For Sven Baertschi, every shift over the past week must have felt like a gift.
The 26-year-old winger was off to a strong start in 2018-19, tallying six points in his first nine games, when suddenly his season came to a screeching halt from a blindside hit to the head by Tomas Hyka of the Vegas Golden Knights.
Initially, Baertschi thought he was fine. He popped back up this feet and finished his shift, which only lasted a few more seconds. He skated to the bench, had words with the referee for not calling the hit, and sat down. He even took three more shifts in the second period, though, according to the scoresheet, his final shift lasted just seven seconds.
“Although he hit me on the head, at first I thought I could finish the match,” Baertschi later said to Swiss newspaper Blick, “but then suddenly I felt so bad that I had to be examined by the doctor.”
Baertschi was out for over two months while recovering from the concussion. He tried skating a month into his recovery, but got dizzy after 15 minutes. As soon as he started moving and spinning, everything went blurry and he got a headache. His thoughts turned to his family and make sure that he could still enjoy his life with them after his hockey career was over.
When Baertschi finally made his return, he picked up where he left off, with another six points in nine games, but something felt off. Eventually, he missed nearly two more months with post-concussion syndrome. At that point, there were concerns in the Canucks fanbase that his career might be over.
Baertschi stayed diligent, however, and made his return in late March. When he scored against the Dallas Stars a couple games later, it was a long time coming.
“There’s nothing like it, scoring a goal,” said Baertschi. “It’s the same feeling every time and it’s really exciting. Soon as the puck went in, it was a nice relief. You know it’s been a while.”
Canucks head coach Travis Green has eased Baertschi back into the lineup, limiting his ice time and even scratching him once to make sure they don’t rush his return.
“You can train as much as you want off the ice and then you can do conditioning by itself, it’s just nothing like game-like, it’s completely different,” said Baertschi. “My game is getting better and better, I’m feeling more comfortable out there again. Once it all comes together, it’s just feeling confident out there and playing like you used to play, not shy away from hits, not shy away from the actual game.”
Baertschi certainly hasn’t been shy. He’s been involved at both ends of the ice, winning puck battles along the boards and getting to the front of the net. His injury and recovery have only steeled him for the future, embracing every single shift like it might be his last.
“As I’m looking forward, it’s still hockey, things happen out there,” said Baertschi. “I’m just taking every shift really serious and trying to leave it all out there as much as I can. So far I feel really comfortable and I’m really confident that after this off-season I’ll come back and be even better.”
That could make a big difference for next season. The Canucks have lacked secondary scoring behind the big three of Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, and Brock Boeser. In terms of points-per-game, Baertschi is fourth among Canucks forwards behind that trio. A healthy Baertschi wouldn’t have fixed everything for the Canucks this past season, but he definitely would have helped.
“I think his numbers don’t lie,” said Horvat. “When he’s been in the lineup, he’s been scoring and producing, so it’s unfortunate that he had that one hit. I think, for him, to go through that adversity and still come back and play as well as he has, I think that shows a lot about him.
“He’s a huge part of this team, even in the room. Having him around the guys, it lifted us.”
It’s only fair that Baertschi helped lift the spirits of his teammates in his return, as they lifted his while he was out.
“They’re the best teammates, man,” said Baertschi. “They’ve been unbelievable through this whole process, checking in on me every day and even when the boys were on the road, I got messages from them, guys just checking in every single day, and I never got tired of it. I was just so excited that the guys cared so much.”
His teammates might have missed him most on the power play. Among skaters that have played at least 50 minutes with the man advantage, Baertschi has been the Canucks most efficient scorer. His 2.32 power play goals per hour is first on the Canucks, as is his 5.41 power play points per hour.
That is in a small sample size — he has just seven power play points overall this season — but it’s a continuation of his excellence on the power play in the past.
Over the past three seasons, only Boeser has been a more efficient power play goal scorer, averaging 2.46 goals per hour to Baertschi’s 2.27. In points per hour, Baertschi is fifth, behind Thomas Vanek, Boeser, Pettersson, and Daniel Sedin.
The underlying numbers back up his counting stats. According to Natural Stat Trick, with Baertschi on the ice on the power play this season, the Canucks have averaged 78.87 unblocked shot attempts per hour, 57.22 shots on goal per hour, and 57.99 scoring chances per hour. Baertschi leads the Canucks in all three of those categories.
So, a healthy Baertschi next season could not only provide the Canucks with another top-six winger for Pettersson or Horvat, but also boost the struggling power play, which has been among the league’s worst this season. That would depend on Baertschi making a full recovery, so that he’s not just playing minimal minutes, but potentially playing big minutes on the top six and on the first power play unit.
When Baertschi is at his best, he’s playing instinctively. Coming back from an injury like he had can make a player question those instincts and think too much. That’s what he’s trying to avoid.
“You just gotta go for it, man, you just gotta play and not really think out there, whatever is there, you take it,” he said. “When I play my best, I play on instinct. Sometimes unorthodox plays, but I just try to make reads out there and understand what other guys are trying to do and then feed off that, read off that, and then good things happen.”
Where did those instincts come from?
“They were passed along from my dad,” he says with a smile. Baertschi’s father, Hansruedi (or Hans-Rudolf) Baertschi, played in the top two leagues in Switzerland back in the 80’s. As a junior hockey player in Switzerland, Baertschi even played for the same team as his dad did 25 years earlier, SC Langenthal.
“I think he quit the year I was born, or just right after, so I didn’t have a chance to watch him,” said Baertschi. “I saw pictures and stuff, which is cool growing up...It’s something that’s passed along and our family has always been somewhat of a hockey family, even my brother — if he would’ve kept playing, he would’ve been a great goalie.”
Having that hockey history in his family, not to mention an older brother against whom he could take endless shots on the outdoor rink near their home, honed his instincts, but the NHL was a distant dream back then. A big reason why was the lack of Swiss players in the NHL.
“Growing up in Switzerland at that time as a young kid, there was Martin Gerber in net, [David] Aebischer was here in net, and at some point Mark Streit decided to come over and give it a shot,” said Baertschi. “Growing up as a kid, you almost look at it as being impossible.”
Eventually that dream became, as Baertschi says, a goal, and he became part of the next generation of Swiss players to succeed in the NHL, a generation that includes the likes of Roman Josi, Nino Niederreiter, Luca Sbisa, and Yannick Weber. A few years later, more young Swiss players followed in their footsteps: Kevin Fiala, Timo Meier, and 2017 first-overall pick, Nico Hischier. Now young Swiss players have plenty of examples to follow in the NHL.
“For me, it was really just a dream,” he said. “Once I went to Portland, after games we would speak to scouts, all of a sudden. People walked up to you with different tracksuits or hats that had an NHL logo on it and all of a sudden it becomes, ‘What, they’re interested in me?’”
“There’s a chance, even if the chance is small,” he added. “There’s a possibility you go somewhere, play in the best league in the world, and that’s all you really need to know. Once you have that in front of you, you’re striving for that, there’s nothing that can really stop you.”
Baertschi isn’t letting his struggles this past season stop him either, as he’s turned new dreams into goals now that he’s solidified his place in the NHL. Now every shift feels like a chance to get closer to that goal, playing the game he loves, with the people that have supported him through the most trying time of his life.
“I’m just really blessed and happy to be around the guys again and play hockey again,” he said. “I’m not taking anything for granted here.”