Vancouver Canucks: The Evolution of Sven Baertschi

Mar 22, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Vancouver Canucks left wing Sven Baertschi (47) shoots the puck in the neutral zone in the first period at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 22, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Vancouver Canucks left wing Sven Baertschi (47) shoots the puck in the neutral zone in the first period at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports /

The Vancouver Canucks will be looking to their younger players to make big strides in their development in 2016-17, in order to reach the playoffs after a dismal season.

If the Vancouver Canucks want to make the playoffs in 2017, they will need big contributions from their youngsters. After scoring 15 goals in 2015-16, the spotlight will shine brightest on Sven Baertschi. Can he take the next step and continue to evolve?

As far as reclamation projects go, there’s always going to be an element of risk. That level of risk is greater depending on where the player falls on the age spectrum, since youthful players who have yet to peak can always bloom late, but nonetheless reclamation projects require teams to gamble.

It’s safe to say now that Sven Baertschi has become a fairly successful one for the Vancouver Canucks. The 23-year-old from Bern, Switzerland was originally drafted in the first round (13th overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft by the Canucks’ division rival, the Calgary Flames. Attached to him were the loftiest of lofty expectations and, after failing to meet them to the satisfaction of Calgary’s management, Baertschi quickly became a former star child left by the wayside.

Calgary gave up on Baertschi and flipped him to the Canucks for a second-round pick. Once again, he showed up on a team that had high expectations for him. His fresh opportunity in Vancouver started off rocky: he wasn’t scoring, he vanished mid-game from time to time, and his confidence was at a very low level. For a young player with such a high pedigree, Baertschi’s poor start to the 2015-16 season was worrisome. He wasn’t getting it done and coach Willie Desjardins called him out for it.

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Then things began to turn around for Baertschi. He developed some nice chemistry with Bo Horvat on the second line, he strengthened his defensive awareness, rounding out his overall game and becoming more of a two-way player. This, in turn, led to Desjardins giving him more opportunities to skate on the power play.

Everyone knows the rest of the story.

So, after setting career highs in almost all offensive categories last season, where does Baertschi go from here? He has a history of prolific production at the WHL and AHL levels, with the Portland Winterhawks and Abbotsford Heat, respectively. Even looking back at his earlier days in various Swiss leagues, it’s apparent that Baertschi can play and, specifically, can score.

He went on notable hot streaks last season, during which he looked extremely confident carrying the puck, created some beautiful and nifty plays, and, most important of all, he shot the puck at the net. If he’s even a tad more consistent in 2016-17, Baertschi can easily score 20 goals. He certainly has the talent and it seems as though he now possesses the confidence to succeed. He scored 15 goals in 2015-16, averaging 13:27 on the ice per game.

Therefore, it’s likely that the addition of a few more shifts per game will see that goal total climb.

One of the more prevalent debates this offseason was the lack of scoring depth for the Vancouver Canucks. GM Jim Benning addressed the need for more scoring by signing Loui Eriksson to a big, shiny contract but it won’t be enough to propel the team back into the playoff race. Baertschi’s evolution as a scorer will, of course, help address the scoring woes, and so will developmental strides made by the other youngsters but Benning stated multiple times that he was — and presumably still is — looking to acquire another winger to help take the pressure off Baertschi.

Here’s what Benning said exactly, as per the Vancouver Sun:

"“We’d like to add a proven scorer who brings some grit to take the pressure off Sven, so he can keep developing at his own pace. He took a big step last year and wants to prove to people that he has more to give. But I don’t know where he’s going to end up (next season). At some point, that (second line) is where he’s going to be, but maybe he plays on the third line with the capability of playing on the power play and potentially scoring 15 to 20 goals for us.”"

Benning has yet to bring in that player and some of the other wingers on the team are surrounded by question marks.

Will it be disastrous if Baertschi begins the season on the second line, eating up those minutes and trying to pick up the offensive slack after the Sedins? No. Would it be ideal to have someone in front of Baertschi on the depth chart, so that the young Swiss forward can, as Benning said, develop at his own pace? Maybe, maybe not.

There’s always the chance that Baertschi worked harder than ever over the summer months and will roll into camp, raring to go, ready to take on that bigger role. Some players thrive under pressure. Now that he’s comfortable with his new team, now that he’s gained the coach’s trust, now that he has recovered some of that swagger, perhaps he’s relishing the idea of being the guy to depend on.

It’s assumed that Eriksson will play with the Sedins but what happens if the Canucks don’t bring in another scorer? Would the Canucks be better off playing Jannik Hansen with the twins (who formed a pretty decent top line last year) and spreading out the goal scoring by lining up Eriksson alongside Baertschi and Horvat or Baertschi and Brandon Sutter?

Related Story: Why Eriksson Should Play with Baertschi, Horvat

Regardless of how it all shakes out, Baertschi should be put in a position to succeed, as long as he is willing to work hard and keep learning, keep developing. He should be given every opportunity to run with the second power play unit and he should stay with Horvat, at the very least.

Never underestimate the importance of chemistry.

Baertschi’s future with the Canucks looks bright and they certainly need all the scoring help they can get their hands on. Scoring 30 goals in the near future is not unrealistic, provided that he is surrounded by good players who can maximize Baertschi’s impressive play-making abilities and provided whichever coach is manning the Canucks’ bench gives him the opportunities his high pedigree alone merits. Since he’s had a rocky road from the start, it’s easy to forget that Baertschi hasn’t even hit 25, let alone the 26-29 mark that is generally a player’s peak.

Players who are reclamation projects are usually quite easy to root for. Baertschi is no exception. In his case, however, what started as a minor reclamation project has blossomed into something entirely different.

Baertschi is coming into his own as a NHL player and he’s showing that he belongs. He has a future with the Canucks as a key contributor within the top six. A realistic expectation for Baertschi would be 20 goals and 20 assists per season. His offensive dynamism should also bring the Canucks’ much underused second power-play unit out of relative obscurity.

Next: Is Bo Horvat a No. 1 Centre?

Being 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, Baertschi is never going to physically intimidate the opponent but no one expects that. That’s not his game. His game is to make things happen on the ice, whether it’s smoothly feeding his linemates with crisp passes or using that wicked shot to his advantage.

All he needed was a fire lit under him and coming to Vancouver for a clean slate seems to have done the trick. If everything turns out well and Baertschi keeps progressing at the rate he is currently, the Canucks might be reaping the rewards for years to come.