guentzel is doing his best to show his 40-goal season a year ago was no fluke, and Simon keeps making plays that keeps the play alive in the offensive zone and leads to offense. In 111 minutes together this trio has already combined to score eight of the the team’s 20 five-on-five goals this season.

New York Rangers
The line: Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad

The third member of this line has mostly been Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich at different times, but the main drivers here are Panarin and Zibanejad.

Panarin has already scored four goals in the team’s first six games and has been everything the Rangers could have expected and hoped when they signed him in free agency. Zibanejad, meanwhile, is off to one of the best offensive starts in franchise history with 11 points in six games. When that duo is together the Rangers have doubled up their opponents on the scoreboard and scored like one of the league’s elite lines.

The problem with this Rangers team in the short-term was always going to be the lack of depth around them, and so far the Rangers have looked rather punchless at even-strength when their top duo is off the ice.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Power Rankings: Fast starts most likely to continue

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we are taking a look at 10 fast starts around the league and which ones are most likely to continue, and which ones are most likely not to continue.

How are we defining a fast start? It’s pretty simple, actually — teams that as of Monday have a .640 points percentage or better so far this season. A .640 points percentage over an 82-game season would be a 105-point pace, so it is obviously pretty high level of play.

There are 10 teams that qualify, and not all of them will continue that level of play throughout the season. Just for comparisons sake, there were nine teams off to the same start through same date a year ago and three of them ended up missing the playoffs. In 2017-18, four of the nine teams off to a similar start also ended up missing. So it stands to reason that a handful of these teams are going to significantly cool off.

This isn’t necessarily a ranking of which of these teams has played the best so far, but a ranking of which ones are most likely to continue playing well.

Who is for real and who is not? To the rankings!

Fast starts that will continue

1. Colorado Avalanche. Entering play on Monday they are 7-0-1 on the season and have the best record in the league, earning 15 out of a possible 16 points in the standings. The scary thing about them? They may not be playing their best hockey just yet. 

2. Carolina Hurricanes. Speaking of not playing their best hockey yet, the Hurricanes have won six out of their first nine games and have just three goals from the trio of Sebastian Aho, Nino Niederreiter, and Andrei Svechnikov. It is a testament to the depth they have assembled that three of their top players can be off to such a slow start and the team can still win the way it has.

3. Washington Capitals. They are the highest scoring team in the league, have been one of the top possession teams, and still haven’t received great goaltending from Braden Holtby. The latter part should scare the rest of the Metropolitan Division because even if Holtby doesn’t return to his former Vezina Trophy form he can still be better than he has been.

4. Vegas Golden Knights. The top of their lineup is full of impact players (especially Mark Stone, who has been incredible to start the year) but one of the big wild cards on this team is the emergence of rookie Cody Glass. He already has six points in his first nine games.

Fast starts, but with some questions

5. Boston Bruins. The biggest question here is the same one they have had for the past two years — will they get enough secondary scoring after their top line? Right now if one of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, or Patrice Bergeron does not score a goal, no one is scoring. They managed to find enough secondary scoring to reach Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, so it may not be a huge concern in the long-run, but this is still a very top-heavy team so far this season.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins. Interesting team so far in the sense they have probably overachieved given the injury situation that has taken half of their forward lineup away. They are playing the way coach Mike Sullivan wants them to play, and they have played extremely well, but we still haven’t seen the Penguins as they were meant to look this season. Still not entirely sold on the defense, and I question how much of this early success is entirely sustainable.

Fast starts, but with some real concerns 

7. Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks won five of their first seven games last year — thanks mostly to John Gibson — before completely falling apart. The one thing that should give a little more optimism this time around is Dallas Eakins seems to have them playing a more sustainable style of hockey — one that does not rely entirely on goaltending — and they have actually carried the play in some of their wins. The concern is I am just not sure there is enough offense here and their two goalies have a combined save percentage of .940. What happens when that drops a bit?

8. Arizona Coyotes. They barely missed the playoffs a year ago and have probably been better than you realize at the start of the season. The concerns here are the same as in Anaheim, where they are still very dependent on incredible goaltending and there is not a ton of offense to work with.

9. Buffalo Sabres. For the second year in a row the Sabres are one of the big stories in the NHL with a fast start, entering play on Monday with a 7-1-1 record. There is reason to believe they can avoid the total meltdown they experienced a year ago thanks to an improved roster (offseason additions of Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju, Marcus Johansson, while Rasmus Dahlin has a full season in the NHL under his belt) and what seems to be a better coach. But there are also still some real concerns. Carter Hutton won’t keep stopping 95 percent of the shots he faces. Victor Olofsson won’t keep scoring on 30 percent of his shots. They still play in an extremely tough division. There is reason to expect some regression here as the season goes on.

10. Edmonton Oilers. It’s been amazing start, but James Neal is not going to keep scoring on 30 percent of his shots and once that stops this team has the same problem it has had for years in that there is not enough depth after Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They have feasted on a light schedule so far (and those points still count) but this is a team that needs to prove it over a full season before anyone fully buys into it.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.