Discover more from Stars Stack
Screw the Dallas vs. Nashville game. Let's talk about the next Derian Hatcher, Lian Bichsel!
With lots of grainy gifs.
If you want an insightful recap of last night’s game, subscribe to Sean’s Substack. (I had no idea goalie skates were so complicated.)
I’ve got my mind on the World Juniors. Not the NHL; besides, I’ve got you covered on that end too. What Dallas is doing is a great story but the present is rarely as interesting as the future, and so that’s why we’re talking about the Stars’ 18th overall pick from Switzerland, Lian Bichsel. It certainly feels like the Stars could have used him last night against the Predators. Especially a defenseman who could have engaged rather than shrunk on Yakov Trenin’s shorthanded goal. Calm down. I’m being figurative here — after all, kids make mistakes, adults don’t — well, mostly. But you know where I’m coming from. If there’s one thing the Stars lack, it’s an assertive defenseman and Bichsel is definitely that. But I’m not here to overreact and call him ‘NHL-ready’. I’m here to do something worse and justify those overreactions.
But first: do I really believe that Bichsel is the next Derian Hatcher? Yes. I mostly hate comparisons. Even the most similar players are usually similar in the same way Weezer is similar to Rickshaw Billie’s Burger Patrol. They exist in the same genre but what it teaches us about both amounts to jackshit. In Bichsel’s case, it’s hard not to compare him. Astute readers might point out it’d be wiser to compare him to Richard Matvichuk, who was every bit as physical as Hatcher, minus the killer switch. But no. Bichsel, like Hatcher, seems to relish the mortal combat. He’s even happy to articulate his sometimes-reptilian-brained approach in interviews. And like Hatcher, he’s willing to cross that line in doing so. But Hatcher was also pretty talented too, not just the captain on the Cup-winning 99’ squad, but also a mainstay as a Team USA representative at the Olympics.
Whether Bichsel will ever earn that reputation we don’t know. Two games of World Juniors against nothing but kids from Finland and Latvia is hardly a gauntlet of NHL grit. But his early play has been a masterclass in effective physicality, and offense from defense. To justify my overreaction, and lofty comparisons, I’ll be turning to the proverbial tale of the tape, specifically Day 2 between Switzerland and Latvia. If you have a problem with the cheap nature of the gifs, then go away unless you want to pay for my internet (in which case, stay!).
Bichsel, #20, is the one receiving the puck.
Talent is essential in the defensive zone too; talent is essential in the defensive zone too, talent—alright, you get it. The phrase” good in the defensive zone” doesn’t mean what it used to. It still kills me to hear dime-store analysts talk about players who are good in the defensive zone just because they can block a shot or “clear the crease.” Bichsel can do that, but that’s not what makes him special. Here you see Bichsel harness all of his talents to evade a forechecker, using his skating, puck handling, and vision to bring the puck back to his partner. It’s a small play, but it demonstrates how comfortable he is with the puck versus those who would prefer to dump the puck out under pressure as soon as possible.
Bichsel, #20, on the right this time, receiving the puck.
Kind of nothing burger on the surface. But it’s another example of Bichsel using multiple talents at once to maintain possession. 1) motion: it’s important that he begins moving backward as soon as Switzerland gains control and 2) his use of that motion to swing back to further separate himself from the forechecker. There are warts, however.
Bichsel, top left, trying to save his own skin.
Bichsel’s aggression isn’t always for the best. Here, instead of making the safe play and backing off, he tries to poke the puck; when he gets beat, he makes things worse by trying to jailbreak the odd-man rush with a hadouken. For the most part, stuff like this is increasingly few and far between. Per Mitch Brown’s Game Score, Bichsel rated the highest of any player on Day 2. Defensively, he ended the day on a high note, stopping a breakaway without taking a penalty. Surprisingly, his Day 1 defensive performance might have been even better.
Based strictly on zone entries prevented, defensive zone breakups, and defensive zone retrievals, Bichsel was top 5 in the tourney.
Mitch Brown does great work with fancy stats for prospects. Together with Lassi Alanen, they’re providing invaluable tracking data for the World Juniors. Brown has a Patreon page too; just saying.
However, nobody actually questions Bichsel’s defense. That’s why he played over 28 minutes yesterday. It’s why EP Rinkside had him ranked the first star of Day 1, noting that “Bichsel was everything for Switzerland, anchoring their top pair, shutting down Finland's top line, playing on both first-unit special teams, and even picking up the lone assist on Attilio Biasca's overtime winner.”
The real question is whether or not he can add anything to the other side of the puck. I’ve softened a lot on the importance of blueliners needing to add offense. Heiskanen, Sanderson, Miller, Schneider, Seider, even third rounder Stanislov Svozil, who has been fantastic this tournament; a lot of really good defensemen who were either drafted lower than they should have, or exceeded expectations had a common scouting report criticism—”low offensive ceiling.”
To be clear, I’ve only softened on that stance. I haven’t outright rejected it. I don’t think a defenseman’s production is essential to their position, but if possession is essential to their capabilities, than offensive performance should be something they can show, even if the points don’t always come with it. The game’s too fast for players to show one without the other in some form. I can’t speak to how much of this was in his game before, but I can certainly speak to what’s there now.
Bichsel, top left on his strongside, manning the point.
Bichsel is a massive dude, which is what makes this all the more impressive. Your garden variety blueliner would have corralled the puck, and sent one on net; Dallas has plenty of blueliners who do exactly that. But Bichsel instead creates space for himself, dragging the Latvian forechecker just long enough to cut back while also giving himself plenty of space for the eventual give-and-go which then turns into a deflection chance. He can use his feet for chances, which is good. But what about his hands?
Bichsel, again on his strongside, focusing on his hands to create space.
This might have been his most impressive offensive sequence of all. The keep-in is first and foremost. And yes, that first dangle to eventually get open toward the right dot is impressive. But I actually think the stickwork on the second forechecker is even better. Not only is it a heads-up move to evade the pokecheck, but it’s trickier on his weakside (which he has a lot of experience with), and ultimately what allows him to chamber the shot.
His ability to beat defenders with movement and hands even showed up in the #fancystats, as he was one of Day 1’s better defenders in Mitch Brown’s ‘advantages created’ metric.
While we’ve highlighted his hands and feet, the strength is there too. Believe it or not, the following is part of the same continuous sequence from the last gif; this time Bichsel uses his strength to effortlessly dominate along the walls.
None of this is to say that Bichsel is a finished product. It’s easy to envision our prospects not doing worse than some of the current veterans, and swoon over potential. But plugging prospects into an NHL roster spot is like adding too much salt to the recipe; harder to undo than not putting enough (i.e. more veterans). Bichsel can play on his offside, and often does, so if he does get an early shot, it’d likely be to replace one of Colin Miller or Jani Hakanpaa, whose contracts expire for the 2024-2025 year. My prediction? He does. I may be overreacting to whether he’s NHL ready, but I’m not overreacting to his advanced maturity. Like Hatcher, he can impose his will on both sides of the puck. Maybe that’s why I’m overreacting; we’ve been waiting over 20 years for someone to fill those 6’5 shoes.