Luca Sbisa, Nino Niederreiter, Sven Baertschi, Mirco Mueller. Since 2008, Switzerland has had more success in the first round of the NHL Draft than Slovakia or the Czech Republic, the two countries that hosted the annual Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and two of the hockey nations generally regarded as being stronger than Switzerland. If this trend continues, the Swiss may well surpass those two nations.
Slovakia showed a subpar performance at this year's Ivan Hlinka and even though the Czechs kept the bronze medal in the country, the Swiss team might have been the number-one surprise of the tourney.
Their journey through the Cup resembled that of their older countrymen, the U20 Swiss national team players, at the 2013 U20 World Junior Championship. In both categories, the Swiss teams were incredibly difficult to beat. Stronger teams eventually found out that it was impossible to steal all three points from the Swiss. At the Ivan Hlinka, all three teams that beat them – Canada, the Czech Republic and Finland – only did so in the shootout, while Sweden lost all three points to the Swiss.
This relative success may indicate that there could be another Swiss player drafted in the first round of next year's NHL Draft. One of the candidates is skilled forward Kevin Fiala, a native of Uzwil, a small town in northeast Switzerland. Hailing from a hockey family, Fiala always found a way to play with older kids and keeps on doing that in Sweden. There, he's about to play for the junior team of one of the most successful organizations in the country, Jönköping's HV71.
Fiala is of Czech descent, and both he and his father Jan have dual citizenship – Swiss and Czech. After his father retired from playing hockey in the Swiss lower leagues, he became a youth hockey coach in Uzwil where he gave his then 11-year-old son the chance to play among 15-year-olds. Both progressed and in 2010, the 14-year-old Kevin transferred to Zürich SC, arguably one of country's top organizations for developing young guns.
There, he split his time between the U15 and U17 teams, almost maintaining a point-per-game average in the latter category. In 2011, the father-son tandem was reunited as Fiala's father became the assistant coach of the Under-17 team. Besides staying in that category, the team also gave Kevin a chance at the Under-20 level. Up there, he kept on proving what a talent he is, which brought attention from Sweden.
Appearing at the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup helped get the flashy forward to Sweden, as well. Following a solid, three-goal performance at last year's tournament, the Malmö Redhawks recruited Fiala to play at the Under-20 level, and that's where he stayed. He didn't get lost in the SuperElit where the competition is huge – it's a usual transfer station for all Swedish prospects – so collecting 28 points in 33 regular season games as an underage, 16-year-old player was quite an accomplishment.
For example, Gabriel Landeskog had even less points-per-game when he was a 16-year-old in the SuperElit, but also had an opportunity to play among pros in the Swedish Elitserien. That's something Fiala is still waiting for, but before too long, the wait could be over. His first Swedish team, the Malmö Redhawks, play in the lower Allsvenskan, while his new team, HV71, is a top Elitserien organization.
Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and New Jersey Devils prospect Mattias Tedenby both played for HV71 in Jönköping, with both players coming to the team as they started closing in on their NHL Draft year.
After his top-notch performance at the Ivan Hlinka this year, HV71 might also give him a shot at pro hockey. And since they're one of the organizations participating in the European Trophy, that might be where Fiala gets the chance to start his pro career.
It is no surprise that Fiala wants to be a first-round pick. He plays like a first-round prospect and is technically superior to defensemen of his age. Sometimes too reckless with the puck, he needs to work on keeping the game in his control, even at high speed. At 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, it might be a good thing he's mostly concentrating on technical rather than physical hockey.
While his shot is a goaltender's nightmare, Fiala also shows good skating abilities and great vision. He's also responsible defensively and plays with confidence. If Fiala has a good season in the SuperElit or even the Elitserien, expect him to be picked late in the first round. There is definite potential for Fiala to become a first-line forward in the NHL, but he currently seems more of a fit as an elite and fast third-liner, used on the penalty kill and similar situations, along the lines of Michael Frolík during the Blackhawks run to the Stanley Cup last season.
Hockey's Future spoke with Kevin Fiala following a team practice at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup in Břeclav, Czech Republic.
Hockey's Future: Kevin, this is a big tournament, what's the feeling of playing in it?
Kevin Fiala: It feels really good, we played good games with all our group stage opponents. Too bad we lost twice. I feel we were better in the two games.
HF: You play in Sweden, why did you decide to go there?
KF: In my opinion, hockey in Sweden is better organized than in Switzerland. I wanted to leave my country and learn some new stuff and learn it a different way. So far I've been satisfied.
HF: How would you describe your style of play?
KF: I'm a technical forward and I'm very offensive. I need to work on the defensive side of my game to become a complete player.
HF: You're eligible for the upcoming 2014 NHL Entry Draft. What are your expectations?
KF: I'd like to be drafted in the first round.
HF: If that happens, you might consider going overseas just like many of your countrymen to get a better feel for North American style of hockey…
KF: I have thought about it already, but I won't. I believe I can practice better in Sweden so I will stay there.
Follow Radoslav Vavrina on Twitter via @RadoslavVavrina