After taking a look at the KHL last week, we turn now to the league challenging them for the title of #2 to the NHL: Switzerland’s National League A. This summer, the growing trend of displaced NHLers choosing to play in Switzerland continued. Once an afterthought compared to the massive and seemingly boundless Kontinental Hockey League, the little NLA, confined just within Swiss borders, has begun to bring in top talent year after year. No better example exists than 2016 #1 overall pick Auston Matthews. Professional hockey in Switzerland received an all-time high in global attention last season when Matthews decided to play professionally overseas a year before he was eligible to be selected into the NHL. Never before had a high-profile prospect made such a decision, and if they had, Switzerland would not have been the top candidate. Matthews was far from the only recognizable name playing on a Swiss roster though, and his departure has not stopped the talent, both North American and European, from continuing to mount in the NLA.
With the newfound attention on the league, some of Europe’s best talent have begun to follow North Americans to a league that used to be almost entirely composed of just Swiss natives. This is evident in the NLA scoring race. Instead of being dominated by imports like Nathan Gerbe, Nick Spaling, Rob Schremp, and Dustin Jeffrey or Swiss veterans like Damien Brunner and Roman Wick, it is instead a mixture of those groups and talent from around Europe. While no longer of interest to NHL teams, the leader of this group is 37-year-old Tommi Santala. Some may remember Santala from short stints with the Atlanta Thrashers and Vancouver Canucks in the early 2000’s. but the Finnish winger has made a name for himself in Switzerland in recent years. In the twilight of his career, Santala is on pace for his best season yet with 32 points in 27 games for EHC Kloten. A more interesting NHL option may be HC Lugano’s Linus Klasen. Although undersized, the speedy Klasen has been a point-per-game player or better in each of the past three seasons. So far in 2016-17, the Swedish native has ten goals and a league-leading 22 assists in 29 games. Although Klasen had a cup of coffee with the Nashville Predators in 2010-11, he has never truly had a shot at the NHL. At 30 years old, his time is running out, but another dominant season coupled with a weak free agent market may give him another chance at competing with the best. In a similar position is fellow countryman Robert Nilsson, who enjoyed several decent seasons with the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers, but of late has been playing the best hockey of his career with the ZSC Lions. While over the hump at 31, a player known for his intelligence and vision may be able to find his way back to the NHL if his production keeps up.
While the Swiss no longer run the NLA like they used to, they’re not ready to give up being the best group of players in their home country just yet. The top player in the league thus far this season, and an intriguing possibility for NHL suitors, is Denis Hollenstein. A big, fast winger, Hollenstein was never drafted into the NHL and has put up only modest numbers for much of his career. However, the Kloten captain showed signs of an emergence last season with 37 points in 43 games and is now in the midst of a full-blown breakout season with a league leading 20 goals and 33 total points to go along with a league-best +18 rating in 28 games. Though 27 years old, Hollenstein is proving to be a legitimate talent this season and a return overseas in the near future is a definite possibility. Hollenstein made the trip once, playing his junior hockey for the OHL’s Guelph Storm, and with the right offer, the scoring forward could be headed back once more. Another Swiss prospect turning heads is Lino Martschini, a unique skill player who measure just 5’6″ tall and 143 lbs. While his size leaves many doubting his ability to play at the highest level, the 23-year-old has been able to hold his own in the OHL, with the Peterborough Petes, and then back home in Switzerland with 101 points in 100 games over the past two NLA seasons. The EV Zug star has youth, offensive instincts, and tremendous skating ability on his side, but the question is whether his size is too much for NHL teams to overlook. The NLA boasts an elite Swiss defenseman as well. Yannick Rathgeb, who surprisingly went undrafted after a strong couple of seasons with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, has been a revelation for HC Fribourg-Gotteron. A puck-moving defenseman who’s also not afraid to be physical, the 21-year-old put up 27 points in his rookie season last year, and already has 17 points (and 61 penalty minutes) in 24 games this year. Arguably the best young player in the league, if Rathgeb can improve on his defensive ability (-14 so far), he may be the most likely player in the league this season to get a call from an NHL squad.
However, the name recognition alone may give this trio of former NHLers and NLA top scorers the leg up on another chance in North America. Czech center Roman Cervenka of Fribourg-Gotteron has bursted on to the scene in his first NLA season, after being well-known as one of the best players not in the NHL for many years. The 30-year-old had great success in the KHL and Czech league for many years and has played in both since his short-lived NHL attempt with the Calgary Flames in 2012-13. During the lockout-shortened season, Cervenka had nine goals and eight assists in 39 games with the Flames, but was unable to earn an extension or NHL deal elsewhere. However, now that he is playing so well in Switzerland (25 points in 22 games), he may have an eye toward another try in North America before it’s too late. One guy with plenty of time who is helping himself out this season is Drew Shore. A second-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2009 and a former star at the University of Denver, Shore struggled to be anything more than a fringe player in four NHL seasons split between the Panthers and Flames. After playing in just two games in Calgary last year, Shore bolted for guaranteed play time overseas with EHC Kloten, and so far it has paid off. Playing alongside Hollenstein and Santala, Shore has 28 points in as many games, including 18 goals, and could potentially return to his college numbers by year’s end. Just 25 years old, the big forward has re-discovered his scoring touch in the NLA and will surely look to return home this off-season. Even Shore is not the best recent NHLer in Switzerland this season though. That title belongs to Mark Arcobello. After years of fighting for play time with the Edmonton Oilers and then short stops in Nashville, Pittsburgh, Arizona and Toronto in recent years, the Yale grad decided to try a foray into European hockey and has put on a show in the NLA. Small, but strong and versatile, Arcobello always seemed to be just on the cusp of greatness in the NHL, and he has finally found it with SC Bern. With 30 points and a +15 in 28 games, Arcobello has led Bern to early success this season. If he can keep his numbers up, Arcobello has a chance to win a title with a team that has relatively little talent overall and prove to NHL teams that he can hold his own.
When hockey is on display on the global scale, like at the Winter Olympic Games or this past summer’s World Cup of Hockey, it’s easy to see how worldly the game really is. However, it’s just as easy to forget that during the regular season when all the focus is on players just in the NHL or in it’s feeder leagues like the AHL, NCAA, or Canadian junior leagues. However, there is hockey talent around the world, and some that will have a great impact on the NHL in the near future. It’s important to give those other leagues their due diligence as well. Your favorite team may have one of these relatively unknown players on their roster soon.