As mentioned earlier, following the Dallas Stars from Europe is a challenge itself. On the positive side, the ability to regularly see the most important Stars prospects who are playing in European leagues is a very big plus. Those players can be the future of the franchise for the next decade or more. This is where my European presence can actually bring some added value to the Stars universe.
I still vividly remember Miro Heiskanen’s smooth performances as a 17- and 18-year-old for the HIFK team in Finnish Liiga or in the Champions Hockey League. Thanks to his effortless style of play, those were my very favorite times watching ice hockey. I’m no scout, but I knew the Stars had a NHL-ready defenseman hiding in Europe basically immediately.
With Lian Bichsel, I’m having a bit of a deja vu. Bichsel is a totally different animal than Heiskanen, be it from the way he plays or the size he already has. As we speak, he’s also not NHL ready the same way Heiskanen was. But then again, only the truly elite prospects are NHL-ready that young. Bichsel’s natural abilities will probably translate to the NHL a bit later, but when they do - better watch out.
Let me bring you closer to Lian Bichsel to find out when that might actually happen.
How the Dallas Stars drafted Lian Bichsel
After the gut wrenching overtime loss to the Calgary Flames in the Stanley Cup Playoffs back in May 2022, it was clear that the Dallas Stars would be selecting 18th in the first round of the NHL Draft later in July, as they were the second worst team in the playoffs from the regular season, at least points-wise, thanks to Predators implosion in Arizona in their regular season finale.
Another thing was clear at that time. They had a significant hole in the prospects pipeline, when it comes to defensemen. Sure, they picked Miro Heiskanen, a franchise player in 2017 and also snagged Thomas Harley (or Harley Thomas?) during the first round of the draft in 2019. But after them? Maybe Artem Grushnikov – but that’s about it when it comes to possible NHL players in the next 2 to 4 years.
Sure, there could be a surprise story of the likes of Jack Bar or Jacob Holmes making it to the big team but it certainly seems like a long shot, at least for now. Enter the 2022 NHL Draft. It was pretty much expected that the Stars would probably want to draft a defenseman with their pick, if there are no obvious fallers to the area where they were selecting.
Intriguingly enough, one of the most fascinating stories during the first round of this year’s draft was the unexpected fall of a scoring winger, Joakim Kemell. When Nashville was on the clock one pick before the Dallas Stars, I was almost sure that had they passed on him too and Kemell would become a Dallas first round pick. Sure enough, Nashville scouts didn’t pass on a player who was projected by almost everybody to be selected in the top 10 in that draft.
After the Nashville pick was made, there wasn’t an obvious player out there to select as the pool of players available was rather equal and I think it played into the reasoning behind the Stars scouts and decision makers. Dallas had a glaring need on the blueline and they decided to address it by selecting their guy – Lian Bichsel – the towering 196 cm (6’5’’) tall defenseman. A native of Olten, Switzerland, Bichsel already had 29 games of professional experience amongst men in Swedish Hockey League for Leksand IF under his belt at that time.
Bichsel was projected to go around that late-teen/early twenties area of the first round, so it was not a reach by any means that the Stars elected to pick him. His ability to play against men in that young age was also definitely a factor. According to Jiri Hrdina, Dallas Stars amateur scout, what really persuaded the staff to select him was how hard he plays in his own zone, his outstanding skating ability considering his height and weight, a good shot, and his ability to make a solid first pass. (By the way, Hrdina was also partly responsible for the Matej Blumel signing prior to the draft.)
What I think also played a role is the fact that Bichsel could be ready to play NHL games sooner than other defensive prospects taken in that draft. He is already playing professionally in Sweden, where he already averages around 14-15 minutes per game. The Dallas Stars are obviously taking into consideration the inflow of young talent to their NHL roster in Wyatt Johnston, Mavrik Bourque, Logan Stankoven, Thomas Harley, Ty Dellandrea and Riley Damiani. Adding to that, the makeup of their current young core and the age of Roope Hintz (25), Jason Robertson (23), Miro Heiskanen (23), and Jake Oettinger (23) proves that the window of true contention could begin as early as 2024.
