Professional hockey in Switzerland received an all-time high in global attention last season when presumptive top NHL Draft pick, Auston Matthews, decided to play professionally overseas a year before he was eligible to be selected into the National Hockey League. Playing for the ZSC Lions in the largest city in Switzerland, Zurich, Matthews drew quite a bit of attention to the Swiss National League A (NLA). However, he was not the only elite player in the league, nor will his transition to the NHL be much of a loss to the league. A closer look shows that the NLA is chock full of former NHL veterans and this off-season has shown that the flow of talent shows no signs of stopping.
The general consensus in hockey is that the NHL is the best league in the world, followed by the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The KHL spans all of Russia, stretches into Belarus, Croatia, Finland, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Slovakia, and now China, and has plans to continue to grow. While there is certainly a lot of talent in the expansive KHL, the small country of Switzerland and the NLA seem to be giving them a run for their money as the second best pro hockey league in the world. Last year, Matthews was joined by former NHL stars Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who led the NLA in points, and Cory Conacher, who recently returned to North America, in the top ten in league scoring. The list does not stop there though; forwards Derek Roy, Matt D’Agostini, James Sheppard, Maxim Lapierre, defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron, goalie Cristobal Huet, and of course Swiss native Damien Brunner are just some of the former impact NHLers who played in Switzerland last season.
Even more impressive than that list may just be the list of names who have signed on to play in the NLA next season, led by Kris Versteeg. Versteeg was ranked 25th in our Top 50 NHL Unrestricted Free Agents list, but rather than wait out a slow NHL market, Versteeg signed with SC Bern of the NLA to play in the Swiss capital next season. Versteeg is coming off a 38-point NHL campaign in which he was one of the better players on the Carolina Hurricanes and was enough of a commodity that the Los Angeles Kings gave up a pick and a prospect to get him at the Trade Deadline. In fact, Versteeg has four 20-goal seasons on his resume and has never had less than 30 points in a full NHL season in his career, yet at 30 years old he is taking his talents to Switzerland. Joining him are more capable NHL veterans like Mike Santorelli, Mark Arcobello, Swiss-born goalie Jonas Hiller, and according to reports, Nick Spaling. All of those players could have contributed to any number of NHL teams in 2016-17, but instead chose the Swiss route over a quiet NHL off-season market. American Hockey League players are flocking to Switzerland as well, as the likes of Rob Schremp, Dustin Jeffrey, Bobby Sanguinetti, and Brendan Shinnimin are among many who have abandoned the North American grind for a pro contract in the NLA.
The growing trend appears to be that players who feel like an NHL contract may not be coming are choosing Switzerland and the NLA over the KHL (the non-Russians anyway). The list of incoming and current NLA players with NHL experience is impressive, whereas the KHL has imported only a few players who contributed at the NHL level last season over the course of this summer. Despite the KHL’s best efforts at growth and expansion, the Swiss NLA is making a strong push to be the best alternative to the NHL for the world’s best hockey players and is even challenging the great NHL for free agents. The NLA is on it’s way.