For any of you who have trouble separating Sweden from Switzerland, here is a fun exercise for you. Lian Bichsel is Switzerland’s top youngster heading into this year’s draft, but to further develop his trade he packed his bags ahead of this season and moved to Sweden and Dalarna. During his first year in the SHL (again, that is the Swedish Hockey League, not to be mixed up with the Swiss Nationalliga A), he held a spot for nearly 30 games on a playoff-bound team. Not bad, especially when you consider his birthday in mid-May, making him one of the younger top prospects of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.
Birthplace: Wolfwil, Switzerland
Date of birth: May 18, 2004
Weight: 225 lbs.
Team: Leksands IF (SHL)
Not being a scout or talent evaluator myself, I took the liberty of asking former Catching The Torch writer and current draft guru for EP Rinkside, David St-Louis, if Bichsel in fact had more to his game than just a big, wide body.
In short, his response was that Bichsel is by no means one of these powerful low-skill hockey lumberjacks who chops down everything in his way without a train of thought. On the contrary, he is a pretty steady overall defenceman considering his young age.
Bichsel has suprised people with his play this year, and that while playing in one of the best leagues in Europe. Taking a spot on an SHL blue line is difficult enough when you’re a minor. If you add on the fact that this was his first year playing away from his Alpine homeland, I think that many people in and around Leksand’s organization are very pleased with their newfound gem. One would expect his average time on ice to increase from the current 11:48 to something more creditable for next season.
Will he ever be seen as a renaissance artist on the ice? Definitely not. But he is surprisingly mobile and is not at all shy when it comes to puck transitions. Even if he will be described and continue to project as a defensive defenceman coming into the NHL, there are some offensive qualities to his game. His size and power create a heavy shot which, if developed properly, could make him useful in the offensive zone for his NHL team in the future.
Elite Prospects: #26
Bob McKenzie (TSN): #35
NHL Central Scouting: #9 (European Skaters)
Corey Pronman (The Athletic) #15
Scott Wheeler (The Athletic): #51
Is there some discrepancy to see in the rankings here? For sure. This is the thing with scouting, and especially scouting after having a year-and-a-half butchered by a rampant virus; two people with the same amount of prospect scouting experience can see both the game and players in a completely different way. In the end, it all comes down to what you value and who you choose to draw your comparison toward.
Let’s, for example, look at the two prospect writers from The Athletic, where one is higher than consensus on the Wolfwil native, while the other one is significantly lower. While Corey Pronman focuses on his incredible size and range as a positive, Scott Wheeler worries about what will happen if Bichsel continues to grow. How many defencemen do we see in the NHL who weigh close to 240 pounds and can move without looking like an offensive tackle on skates?
It’s an interesting question to pose, especially since there are no clear-cut examples of monstrous defencemen in the top hockey league in the world. Looking at body mass index as a way to factor out those players who are unusually tall, the chunkiest NHL defenceman today is Montreal’s own David Savard, who carries 233 pounds on his 6’2 frame. Other heavyweights in the league are either big, thumping wingers like Pat Maroon, Alexander Ovechkin, or Anders Lee, or the fill-out-the net type (Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss). Even Karl Alzner, an epitome for a big-bodied defenceman with less of a motor beneath him than you would prefer to see, only weighed around 215 pounds the last time he was active.
Sure, Zdeno Chara has been a force in the league for some 20-odd years, but he’s completely unique in terms of that body type being a success in the NHL, and it’s doubtful that a player like Chara would have been as impactful during his prime if he were to come through the draft in the 2020s. After all, it was a different brand of hockey that was played around the NHL back in the Noughties, when Chara was a young man.
Still, teams drawn to a player like Bichsel will not be focusing on his offensive input. Most of all, he will be used in a shutdown role, closing gaps, blocking shots, and generally shutting down the opposing offence any way he can. Defencemen of his size who can move are rare to come by, and if Marc Bergevin and Trevor Timmins were still running the show in Montreal, this is a guy I easily could see them falling head over heels for.
With the new regime being in charge of their first draft, it is difficult to say what type of defencemen Montreal will value going forward. The additions of players like Justin Barron and Kale Clague would rather suggest that Kent Hughes, Jeff Gorton, and Martin St. Louis value hockey IQ and transition ability over pure, raw size and physicality.
With Montreal having both Kaiden Guhle and Logan Mailloux in the pipeline as their last two first-round selections, Alexander Romanov having shown promise as a full-time NHL defenceman, and Jayden Struble playing his way through the Northeastern University ranks just south of the border, one would imagine that physical defencemen are not the top priority going into the draft. With that in mind, I would stay away from betting significant money on Bichsel ending up in Montreal’s pipeline in July.