According to Jim Nill, this was also a reason why they decided to pay a high price and send a potential first round pick in the stacked 2023 NHL draft for Nils Lundkvist to bolster their defensive core and especially the right side even more. Lundkvist is already a part of the team now and should be even more important when the Stars enter the contention stage. Lundkvist immediately became the second-highest rated prospect on Prospect Pool Rankings released by EP Rinkside at the end of September. Bichsel ranked fifth in that ranking.
“For Lian, the player I feel he is closest to, in terms of NHL potential and quality, would be Colton Parayko. He has the perfect combination of size, defensive skill set, skating and ability to take away space from attackers to mold himself into Colton Parayko in his prime years. Maybe a bit meaner version of said player.”
Lian Bichsel and the Dallas Stars connection to Leksand IF
This season, Bichsel continues to play regularly for Leksand IF in the Swedish Hockey League. Leksand is a very small city with a population of around 10,000 and that estimation is already a bit rich, as it is also counting the surrounding areas and villages. You could be forgiven to think that it was a big deal for locals in the Leksand area that they had a player drafted in the NHL first round, but make no mistake here. They already had a first round pick from their team selected last season as well, as winger Isak Rosen went 14th overall to the Buffalo Sabres.
What the city lacks in size and population it makes up for with the passion the local people have for the team. Leksand is a hockey crazy city with some big names from the NHL appearing among their hockey team alumni, like Filip Forsberg, Viktor Rask, but also former Dallas Stars goalie, Johan Hedberg – “The Moose”. In case you wondered where Hedberg got his famous nickname, moose hunting is considered basically a religion in the Leksand area according to locals. Hedberg doesn’t have much time for that during the season, as he’s now coaching Mora IK in the Swedish Allsvenskan, which is a second hockey league in Sweden.
Since Bichsel was already playing meaningful games in the Swedish Hockey League during the Stars’ preseason this year, he was not present at training camp ahead of this season. Unfortunately for the Stars brass and coaching staff, they didn’t have proper space to evaluate his readiness closely yet, as Bichsel wasn’t present at the prospect development camp either, which took place right after the draft in July.
The Summer Controversy with the Swiss National Team
The reason why Bichsel wasn’t initially scheduled to participate in prospect development camp was that all sides involved believed he would be an integral part of the Switzerland National Team during the World Juniors Tournament in August. Unfortunately for him and probably all parties involved, there was a substantial controversy regarding him actually not being called up to play for Switzerland in World Juniors, where another promising Stars prospect, Logan Stankoven shined very bright for the Canada team and used the tournament as a springboard for his great preseason performances.
The story why Bichsel wasn’t nominated is intriguing, to say the least. On July 22nd, Swiss Ice Hockey Federation announced the nomination of the team for the upcoming World Juniors without Lian Bichsel on it, as he did not attend the preparation camp prior to the nomination. The choice not to attend the camp was on Bichsel only, as he wanted to prepare for the U20 tournament individually and to follow his training plan for the summer rather strictly as the hockey tournament in August could particularly mess up with the preparation for the new season. Swiss Ice Hockey Federation considered this as a breach of their “Team First” mentality and also mentioned that in a official statement released:
“We will not respond to his wish to join the World Junior team without any preparation. Such special treatment of a single player is not in line with our ‘Team First!’ philosophy – a central pillar of our national teams’ philosophy,” Lars Weibel, the director of national teams of Swiss Hockey states. “We communicated this openly and honestly to the player and his representatives, while also being in constant contact with Leksand and the Dallas Stars. Both are in favor of Bichsel’s participation.”
