Raw offensive skill made Sven Baertschi a first-round draft pick.
His playmaking allowed him to become, for a two-year period, arguably the most dynamic offensive player in the CHL.
The high-end vision and hockey sense helped Baertschi net three goals in a five-game cameo with the Calgary Flames in 2012; his flashy debut creating a level of hype and expectation on which the 23-year-old Swiss-born forward never delivered during his time with the Flames.
No one has ever doubted that Baertschi has the chops to contribute offence, but it wasn’t enough.
“There's some really good players in this league and your skill set at some point becomes pretty average,” Baertschi said of adjusting to the NHL game. “Where in junior you're just dangling and whatever, all of a sudden it doesn't work anymore.
“So you're trying to figure out how you can play in this league,” Baertschi continued. “There's so much more you have to learn, you have to get so much better.”
As Baertschi’s top prospect sheen wore off in Calgary, he was relegated to the American League. He frustrated Flames management, even prompting outspoken Flames president Brian Burke to declare – in no uncertain terms – that Baertschi’s defensive game was a major issue.
“There are three zones in the ice surfaces in this league,” Burke said back in 2013. “I don’t see that he’s learned to play and compete in two of them.”
Written off by the Flames for his defensive ineptitude and a lack of competitive fire, it’s ironic that it was Baertschi’s improvement on the defensive side of the puck that kept him in the Vancouver Canucks’ lineup this season.
Acquired for a second-round pick at the 2015 NHL trade deadline, Baertschi’s first full season in Vancouver got off to a slow start. He was an occasional healthy scratch and endured a 13-game pointless streak in late November and early December. In his first 27 games he managed just eight points.
Canucks coach Willie Desjardins stuck with him though. And he stuck with him in high-leverage minutes, on a second line with 20-year-old centre Bo Horvat.
Desjardins’ patience has been rewarded in recent weeks, as Baertschi and Horvat have broken out offensively. In Baertschi’s past 16 games he’s managed 11 points, helping to keep a severely hobbled Canucks team on the fringes of the Western Conference playoff picture.
When Desjardins is asked why he gave Baertschi so much rope, he’s unequivocal in his answer: Baertschi’s defensive play impressed and surprised him. In the two zones in which Baertschi’s game was thought to be a liability, the forward proved that he could win battles and be positionally sound. He earned the time he needed to heat up offensively by developing into a reliable NHL player.
“There were two things I liked about him that kind of surprised me,” Desjardins said of Baertschi on Friday. “One was how good he is defensively -- I didn't think he was that way coming in -- and the second is how much he loved the game.”
Baertschi says he put in the work to refine his defensive approach, and he also credits his young linemate with teaching him a thing or two.
“I did tons of video, studied a lot at the start of the season,” Baertschi said on Thursday. “Because that's where your offence starts, I think…
“The coaching staff helped me out with a lot of things,” Baertschi continued. “But also watching other players on our team. Learning from Bo, how well he plays defensively, and if the scoring isn't there you have to be reliable.”
In terms of his on-ice impact, Baertschi still profiles as a player with more offensive than defensive value. Among regular Canucks forward, the club has generated 5-on-5 scoring chances at a higher rate with Baertschi on the ice than they have with any other forward save for Radim Vrbata, according to war-on-ice.com.
Baertschi also ranks on the fringes of the top-50 by Sportlogiq’s ‘possession driving plays’ metric, which tallies up successful on-ice events that help move the puck up ice while retaining possession, including things like stretch passes, outlet passes and controlled offensive-zone entries.
His defensive impact on Horvat’s on-ice results has been pronounced though. In the 271 5-on-5 minutes Horvat has spent playing without Baertschi this season, the Canucks have been outscored by 14 goals. In the 325 minutes that Horvat and Baertschi have shared the ice, the Canucks have outscored their opposition by one, according to puckalytics.com.
“I think he's really grown as a defensive player,” Horvat says of Baertschi. “It seems like he's always in the right position defensively, and even in the offensive zone he's ready to jump back onto defence.
“That's something he's really worked on in his game and it's showed this year."
And as for what could’ve been in Calgary, Baertschi says he has no ill will and doesn’t dwell on it.
"In the end, was it was good for me to go through some tough times? Yeah.
“Did I learn a lot from it? Yeah.
“All these things happened and I matured as a player, my defensive game, all these things I have to focus on - it all came together and it all worked out for me personally," Baertschi said this week.
As for the emergence of Baertschi’s two-way reliability, he’s surprised by it too.
“I did struggle at the start of my NHL career, It's no secret, but making big strides, that was important for me and I've improved a lot there,” he said. “It wasn't without the help of coaching staff and teammates. It kept me in the game... and it's weird for me to hear that, it's a surprise to hear people say 'he can play defence'"
When asked if Flames head coach Bob Hartley might share that surprise, Baertschi laughed.
"Probably... He never saw it coming!"