Late-Round Gems from Central Europe

Jeff Rea

2020-10-06

28.09.2019; Lausanne; Eishockey National League- Lausanne HC – HC Davos; Benjamin Baumgartner (Davos) (Pascal Muller/freshfocus)

 

Central Europe is far from an NHL amateur scouting hotbed. But it’s not that the region isn’t producing talent. From 2008-17, a Swiss player was selected in the first round in seven of ten NHL Entry Drafts. Bern products Roman Josi and Nico Hischier have made lasting impressions on the league and Kevin Fiala, Nino Niederreiter, and Timo Meier have established themselves as impactful players for their teams. 

This will be the third consecutive year a German is selected in round one of the NHL Draft. By the end of the first evening, three German names may be called. It was also the year a German won the Art Ross Trophy and the year a German was given a chance to backstop the Avs in their quest for Stanley. Even Austria has left a modest mark on the league. Notably, of their 12 drafted players, Thomas Vanek went 5th and Michael Grabner went 14th. Marco Rossi, of course, is next in line.

So why is this region so under-scouted? 

The majority of the aforementioned players were gone come their draft year. They had transferred to junior clubs in Sweden, were selected in CHL Import Drafts, were studying at US colleges or playing pro hockey in Europe, already. These are the places you find the majority of Central European draft-eligible headliners.

This season is odd. One highly-rated German lived up to the hype in the DEL and two others rose to that level and stood out, as well. We all know Stützle, Peterka, and Reichel. This article is not about them, it’s about the next wave of Central European based players. Introducing Florian Elias, Benjamin Baumgartner, and Maximilian Glötzl, and presenting reasons to call their name (or pass them over) in the late rounds of the 2020 Draft.

 

Reasons to call the name Florian Elias. 

Florian Elias is a highly-intelligent player. His natural ability to process the game and anticipate need makes him impactful in all three zones. Offensively, Elias is a hound. He circles around the offensive zone, using his strong edges and low center of gravity to dart in and out of holes. He is relentless on the puck, and eager to make hits and create turnovers. He sees the ice exceptionally well and displays creativity. His timing is an asset. Elias reads build-up and gets himself into high danger areas, where he is often ready to pounce on loose pucks and bury goals. 

 

Elias gets around the ice well. He is constantly shifting, pivoting, and changing his angles. He is elusive and unpredictable. He’s small, which allows him to dart into small gaps and find space. He’s strong on the puck, spins off defenders well, changes direction with ease, and is well-balanced. His escapability is impressive and he skates as well backward, as forwards.

 

Florian Elias is a playmaker. He uses mohawk turns to open himself up to the ice, surveys effectively, and completes a high percentage of his passes. He creates chances for his wingers on the rush and uses his defenseman well in the offensive zone. On the powerplay, he plays along the left half-wall, often looping up high to receive passes and dive back down into play. He essentially played the same role Tim Stützle played for the U20s at the WJC.

 

Florian Elias photo courtesy of https://www.mannheim24.de/

 

Unlike most pass-first players, Florian Elias also led the league in goal-scoring this year (26 goals in 30 games). He is fluid and eye-catching in transition, easily gains zones, and often takes the puck from one end to the other. Elias enjoys coming back low to collect pucks in the defensive zone. Likewise, he curls low on breakouts and is often a passing option on regroups. He wants the puck. He weaves through defenders on the exit and accelerates through the neutral zone, pushing Dmen back. He has the ability to drive a game and dictate the pace of play. Often, he’ll start periods with an impactful shift and or a goal.

 

Elias enjoys having the puck on his stick. He draws players to him and creates space for his linemates. He has soft, quick, and decisive hands. His shot is above average. He places pucks in the net and scores goals using his quick release and a strong sense of positioning. 

 

Defensively, Elias is useful as well. He’s strong on the forecheck and often wins board battles. He reads the direction of play well and gets his stick into passing lanes. He is a takeaway machine, stripping players of pucks using his exceptional stick control, edgework, soft hands, and dogged determination. Once he wins the puck, he’s off in transition and on the offensive immediately.

 

He wore an A for German U18s and led them in scoring. He’s young for his draft class and plays in Germany’s premier organization. He scores big goals in big games and is a winner. He plays in all special teams situations and takes the big faceoffs. 

 

There is a lot to like.

Reasons to pass on Florian Elias.

As good as he’s been, Elias’ doubters will rightfully question his level of competition. Elias was dominant in the German DNL (U20), but few draft-eligible recruits find themself in that league to begin with. His D-1 season was close to Lukas Reichel’s (1.31 versus 1.22 ppg) but nowhere close to Tim Stützle’s (2.62). Both Stützle and Reichel moved on to have impressive draft years. Elias stayed behind and showed modest improvement.

 

Elias was robbed of his chance to showcase his game at the World U18s. His performance in December’s 5 Nations was overshadowed by the World Juniors, which took place at the same time. The U18 competition was not as strong as it should have been and his accomplishments there are often overlooked.