Bichsel’s team has also released a counter statement to his federation stating this:
“Lian Bichsel has lived an exceptionally intense schedule this past summer without a single day of vacation until 16th of July. It was necessary to grant the player a two-week break to recuperate. The well-being of the player together with a professional approach to injury prevention was the only reason. It is regrettable that Lian’s wellbeing as an athlete is being presented as if Lian is feeling too good to participate in training camps. Lian has made it repeatedly clear he would be proud to skate for Switzerland and [...] confirmed that he could return to action for the training and friendly games in Edmonton the week prior to the tournament.”
I personally see this as a big communication failure and both sides could make a case they’re right. The need for rest and regeneration in the training process, especially with younger athletes, is often overlooked and it could be seen as a positive that Bichsel has a team around himself that is pretty keen on looking at player benefits first. They are able to hold their ground to what they believe is the best for the player, even when it may be an unpopular move and may cause friction with the national federation.
On the other hand, hockey is a team sport and it was known well ahead that the tournament will take place in August, so possible adjustment of a training regime could have been in place for Bichsel’s team as well. Be that as it may, just three days after the announcement was made, Bichsel had flown to Leksand to begin the preparations with his team for a new season in Swedish Hockey League.
He was welcomed in Leksand with open arms, especially by his coach, Björn Hellkvist, who has been coaching ice hockey for over 15 years. He saw something special in Bichsel already when he arrived the year before.
“I have been able to train many talents, many good hockey players, but it is rare that such a great talent crosses one’s path, it does not happen every season. Then it is clear that there is pressure on us as coaches and the club, we must manage this and hone him into the diamond he actually has the potential to be,” says Hellkvist.
Lian Bichsel and the Role of His Self-Confidence
Dominating against peers definitely has some value as well as providing a learning experience from playing the best players from your age category. It may bring a player a new dose of self-confidence that he’s on the right track in his development.
Though participating in preseason for a NHL hockey team would have provided great quality, the European league has its charms, too. Bichsel has been able to train and play against men since being a 17 year old and this experience may only springboard him to be a consideration for the Stars’ AHL team as soon as next season. And if there is one thing that stands out on Bichsel, it’s actually his self-confidence.
Here is Rasmus Näsman (on the left), a journalist covering Leksand IF for local newspaper Siljan News talking about Bichsel’s self-confidence when he joined the senior team as a 17-year old:
“Because of some injuries, Lian Bichsel practiced with the team already since his first day of arrival to Leksand. From the second or third training session, you could already see him cross-checking players and bodying veterans on the team, which definitely made an impact on the coaching staff as well. He wasn’t afraid of anything and used his size according to that.”
According to sources, after seeing Bichsel just a couple of times for Leksand IF, their current GM Thomas Johansson didn’t hesitate and compared Lian Bichsel to a young Victor Hedman, a former young Swedish phenom and current multi-Cup winner for the Tampa Bay Lightning. While even Näsman said that might be a bit of a stretch, there are some similarities between the two of them.
Bichsel joined Leksand thanks to scouting work of Jesper Ollas, Head of Scouting Operations at Leksand IF after four consecutive seasons with Biel-Bienne in Switzerland, where he also made his A-team debut a year prior to changing the club. At first, the plan for Bichsel was to spend his draft year playing solely in juniors. He played there for 11 matches only and the fact that he played another 29 games for the senior team shows how ahead of schedule he was already. According to Johansson, his immense size and weight combined with a natural self-confidence might have given him the conditions to be able to assert himself in senior play early on.
Rasmus Näsman doubles down on Bichsel’s physicality and especially how he is not shy of using his size for his advantage, too.
“Lian plays very aggressively against the opposing players, he’s not afraid of bodying them down and I would say sometimes even be a little bit dirty. But it’s not the only thing he does. He wants to play with the puck on his stick, too. Maybe sometimes he likes to do too much with the puck as he is also trying to create some offense to become a proper two-way defenseman.”
