There is a very real possibility that Sven Baertschi has played his last game in the NHL.
It’s an incredibly sad story because it cuts short the career of a player who was only just starting to find his top gear, who worked very hard to get there, and who is, by all accounts, a really decent guy. It was also entirely preventable.
Baertschi is dealing with post-concussion symptoms, after suffering his 5th concussion earlier this season on a blindside hit by the Vegas Golden Knights’ Tomas Hyka. Hyka was not penalized in game nor was he given a hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety.
— Vanessa Jang (@vanessajang) October 25, 2018
Baertschi’s previous concussion took him out for nine games last season and was suffered on this blindside hit by the Nashville Predators’ Cody McLeod. McLeod was not penalized in game nor was he given a hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety.
Both hits clearly targeted the head, had no bearing on the play and came from a place where the victim could not see or anticipate the hit and therefore could not brace for impact. Studies have shown that this exacerbates the severity of the concussion since the player did not even have time to tense up the muscles in his neck and face to cushion his head for the shock.
There is no knowing for sure whether Baertschi will return to hockey or not. I certainly hope he can – provided it is safe for him to do so – but I will understand if he makes the decision that it is not safe. As it is, he likely faces long-term health and mental health impacts. To suffer an additional concussion would only magnify the problem, and in the NHL in 2019, it is open season on players’ heads.
So if this is it for Sven Baertschi, I offer here a few thoughts on a player I think has been among the most underrated and underappreciated in recent Canucks history.
1. First of all, I need to go back to the concussion stuff. How is the dismantling of the career of a potential 50-point player positive for the game in any way?
It is obviously devastating for the player in question, but it is also bad news for other players, who know they have to be wary of the possibility of a blindside headshot at any time. “Head on a swivel” is universal hockey talk but no one ever asks how it makes the game better. When you have guys with the talent of Elias Pettersson, who can make absolute magic on the ice with their creativity and skill, why would you want to stifle that creativity by forcing the player to be constantly on the lookout for a headhunter?
We are always told that banning head shots will be a slippery slope to ending all physical contact. This is a logical fallacy promoted by people who just don’t care that much about other people’s brain injuries. There are plenty of ways to have physical contact in hockey that doesn’t involve lining up a player’s head or rocking a player when they can’t see you coming.
Notably, neither of the two headshots shown above had any significant bearing on the play and one was nowhere near the puck. Their absence would not dramatically change the nature of hockey.
How is losing Sven Baertschi good for the Vancouver Canucks? He’s a player they have invested time, energy, money and roster space in. He’s part of their plan, to the extent that there is one, and he’s an important piece in a team that needs to score goals. Like any player, he is part of the marketing of the Canucks brand, his face is on banners and he does Canucks TV intermission spots so that fans will get to know him. I hate to appeal to the wallet of a guy who inherited enough wealth to buy a hockey team, but there’s no way losing Sven Baertschi is a good thing for Francesco Aquillini’s profits.
The NHL needs to stop headshots. Full stop. I have lots of ideas for how they can do that, but that’s another post.
2. Baertschi never played a full season, as a result of all the concussions, but in 2016-17 he notched 35 points in 69 games, which put him on pace for just over 40. Last year, his pace was even better, and he would have hit 45 in a full season. This season, his 13 points in 22 games would have him score 49 points in a full season. It is clear that Sven was still on the way up, finding his game a bit later than some, but finding it nonetheless. He would be a lock in the top-6 if he were playing, and legitimate top-6 players are not easy to find.
The Canucks are left with a bigger hole in their roster than many people realize. Despite the obsession in this market for grit and toughness, the reality is that what the Canucks lack is players who can produce offence. It can’t all fall on Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. Sven’s age and development made him an important piece for a potential 2021-22 playoff push. By that point he would be pushed into a middle-6 role, ideally contributing to a dynamic, scoring third-line, while providing veteran leadership for a young team. If the boys are hungry, Sven will pack a lunch.
