Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

Teams in the Western Hockey League can take some solace in the fact that the Portland Winterhawks' Swiss pipeline is, for at least one year, getting shut off.

Of course, opponents of the Hawks are still likely to have to deal with 5-foot-10, 185 lb. winger Sven Bartschi, who led league rookies with 34 goals and 85 points in 2010-11, then added 27 points in 21 postseason games.

Bartschi came to the WHL largely because of countryman Nino Niederreiter, who arrived in Portland as a highly touted rookie a year earlier and evolved into an international star at the world junior championship. Eventually the New York Islanders took Niederreiter with the fifth pick in the 2010 NHL Draft.

A year after Niederreiter became the highest-drafted Swiss player in NHL history, Bartschi will also likely find his way into the top half of the first round after his huge rookie season. (NHL Central Scouting ranks Bartschi seventh among North American skaters.)

Bartschi and fellow Winterhawk first-round prospects Joe Morrow and Ty Rattie also have benefited from going through their draft season with eight 2010 draftees as teammates, including Niederreiter and fourth-overall pick Ryan Johansen.

The connection runs deeper for Bartschi and Niederreiter, who came even closer together playing for Switzerland in the world junior championship in Buffalo.

"Nino is such a big leader to have around, here and in Portland," Bartschi said in January. "So many of us have seen him in the NHL already."

Niederreiter, who served as captain in Buffalo, wanted to make his mark on Bartschi and all his Swiss teammates.

"It was an amazing experience to be a leader for your country, there's nothing better," he said. "For a guy like Bartschi, it's a great experience for him to have in his draft year and to be able to have so many people get to see him."

Portland coach and general manager Mike Johnston has extensive contacts in Switzerland, and hit a home run in back-to-back CHL Import Drafts on players from a country that's still trying to gain respect as an elite hockey locale.

With Niederreiter eligible (if certainly not likely) to return to Portland as a 19-year-old, and Bartschi probable to come back even as a first-round NHL selection, the Winterhawks are unlikely to add an import player for next season (Johnston has indicated that he will keep Niederreiter on his list in case the Islanders send him back to the WHL at some point).

Johnston, however, may have initiated a Swiss invasion into the CHL. In 2009, Niederreiter was one of two Swiss import picks, while that number increased to five last year. Bartschi says he was largely inspired to go the CHL route when he saw Niederreiter's success.

"I saw Nino playing well last year, and becoming very big over here, so that helped me with my decision," Bartschi said. "This has been a big adjustment from Europe. The rink is smaller, and you have to make decisions a lot faster. But it's great to get to see how you fit in against the best in the world." (The Oregonian)

During the world junior championship, Bartschi spoke about how he and Niederreiter are paving the way for more Swiss players in North America:

"We're a small country and have a lot of guys who can play hockey. You can see we are getting better, and we work hard back home to get up there with the other nations.

With Nino and me, guys now know they can come over here and play. That helps a lot with the national team when you have guys who already play over here in North America. It helps in the tournament."

Johnston, for what it's worth, never even saw Bartschi play before picking him seventh in the 2010 import draft, instead relying on reports from folks in Switzerland.

"I didn't know he'd be quite this good until I saw him play," Johnston said. "He's been outstanding for us, and he has a great personality for our dressing room." (The Oregonian)

Bartschi spent the first part of the season proving that he wasn't just "Nino Light." In fact, Bartschi and Rattie shouldered the scoring burden during the Winterhawks' fast start while Niederreiter was off playing for the Islanders and Ryan Johansen was readjusting to life in junior hockey after camp with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

He scored 11 goals in 12 games in October, and it looked like he would eventually exceed Niederreiter's rookie-season total of 36 goals. Predictably, the scoring pace slowed a bit as Portland's depth returned and the long season wore on. But he still ended up with 25 more points than Niederreiter tallied in 2009-10.

It was the playoffs, though, where Bartschi really made his mark. He scored in five straight games spanning the Western Conference finals and league finals, and had five goals in a five-game loss to Kootenay in the championship series.

Johnston said back in training camp that Bartschi would be a "dangerous offensive player" in his debut season, but gave him even higher praise for his total effort after Portland beat Spokane in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals to tilt that series in favor of the Hawks:

"Bartschi was our best player for sure. There's probably 20-25 scouts here tonight scrutinizing every guy, and I thought he stood up to them and said ‘I'm ready for anything.' He's learning how to play this North American game, and learning how to battle and I like that in his game because he's already so skilled."

As the NHL's draft combine gets underway, Bartschi is projected to be picked somewhere between 10th and 15th. That's only slightly lower than where Niederreiter was slotted at the same time last year, and he eventually rose all the way to the top five.

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