MONTREAL – When Mark Streit played for Montreal he was known as the Swiss Army Knife because of all the tools he carried in his game—skating, shot, smarts and an ability to play defence or forward; play the point on the power play or kill penalties.
Yannick Weber is not yet of Streit’s calibre, but he is also Swiss and his main asset is versatility.
The 22-year-old is listed as a defenceman, but he played on the wing in Game 2 of the Canadiens playoff series with the Boston Bruins and was expected to be back in that spot for Game 6 on Tuesday night.
“I always think about how Streit did it,” the Morges, Switzerland, native said. “He was a defenceman who played forward here and he was successful at it.
“It’s the same for me. You get more confident at forward. It’s not easy, but it’s getting better.”
Weber is most valuable on the power play, so he can be used sparingly on a fourth line and get extra minutes on the right point during man advantages, where he brings good instincts and a hard shot.
He has also had his most productive games against Boston.
In his career, he has one goal and 11 assists in 49 regular season games and two goals and one assist in four playoff games. All of his goals were scored against the Bruins’ Tim Thomas.
In Game 2, Weber filled in as Andrei Kostitsyn missed a game with a foot injury and was on the spot to score the insurance goal late in the second period of a 3-1 win. But he lost his spot when Kostitsyn returned the following game.
“With the (limited) number of people under contract, if you have a player who can play both it’s an asset,” said Canadiens coach Jacques Martin. “Marc-Andre Bergeron did the same for us last year.
“Weber did a good job playing forward in a defensive role. It gives you that extra card to play.”
Weber was Montreal’s fifth pick in the 2007 draft, 73rd overall, after they took Ryan McDonough (now with the New York Rangers), Max Pacioretty, P.K. Subban and Olivier Fortier. He left Switzerland to play for the Kitchener Rangers, with whom he won an Ontario Hockey League title in 2008.
He was only briefly an NHL teammate of Streit, who left the Canadiens after the 2007-08 season to sign a US$20.5-million, five-year contract as a free agent with the New York Islanders. The two played together for Switzerland at the IIHF world championship and at 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, however.
Streit was not happy at being used as a forward and would not have got anywhere near the same money New York offered, despite a career-best 62 points in his last season in Montreal. The 33-year-old has been strong on defence for the Islanders, although he missed the entire 2010-11 season with a torn labrum and rotator cuff.
Weber, a restricted free agent after this season, is taking a similar path.
Like Streit, the five-foot-11 Weber is a smaller than average defenceman who is having trouble breaking into the top six on defence and has to be adaptable to get playing time.
“When I was younger I always looked up to Streit,” he said. “He was the first (Swiss) defenceman to crack the lineup.
“We became friends and we train together in the summer. We have a similar style—good skater, good shot. We’ve talked about his time in Montreal. It was his first experience in the NHL. It wasn’t easy for him, but it turned out well.”
When Streit jumped to the NHL from Zurich in 2005, the only Swiss players were goalies like Martin Gerber and David Aebischer. Later, goaltender Jonas Hiller made it with the Anaheim Ducks.
With Streit, Weber and Anaheim’s Luca Sbisa, the Swiss presence has spread to defencemen and the country that has emerged as a top-8 hockey power in the past decade may soon be represented at forward as well.
At the draft last June, the Islanders picked talented centre Nino Niederreiter fifth overall, and his teammate with Portland of the Western Hockey League, Sven Bartschi, is expected to be a first rounder this year.
“We only had goalies to start, but it’s good to see more players coming over to play in the junior leagues,” said Weber. “If they stay in our league they make good money but to get better it’s better to come over here.
“We’re still far from the top. We’re always between fifth and eighth. But we’re getting stronger as a nation.”