3. This next clip may not be my absolute favourite Sven Baertschi moment (see #10) but it is my favourite Sven Baertschi goal. Bo makes a great effort to get the puck across the Sven, but the pass isn’t well-placed and Sven has to take it on his backhand. So he does what any player would do in that circumstances, he puts it between his legs and Cam Talbot’s legs for a Sedin-like highlight-reel finish.
And since we’re gushing over Sven’s between-the-legs work, here he is doing the same thing to set up someone else for a goal. This kind of thing is what makes hockey fun.
4. There are different ways of being a leader. Not everyone gives speeches in the room or spouts platitudes in the intermissions. I’ve never got the impression that Sven Baertschi was a leader in those traditional senses.
But there are quieter kinds of leadership that can be every bit as important. The Sedins, despite being the face of the franchise for so long, were – at heart – quiet leaders. They led by example, and they led by taking responsibility for themselves and treating their teammates (and even their opponents) with respect.
I’ve combed as many interviews as I can find, and I cannot find a single instance where Sven Baertschi has criticized a teammate. Most recently, he was asked about Nikolay Goldobin’s struggles to stay in the lineup. Despite leading questions designed to draw some criticism from him, Baertschi largely praised the young winger’s efforts and noted that he, too, had struggled at times.
That’s a guy I want on my team. It is reminiscent of Ryan Miller taking a knee with Goldy after practice and telling him he looked good; leadership is usually about building up your teammates, not tearing them down. And Sven’s empathy with Goldy’s situation is instructive since it reflects his own NHL journey.
5. As noted above, Sven Baertschi’s future in the NHL was never certain. Despite being drafted 13th overall in the 2011 entry draft, his career got off to a slow start with the Calgary Flames, and many of his troubles there are eerily similar to the saga of Nikolay Goldobin in Vancouver.
Baertschi was criticized for poor defensive play and a lack of hard work – sound familiar? – and had a hard time staying in the Flames’ lineup. He eventually asked for a trade and got one: to the Canucks in exchange for a 2nd round draft pick in 2015 (a point to which I will return).
His reflections on his time in Calgary are instructive, both to understanding the player that Baertschi became, and to assessing the situations of similar players, like Goldobin. Baertschi was called out by GM Brian Burke in a manner very similar to the way Goldobin was recently criticized by Jim Benning. Here’s Benning on Goldy:
And here is Burke on Baertschi:
Baertschi looked back on it with a certain awareness that while his game did, indeed, need some improvement, the approach by the Flames organization wasn’t helping:
What is perhaps ironic is that Baertschi’s career was saved by his arrival in the Canucks organization, and Baertschi points to Travis Green, personally, as someone who helped him get on track:
It leaves us with perhaps more questions than answers regarding a player like Goldobin, who seems to be getting the same treatment from Green and Benning that Sven got in Calgary. Nevertheless, it was Green who helped Baertschi stick in the NHL, so it will be interesting to see whether the Canucks can take lessons from this. Baertschi and Goldobin will not be the only players of this type (remember Jared McCann, currently racking up points centring the Penguins’ third line, traded in part due to ‘character issues’?)
The Canucks’ long-term success will be shaped, in part, by their ability to turn these types of players into effective NHL players. With Baertschi they accomplished that goal.
6. You know what might help to make the relationship between Green and Goldobin work, long-term? The presence of Sven Baertschi, as a reminder to Green to believe in his players, and a reminder to Goldy that his hard work and commitment would eventually be rewarded. That, alone, could be value-added if Sven can work his way back to health.
7. Is Sven Baertschi underrated? I’ve always thought so. He certainly gets more respect in Vancouver than he did in Calgary, but I don’t think the Canucks have ever fully appreciated what they have in Baertschi.
Earlier this season, when Baertschi was injured on the Hyka headshot, there was hardly a word spoken by the organization, the media or the fans, as Baertschi’s injury was – understandably – overshadowed by that of Elias Pettersson. To his credit, Sportsnet’s Dan Murphy did eventually bring up Sven’s concussion on an intermission panel, a week or two later, but the absence of discussion suggested a market that didn’t take too seriously what it stood to lose in Sven Baertschi.
