Sven Baertschi believes he belongs in the NHL.
The question is, does anyone else agree? The 27-year-old winger cleared waivers Monday morning for the second time this season. Baertschi was placed on waivers after his agent made it known that he was looking to be moved to a team that would play him in the NHL.
Baertschi took his initial demotion to the AHL about as well as could be expected, committing himself to helping the Utica Comets win and working his way back up into the Canucks lineup. He did both those things, putting up 10 points for the Comets as they stormed out to an 8-0-0 start to the season in October. The Comets didn’t lose a game until Baertschi got called up to the Canucks.
His second demotion to the AHL was a little more mystifying. He didn’t light up the scoresheet in the limited minutes he played in his six games with the Canucks, but his underlying numbers were fantastic and he picked up two primary assists on the power play during a tough stretch for the Canucks as a team. At the very least, it seemed like he deserved a longer look in the lineup.
Instead, he was sent down when the Canucks called up Nikolay Goldobin, only to see the Canucks play Goldobin in just one game then send him back to Utica as well.
“You try to move past it as quickly as possible. I am obviously not happy being sent down. I’m not sure exactly what the reason was,” said Baertschi to Ben Birnell of the Utica Observer-Dispatch when he was sent down. “What do you do next? That’s the thing. You have to find that motivation again. At this point right now I’m fighting for my career. I want to get back to the NHL as quick as possible. So, I have to show it.”
Baertschi has continued to dominate the AHL, primarily as a playmaker, making his teammates better. He has 13 points, 11 of them assists, in 9 games since being sent down. Among AHL players with at least 10 games played, Baertschi is second in points-per-game, with 1.44. In terms of his performance on the ice, there’s little more he could do to prove he belongs in the NHL.
It should be noted that Reid Boucher is also dominating in the AHL, with 19 goals in 23 games and is right behind Baertschi at 1.43 points per game. There’s just one significant difference between the two: Baertschi has proven himself in the NHL; Boucher hasn’t.
Baertschi has produced points at a second-line rate when he’s been in the lineup for the Canucks over the last four seasons. Just last season, Baertschi had 9 goals in 26 games, a 28-goal pace over a full 82-game season. The trouble is that Baertschi didn’t play 82 games and has never done so in his career.
Baertschi and his family dealt with several hellish months last season as he recovered from a concussion and post-concussion syndrome. It was a long road to recovery for Baertschi, but he managed to return at the end of last season and prove he was healthy.
This season, Baertschi made it clear: he’s not afraid of contact.
“When I play physical and I'm involved, and I'm getting hit, I'm making hits, then that's when I play my best games,” he said. “That's part of the game that's also the most fun. You want to be bumped around out there...I love it! I like being around the net and it's painful around the net, that's part of it, and that's what I like.”
Still, perhaps the injury concern is keeping teams from acquiring Baertschi. It’s not the only issue preventing teams from picking him up off waivers.
The biggest is that Baertschi has a $3.37 million contract through 2021. There are a limited number of teams that have that kind of cap space available and fewer still that are willing to use that cap space to take a player off waivers.
That’s particularly true when the Canucks have sewered Baertschi’s value by sticking him in the AHL all season, only calling him up for six games. If they were looking to move on from the winger, the team’s recent spate of injuries would have been a good time to showcase Baertschi for a potential trade, instead of playing Zack MacEwen or Loui Eriksson for 6-10 minutes per game.
It’s clear to every team around the NHL that the Canucks don’t want Baertschi, so why would they help them out by taking him — and his full contract — off waivers. If a team is interested in acquiring Baertschi, it would make far more sense for them to insist that the Canucks retain salary, take on a significant contract in return, and/or sweeten the deal in some way.
He really ought to be claimed; he's not a liability in shots; has a small but positive penalty differential, and a wicked shot. No reason not to be a league regular. pic.twitter.com/WVXcIg32a1— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) December 15, 2019
Canucks GM Jim Benning made it clear that they’re not asking for much in return in a trade, and made it clear why he and the team are no longer desirous of Baertschi’s services.
“He’s played well down there,” said Benning to Ed Willes of The Province. “But we’ve kind of evolved as a team and our skill players are more hard skill than soft skill.”
As pointed out by Jason Brough on TSN 1040, that kind of talk echoes what came out of Edmonton about Jordan Eberle when Benning’s mentor, Peter Chiarelli, was GM of the Oilers. Eberle was eventually traded to the New York Islanders and subsequently scored 25 goals and 59 points with his "soft skill" in his first year in New York.
Benning made it clear at the start of the season that he believes the Canucks have enough skill without Baertschi, but this latest quote reveals that it’s not just skill in his book, but the right kind of skill. Benning described it as “the evolution of us as a team,” but the issue is that they haven’t really evolved at all.
The Canucks have acquired a bevy of wingers over the last year to help improve their forward group: J.T. Miller, Tanner Pearson, Josh Leivo, Micheal Ferland, and Antoine Roussel. Each of those wingers could be described as “hard skill.”
Here’s the problem: those new wingers only represent a significant upgrade if they push other wingers down, not out, of the lineup.
Is Miller an upgrade on Baertschi? Absolutely. But that upgrade is mitigated by Baertschi being out of the lineup instead of pushed down into a bottom-six role. Instead of getting the upgrade of Miller on Baertschi and Baertschi on whatever bottom-six winger he replaces — say Tim Schaller, Loui Eriksson, or Tyler Motte — you only get the value of the upgrade of Miller on Baertschi.
Instead of incremental improvements, the Canucks could have had better scoring depth throughout the lineup. Now they have the same issue as before: a top-heavy lineup that struggles to score when the first line gets shut down.
Everyone’s frustrated now. Baertschi is frustrated that he’s not in the NHL. The Canucks are frustrated that they can’t find any takers for Baertschi and that they’re sliding down the standings in the NHL. The fans are getting frustrated with that last part too.
Finally, you have to wonder if Bo Horvat is getting frustrated. The Canucks’ captain is struggling to score this season, particularly at even strength. Horvat has just two goals at 5-on-5 this season.
Over the past three seasons, Horvat has played over 1300 minutes with Baertschi at 5-on-5. In that time, Horvat has produced goals at a first-line rate while on the ice with Baertschi: 0.89 goals per 60 minutes. That’s the benefit of playing with a playmaker like Baertschi.
Horvat has played the bulk of this season with Pearson and Leivo, two “hard skill” players that lack Baertschi’s softer playmaking touch. Is that part of the reason why Horvat hasn’t produced goals at 5-on-5 the way we’re used to seeing from him?