Yesterday, I speculated that the Toronto Maple Leafs could benefit from taking a chance on Romain Loeffel, who is currently starring for Switzerland at the IIHF World Championship. Based on the team’s need for right-handed defensemen and their willingness to sign European free agents, the idea that Loeffel would be on their radar isn’t far fetched. With that said, he likely isn’t even the best option for the Leafs in terms of right-shooting Swiss defensemen.
Meet Yannick Rathgeb, a 21-year old right defenseman playing for HC Fribourg-Gottéron of the NLA.
Unlike Loeffel, Rathgeb isn’t playing at this year’s World Championship thanks to a shoulder injury, but he is no stranger to international hockey. At the World Junior Hockey Championships that took place in Toronto & Montreal in 2015, Rathgeb was the captain and best defender on the Swiss team.
Since then, Rathgeb has started a professional career that has seen him become the best young defenseman in the NLA.
At 6’1, 200lbs, Rathgeb has the size to be an NHL defender and he plays with an edge to is game that would look rather nice on the Maple Leafs bottom pair – especially with the likely loss of Roman Polak.
Unlike Polak, Rathgeb brings a lot more than just the physical traits that Mike Babcock loves. He is a true two-way defender that can contribute at both ends of the ice. At only 21, Rathgeb finished third on his team in scoring with 34 points in 45 games – almost three times the next highest total for a defenseman. With 11 goals in only 45 games, Rathgeb has shown the ability to score from the point, something that Toronto’s third pairing couldn’t do this past season.
With 11 goals in only 45 games, Rathgeb has shown the ability to contribute goal scoring from the point – something that Toronto’s third pairing couldn’t do this past season.
Playing on a bad team – the Dragons finished second last in the NLA with a goal differential of -47 – Rathgeb was played in all situations and seems to have been relied upon a lot more than you’d expect from a 21-year old defender. His two seasons in Switzerland have helped him grow to the point that his agent has mentioned a desire to end up in the NHL – likely sooner rather than later.
Unlike other European free agents like Nikita Zaitsev – Rathgeb is no stranger to North American hockey. He played two seasons in the OHL for the Plymouth Whalers as recently as two years ago. Again playing on bad teams in Plymouth, he didn’t stand out enough for an NHL team to take a risk in the draft. He did, however, get an invite to the Chicago Blackhawks prospect camp last summer – where, by all accounts, he faired well.
Being at camp last summer, Rathgeb is clearly on the radar of NHL teams.
We know the Maple Leafs need depth on the blueline and in my opinion, a 21-year old Rathgeb is definitely worth the risk – especially considering the fact that you wouldn’t have to give up any assets to acquire him. He’s young, has two-way potential, and has a familiarity with the North American game that many European free agents don’t. I’d much rather the Leafs use one of their 50 contracts on a risk like this than bringing back one of Polak or Matt Hunwick.
Maybe he’d be nothing more than depth for the Marlies when guys like Justin Holl, Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen get their eventual call up to the Leafs – but maybe he ends up being something more.
In my eyes, it’s definitely worth the risk.