I’ve already thrown up his points totals and projections, and there’s plenty of other data that suggests that Baertschi is a solid offensive producer who maintains decent possession numbers despite playing on a pretty bad team. But perhaps the best way to sum up his underappreciation is this remarkable breakaway goal he scored earlier this season.
Why does this speak to his being underappreciated? Because most people assumed that the goal was a fluke, that he had flubbed the deke and got lucky when McElhinney went down early. When asked about it, Sven ribbed The Province’s Patrick Johnson, but one can’t help but wonder if there was some genuine sting there. Why should anyone have been surprised that a player of his skill level would work on a deke like that and bust it out so effectively when given the opportunity?
8. About that trade. It’s vogue to draw up complicated flowcharts to follow NHL player transactions, especially when they can prove that the Edmonton Oilers traded Jordan Eberle for a paperclip. But the Baertschi trade was pretty straightforward: for Baertschi, the Canucks gave up a 2nd round pick in the 2015 draft which the Flames used to select D Rasmus Andersson. Calgary wasn’t necessarily looking to move him, but Sven asked for the trade, believing (correctly) that he would play better with more opportunity.
Andersson is, by all accounts, growing into a solid defender in Calgary, which is under new management since Sven left town. Andersson is giving reliable third-pairing minutes and many Flames analysts are high on him, believing he is still a long way from his ceiling.
That being said, I don’t think either team won or lost this trade: if Sven hadn’t suffered the concussions, he would be a dependable top-6 player in the organization right now, and an affordable but productive scoring winger, going forward, on a team that really needs such players.
9. Sven’s best friend is a husky named Bear, an extremely good boy who likes to cuddle on the couch and shake a paw.
10. I’ve saved my favourite Sven Baertschi thought for last.
Many times over the past few years I have threatened to write the definitive post on Sven Baertschi’s greatest skill: his ability to play the puck with his skates. I never wrote it, in part because it is so hard to find the video clips that would make it work. Few of them end up in highlight reels so, unless I grab them at the time, they are typically forgotten.
But for as long as I can remember, I have never seen a player who can do what Sven does with his skates. He can receive passes at speed, in his skates, and kick it up to his stick like magic. He can win puck battles on the boards with his skates and send the puck directly to a teammate, as if he was using his stick. I’ve seen him re-direct a pass to another player with his skates, without the puck touching his stick, to set up a goal.
In this one, all of the broadcasts I have listened to – most notably the CBC telecast – assume that this was a lucky bounce off Baertschi’s skate. But watch closely and you see that he very concertedly redirects and kicks the puck to Brock Boeser for the goal; it’s no accident.
It’s just one example, but this is the sort of play that Baertschi makes regularly if you watch him closely.
But there is one play that defines it for me, and I am so thankful that the gods chose to make it Brock Boeser’s first career goal because it means the clip is easy to find.
It was a wonderful moment, in a bleak season, one of the first signs of hope for the future, when the young sniper netted his first goal in his hometown with his family in the stands. The emotions were running high after a beautiful scene in the dressing room with Brock’s dad announcing the starting lineup. To see the kid score his first that night – the memory still gives me goosebumps.
And it would never have happened without the most remarkable pass I’ve seen in my life. A pass that never touched Sven Baertschi’s stick, only his skate. In which, in order to get the puck to Boeser for a breakaway, Baertschi had to step on the puck with his blade and fling it backwards with his leg.
In blocking the shot from the point, Baertschi’s stick broke, but rather than give up on the play or simply drop on it, Baertschi saw Bo Horvat in a position to break away, so he dug his skate into the puck and toe-picked it forward, jack-knifing the puck ahead so that Bo could pounce on it with speed. It combined athleticism and skill with creativity and daring, and it led to Brock Boeser’s first career goal.
That right there is art. Extremely pixelated art.
If Sven Baertschi’s career ends here, I hope this pass will remain embedded in our memory, because it is a thing of beauty. Like so much in his career, it has been too easily forgotten, overlooked, and underappreciated. And if Sven is able to make a return to the Canucks, do me a favour and watch him play the puck with his skates. You might find yourself appreciating this player the way I do.