EDMONTON - Ralph Krueger would not have predicted this much early-career success for Sven Baertschi.
But the Edmonton Oilers associate coach who spent 13 years guiding Switzerland's hockey program, wasn't caught off guard by the "storybook start" to Baertschi's NHL career with the Calgary Flames.
"He's got very high-end offensive ability," Krueger said Friday. "He was in the Under-16, Under-17 program when I left, but he was a leader in that class of players.
"I'm not surprised (by Baertschi's success). I never worked with him directly, but when I was running the program, I knew the coaches working with him, and they always said he had a quick-twitch ability that was inate, and that's something usually a Swiss player would need to learn over here."
When the Flames drafted Baertschi 13th overall last summer, they believed the talented winger could produce at the NHL level, but they couldn't have seen the kind of buzz he's created in the first week of big-league action.
Baertschi, who was summoned from the WHL's Portland Winterhawks on an emergency basis, scored four goals in his first three games heading into Friday night's clash with the Edmonton Oilers.
It's a big deal in Calgary, and a big deal to Switzerland, said Krueger, the Winnipeg product who was in charge of the Swiss program from 1997 through 2010.
"It's headline news in every single media source there," said Krueger, who played junior in Calgary with the Wranglers in 1978-79 before spending a dozen years playing in Germany and then turning to coaching.
Hockey fans may not think of Switzerland as a world power in the game, but Krueger -- who coached the country's national squad to a sixth-place finish in the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, and eighth place at the 2010 Games in Vancouver -- believes players such as Baertschi and New York Islanders forward Nino Niederreiter are proof that country is becoming better all the time.
Switzerland has already produced a few big-league goalies in the likes of David Aebischer, Martin Gerber and Jonas Hiller, plus NHL defencemen Mark Streit, Luca Sbisa Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber.
It was just a matter of time before some of the forwards made a mark, and Baertschi has something to him which Krueger believed was necessary.
"He's got a real cheekiness to him," he said. "He's not a big player, but he plays big."
Krueger credits that toughness in the game for the evolution of hockey in Switzerland between 2002 and 2006, which became more aggressive.
"That kind of influenced the young generation coming up, guys like Sbisa, Diaz, Weber. The whole program became more physical, and that's helping these kids to be better prepared for the game that's over here,' he explained. "I said about 10 years ago, we're like Finland in the 1980s. It takes 10 years until the respect for the country grows, and then these players are seen in a different light. For me, Switzerland is going to be on par with Finland in the next decade."
As for how big of an impact Baertschi will have, Krueger is looking forward to seeing it
"Let's be honest -- he's in the right place at the right time and taken advantage of that. It takes 20 or 30 games to see where a player really is at, but that start gives him the confidence, which is necessary for a player," Krueger said. "But he's got good values. He'll be able to deal with this the right way.
"He won't sit back. It'll make him work even harder."
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