Lian Bichsel’s Potential in Supporting the Offense
You can see that apart from being a force in the defensive zone thanks to his immense size, Bichsel is not your typical big body shutdown defenseman, as far as the cliche goes. He is able to support offense, mostly thanks to his skating ability. While he skates rather good for his size, this is also a thing he’s focusing most on his development, according to Näsman. He wasn’t able to demonstrate that offensive instincts as often against men as he would probably against juniors but there were many glimpses like this:
Swiss defender Lian Bichsel (20 White, RD) just going for a casual skate in the SHL. I love what the defender brings to the ice. Solid in his own end, physical, and never quits. A little flash of flair in his game doesn't hurt either.@FCHockey | #2022NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/yRLTvGeZw0— Josh Bell (@JoshuaBell31) January 11, 2022
To prove Näsman’s point, Bischel tried to join the rush quite often and participate on offense, something that should help him settle for the style of play Pete DeBoer or Neil Graham prefer to play in North America. That was also how he scored his first professional goal in his career.
Analytically he wasn’t overly impressive in his first season against men as Leksand was better in almost every metric when he was not on the ice in contrast to when he was, but the fact he got a chance as a defender to play in a pretty competitive league as SHL is could be a good sign of things to come.
This season Lian Bichsel has been a staple in all matches Leksand played in SHL. So far he went without registering a single point but averaging around 15 minutes of ice-time, most often playing on third defensive pairing. He has been paired with 34-year old veteran Jonas Ahnelov basically all season long so far and when Bischel played last year, Ahnelov was also his main defensive partner. Defending Big D’s very own prospect guru Derek Neumeier has been also keeping an eye on him.
Lian Bichsel (#20 in white) is a monster on the blueline. He's still a teenager, but watch how he manhandles players in the top Swedish pro league. Goodness pic.twitter.com/oufyuSp3lj— Derek Neumeier (@Derek_N_NHL) September 27, 2022
Overall, Lian Bichsel is a very responsible defenseman in his own end, usually using his size to cover big areas of ice and closing the gaps rather effectively. According to scout Samuel Tirpak, there is a chance he could provide some offense, too:
“In a limited fashion, I think he would be able to create offense from the back end. He would not be a superstar offensively, but he would get involved enough where you would notice it. But for the most part, his role would be mostly defensive or shutdown. It would be, however, due to his high defensive and transition ability, not his lack of offense.”
What should the Bichsel progression look like?
Once he learns how to use his big body in the most effective manner, he could become even more impactful and that’s mostly connected to his skating. He obviously has a big stride in his legs and the power to utilize it, he just needs to work better on the technique that would allow him to maximize the potential of it. However, this was a time where I had to double-check my opinion with a scout. Samuel Tirpak said this about the skating of Lian Bichsel:
“I would say it is actually very good. However at times, his skating might look worse than it is, when it comes to actual technique. Reason being, he is still adjusting to his height. From my perspective as a scout, I see a player who had a fast growth spurt and is still adjusting. Skating being the most visible part of this. Once he is fully used to his height, he would be a very fluid skater, which would broaden his abilities both defensively and offensively.”
Staying in Leksand for another year after the draft was probably the best decision at the time. Bichsel had a full preseason with the team as well as individual training with his personal trainer, working precisely on the things he needed to improve – agility, usage of his power, skating but also his play with and without the puck. Sweden is also known for their great developmental programmes so this time next year, we might see even better Lian Bichsel than now. Can he be a factor in North America next fall? Possibly.
Rasmus Näsman, who is, by the way, also a former hockey player - albeit he considers that stamp as a bit of a stretch, sees it as a real possibility:
“While playing in SHL every game is great for his Bichsel, the development should have its progression and it could be the right timing for Lian to go overseas to North America next year just to adjust for smaller rinks and raise his game to another level. I don’t think anything is decided just yet as the Dallas Stars probably hold most of the cards in this decision.”
You could see how the year in the SHL immensely helped Bischel not only in his self-confidence as a person but also as a player. According to Rasmus Näsman, now Bichsel feels much more comfortable:
“He isn’t afraid to take initiative with the puck and make an impact. At this moment, the development with Bichsel is more focused on what to actually do with the puck, once it appears on his stick. The decision making and trying to understand the importance of decisions he might take is something the coaching staff is actively working on with him. For example, to understand when he can actually make a play and when it is better just to rim the puck along the boards and play it more safely.”