 

Elias is also small. And a Center. Teams may be doubly concerned, wondering how his game will translate and if he’s capable of playing as a pivot at a professional level, against men, at 5’8, 170lbs. There are also some weaknesses to his game. Elias needs to improve his awareness in the defensive zone. At times he is too focused on the puck and impending transition. He has a tendency to be pulled away from the areas he should be covering. Likewise, on the backcheck, Elias is a little too one-tracked. He often chases the wrong man and fails to notice the trailer. 

 

Although Elias is a strong skater, his explosiveness and agility could be improved. He’s a heavy skater and has a strong base, but his turnover is a little slow and his ability to shift gears quickly is lacking. He also lacks top gear and when his legs aren’t moving he looks slow and lethargic. Elias has scored a lot of goals in the DNL. But without a strong outside shot and with a tendency to score in high traffic areas, one has to question his ability to continue producing goals at the next level. 

 

Elias would most certainly benefit from having a strong slap shot. He takes the offensive zone well and backs Dmen off him, which would allow him to let off a Paul-Kariya-like shot off the rush upon entry. Currently, that’s not a skill he has in his toolbox. His shots from the outside are weak and sometimes off-target altogether.

 

Perhaps that’s why Florian Elias so often over-passes. He has a tendency to force plays on odd-man rushes and attempts seam passes which aren’t there. Often these attempts came when he was in a good scoring position, too. He needs to work on his shot and shoot more often.

Consensus on Elias

Florian Elias is too hard to completely pass on. 

 

Yes, he’s unproven against better competition, but he has also risen to not only lead but dominate whenever given a chance. His U18 statistics for Germany are telling. His 21 points in 20 games are fourth all-time; Rieder (27), Stützle (25), Draisaitl (22), and Kühnhackl (20) are the others in his range. He led the Germans to a 5 Nations Tournament title in Zuchwil, this past December, he’s a former DNL champion, and he’s already been signed to a professional deal by Mannheim. He’s done things.

 

Yes, he’s small. And yes, he’s a small center. But he also plays the game with a rare level of maturity, poise, and confidence. In ways, he seems desperate for the next challenge, not scared of it. Virtually every scout with multiple viewings raves about Florian Elias. Surely an NHL scout has seen the glimmer, as well.

 

Projection: 5th or 6th Round

 

Reasons to call the name Benjamin Baumgartner

Whereas Florian Elias is your prototypical boom or bust late rounder, Benjamin Baumgartner couldn’t be more safe and dependable. The 20-year-old Austrian has established himself as a reliable two-way center in the Swiss NLA, already.

 

 Baumgartner’s 27 points in 37 games were in a league of his own. Thirty-two players under 20 played in the NLA last season. Baumgartner was the only one to record more than 11 points. His 0.73 ppg are the fifth most for an NLA D+2 player since 2000-01. Halfway through the season, Baumgartner represented Austria at the WJC 1A. The Austrians, without Marco Rossi no less, managed to win promotion. Baumgartner led the tournament in scoring with 5 goals and 11 points in 5 games and was highly praised for his role in Austria’s success. His 11 points were only two off Tobias Rieder’s all-time tournament record, 13.

 

But here’s where it gets wild. Benjamin Baumgartner is not an offensive player. His versatility and well-rounded package allow him to excel in various circumstances. He prides himself on being a high forward and does little things so well people come to expect them of him. He wins draws, picks up trailers and he gets the puck out of his zone. He positions himself well and is a trustworthy passing option. 

 

Photo courtesy of https://www.sihf.ch/de/national-league/

 

More than anything, Benjamin Baumgartner is a responsible defensive asset. He sees the ice well and gets around well enough to be in a good position to support his teammates. He makes short and safe plays with the puck, seemingly assessing risk instantaneously. His stick usage is impressive. He closes lanes and strips pucks effectively from opponents. He wins most of his defensive zone board battles by outsmarting opponents, craftily choosing his angles, using his body, and stealing the puck. He is extremely useful in support of his defensemen behind the net. In the offensive zone, his tendency is to play high, which allows others (this year it was often Aaron Palushaj or Mattias Tedenby) to play more openly and freely. Not surprisingly, Palushaj and Tedenby comfortably led HCD in goals.

 

Baumgartner is strong in transition. In the neutral zone, he plays simple hockey. He makes clean exits and is primarily a north-south player through the middle of the ice. He receives pucks in stride well and is able to handle the puck well at speed. Baumgartner is highly versatile. He can play all three forward positions and is used both on the penalty kill and on the powerplay. He can play the safe game, generate chances for his wingers, or potentially drive play, as he did at the WJC 1A for Austria.

 

Benjamin Baumgartner gets around the ice well. He’s light on his skates and moves seamlessly and effectively. He is well-balanced, athletic and he has a good engine. He stops and starts effortlessly and his top gear is decent enough. He takes good routes and understands angles. He chases play down on the backcheck and plays a high energy game. His blueline to blueline speed is good and he skates as well with the puck as he does without it. He uses his inside edges well, mobilizes his ankle effectively, and uses crossovers and half steps economically. The Swiss are widely recognized as strong skaters, and Baumgartner is more than able to hold his own in their top professional league as a U20.

 

He is fairly smart on the cycle and he is willing to drag p