MONTREAL – The jump from the Swiss Elite League to the NHL is never an easy one to make.
Moving to a new country and adapting to both smaller rinks and bigger bodies can take time, but for Raphael Diaz, the transition to life in the NHL was seamless. After turning heads at training camp, the 26-year-old defenseman earned a regular spot in the lineup and excelled in his first NHL season, averaging over 18 minutes per game in October.
From the first time he hit the ice in Montreal, the Baar, Switzerland native has had no trouble channeling his inner North American – including his immediate adoption of his teammates’ shot-blocking techniques. With 102 blocks in 2011-12, Diaz finished third among all rookie defensemen in that category.
His quick learning curve also meant that Diaz wouldn’t be spending the All-Star break relaxing on a beach this January. Instead, the shifty blue-liner found himself participating in his first-ever All-Star Skills Competition in Ottawa.
A few weeks later, his dream rookie campaign came to a grinding halt. Despite suiting up for a handful of games despite a nagging groin injury, the young defenseman saw his season cut short on Feb. 28.
“It was really bad timing for my injury. I would’ve liked to keep playing, for sure,” described the pending restricted free agent, who won’t require surgery. “I could still play a little bit but then it got to the point where I couldn’t so I had to stop. It just needs time to heal properly and I’ll be back next year 100% healthy.”
Despite only taking part in 59 of 82 games this season, Diaz is confident he’s shown enough to earn himself a spot in the lineup come September.
It’s a new season. Everything starts new. It doesn’t matter if you played last year or not,” explained Diaz, who has a two-way contract and arrived at camp this year not sure if he’d be spending the season in Montreal or Hamilton. “It’s important to train hard and come back strong and be 100% ready for training camp.”
After spending the next few weeks rehabbing in Montreal with the team’s training staff, Diaz will head home to Switzerland to begin his offseason workouts. Looking to sign the first one-way deal of his career, he’ll be working hard to make sure this season was just the first of many for him in Montreal.
“It’s not up to me, but I would love to stay here and be a Montreal Canadien for a long time,” he stressed.
Vincent Cauchy is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Shauna Denis.
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