Bichsel is also what you might call a defenseman capable of playing on both sides and this ability definitely shouldn’t go unnoticed. Just a day prior to my interview with Rasmus Näsman, Bichsel played 13:16 of ice time purely on the right side in a 1-0 win against Timra. You might ask what is the actual difference for a hockey defenseman when playing left vs. right. This is an educated response from a scouting perspective of Samuel Tirpak:
“The challenge is mostly getting used to that position. Many young top left-shot defenders in their junior careers play on their right side due to many of their teammates on defense being also left-handed and not as good on the opposite side. Most of the differences between the left and right side of defense lay in angles, positioning and zone exit habits. Angles of entry defense are different on each side, which makes defending one a bit different from the other. Same goes for positioning in your own zone. And lastly, exit habits are different systematic things that the player has to know on either side to set up attacks correctly and efficiently.”
The fact that the side Lian Bichsel plays on doesn’t impact his overall game that much should bode well with the future plans the Dallas Stars management have with him. As the time passes, he should only improve at playing both sides of defense and thus become a flexible lineup option for the Stars coaching staff.
When can we actually expect Lian Bichsel to crack the Stars lineup?
Bichsel has still not officially signed his entry level contract with the Dallas Stars but that’s probably a mere formality and Bischel will be signed in the coming months, possibly ahead of next season’s Dallas Stars training camp.
In my season-by-season cap projection all the way through the summer of 2026 I projected Lian Bichsel to move overseas and play in the AHL already next year. That way he could get his feet wet, getting accustomed to the way the Stars organization might want him to play for many more years. If he’s a bit ahead of the schedule, he could possibly make his NHL debut sometime during the 2024-25 season. It is also important not to get ahead of ourselves too much, as a scout Samuel Tirpak would tell you:
“If we go with the typical timeline for defensemen, he should be NHL ready around the age of 22 or 23 and fully integrated member of the first team by age 24. Sounds like a lot, I know, but it’s the most common pathway to the NHL for well-rounded defenders. But it is always tough to know for certain.”
This is where my projection differs a bit as I believe the NHL is becoming more and more of a young man’s game and I genuinely believe Bichsel could be ready sooner than in 2026 or 2027, but I also respect the opinion of a scout. Currently, my optimistic projected defensive pairs for 2025-26 and beyond (players‘ respective age at the start of 2026-27 season in parenthesis) could look something like this:
Miro Heiskanen (27) - Nils Lundkvist (26)
Thomas Harley (25) - Lian Bichsel (22)
Artem Grushnikov (23) - Christian Kyrou (23)
Towards the end of my interview with Rasmus Näsman, I projected these lines to him. He immediately had some praise for his fellow countryman, Nils Lundkvist, and mentioned some pretty interesting nuggets about Lunkdvist from his years in the SHL. Did you know that for some time, Lunkdvist played with his uncle Jan Sandström on the same defensive pairing during the 2017-18 season in Lulea? Yeah, me neither until I talked to Rasmus. Jan Sandström is also a legendary hockey player in Sweden, totaling almost 1,000 games in their hockey league.
Näsman naturally expects Lundkvist to pop in the near future as he vividly remembers Lunkdvist during his last season in Sweden where he was named the best defenseman in the entire league, which is no small feat itself.
Maybe it will actually be Nils Lunkdvist who will be paired with Lian Bichsel once the huge Swiss prospect makes the big team. These two players could compliment each other perfectly in a potential defensive pairing. In the meantime, it would be prudent to give Bichsel some more time to refine his game to the highest level as he could become a very big factor for the Dallas Stars, especially once their contention window for the Stanley Cup opens.
Good news for the Dallas Stars is both things, contention for the Cup as well as Bichsel‘s readiness, shouldn’t take that long.