Chugging along steadily with the NHL Draft Scout Series, we cross the pond to Sweden, factory of great defenceman and a seemingly ageless people (yes, I’m looking at you Henrik Lundqvist).
Christian: Sweden has been churning out top draft prospects for years now. With another 5-6 possible first rounders this year, just how good is Sweden’s crop of prospects for the 2017 NHL Draft and how has a country of just 9.7 million people been able to consistently table elite prospects year in and year out?
Chapin: For this particular draft, Sweden’s crop is just fine. I see a good collection of kids, as in years past, with solid potential and we’ll see a handful of NHLers coming from this group. Finland may see a few more kids taken in the first two rounds, but native Swedes will likely once again build up the largest contingent of Europeans drafted. And then there are very probable picks like Joni Ikonen (Finnish) and Jonas Rondbjerg (Danish), who spent this past season entirely in Sweden.
We shouldn’t forget that Alexander Nylander was the only Swedish first rounder last summer, and he had spent the season in the CHL. A total of five Swedes were gone by the end of round two in 2016. I think we’ll see four taken for certain in this year’s first round and although Nylander may be the best (and I mean “may”) of this and last summer’s first rounders, I personally hold all four of the boys I expect to see go in the first round in higher esteem than Rasmus Asplund, who was taken 33rd last summer.
The country’s national program has been chugging along in a very focused manner with respect to hockey education and organization for a couple of decades now. There’s a large emphasis on station drills in younger years and working primarily and intensively on skating, stickhandling, passing, and shooting – likely in that order – in those crucial initial years of development. When possible, there are a number of (paid) coaches on the ice at the same time for lots of kids teams. These coaches are often among the nation’s best – they are not just the odd parent willing to babysit a group of peewees for a couple of hours.
Tactics are generally introduced around the bantam level. Beforehand, the kids play games implementing the skills that they spent hours working on. The idea is that the raw instinctual play vitally needs that time to develop. This is when the kids start flourishing at the individual level.
Then of course, we’re talking about a winter country that not only includes ice hockey as part of the school sports program (PE) in most areas, but has a number of regions filled with frozen ponds for a good third or more of the year. It’s even quite common for there to be town rinks or open air rinks around cities that are free to the general public at ample times. The access to ice is simply different than in many countries, including most of continental Europe.
C: Elite blueliners have been a staple of Swedish hockey since Nicklas Lindstrom and the 2017 NHL Draft doesn’t seem much different with Timothy Liljegren headlining the class. His stock has taken a bit of a tumble of late, but how good is Liljegren and why might his ranking be falling?
C: I’m not too worried about Liljegren. He’s a right-shooting defenseman with good size and mobility. Much about his game screams of a future as an offensive defenseman. What he lacks in his 200-foot game can still be taught and practiced. He didn’t take a draft year tumble like Oliver Kylington did a few years back. We’re not talking about a kid with all the tools and no tool box. The initial hype was fairly justified as Liljegren possesses a number of skills and intangibles that point towards a solid NHL career to come. Is he the next coming of Erik Karlsson or Victor Hedman? Honestly, that’s for him to decide – but he didn’t spend this season giving anyone that impression.
Certainly, his fall in rankings was due to no less than time missed during the regular season and of course, his absence at the WJC. A top-flight U18 tournament like the one Miro Heiskanen had could have boosted him back up into the ranking region he entered the season at, but his two points and -5 on a decent squad didn’t exactly bury anyone’s doubts on the matter.
But whoever gets him top eight is getting a very fine first rounder with considerable upside. If he actually drops further and is taken after that, much less between spots 12-20, then I can safely say now that he’ll be having a better career than a number of players taken ahead of him.
C: Another top Swedish defenceman this year is Erik Brannstrom, who along with Liljegren dominated the U17s. It seems he has similar numbers and offensive ability as Liljegren but isn’t has highly regarded. Why is that and how does Brannstrom project in the NHL? Is he in an Erik Karlsson mold?
C: I’m careful in mentioning Erik Karlsson, who is this generation’s top offensive defenseman, hands down. Brannstrom is however very mobile and his skating is his chief calling card. He can do a lot with his stick as well and has shown a wonderful understanding of generating offense and running a power play. In fact, he’s shown a great understanding of the game in general. He got into 35 SHL games this season and collected a +10. Sure, the size isn’t what you want it to be, but he has a tremendous skill set and I think he’ll be a real dandy in a few years’ time. And it’s still very possible that he’ll end up being 6′, 200 lbs. when all is said and done.
There’s a lot of upside here and he’s already very exciting for his age group.
C: This class isn’t just about defencemen for Sweden though. Both Elias Pettersson and Lias Andersson are bluechip forward prospects. Both saw SHL time this season and didn’t look terribly out of place. How would you describe the two and who do you prefer?
C: You’re right that both are looking like bluechip prospects and I see a world of upside in both of them. Pettersson didn’t actually see SHL time this season, but he played the whole season in the second-tier Allsvenskan and put up 47 points and a +17 in 46 total games. That’s absolutely outstanding for a league that rarely features a top scorer who scored at a point-per-game clip. Teammate and linemate Jonathan Dahlen had 50 points and a +14 in 48 total games. More importantly is that Pettersson is tremendously smart and can be as creative as anybody. The fans in Timra had a real good time going to the rink this season.
Lias Andersson, the son of former NHLer Niklas Andersson (who currently scouts for the Los Angeles Kings), had a tremendous season taking a regular shift in the SHL for champion HV71. He grew and grew throughout the season and was in full flight in the playoffs, chipping in four goals en route to the championship. What jumps out at me is his shiftiness and ability to protect the puck, often while heading to the net. He just didn’t seem to be inhibited about playing against men in his country’s top league. There was no intimidation as the season progressed.
He can move and do a lot with the puck. He has very solid wrists and snapshots, which he manages to taken often enough, because his speed pushes back defenses.
I see both of these young men becoming NHLers and their impact could be quite similar to that of an Andre Burakovsky or Marcus Johansson.
C: Jesper Boqvist hasn’t gotten the same fanfare as some of the other Swede prospects, but after ripping up the SuperElit, he performed well in the Allsvenskan and even saw 16 games of SHL action putting up six assists. From the outside, he seems like a darkhorse prospect. Do you like Boqvist and do you see him as an underrated sleeper for the 2017 NHL draft?
C: Darkhorse? Sleeper? I’d say there’s a good argument that he’s every bit the prospect Jonathan Dahlen was last summer. I like Boqvist immensely and if a team takes him at the end of the first round, no one should be surprised. If you get him in the third round, you can call it a day and run to the bank. His junior play was outstanding. His Allsvenskan play was very strong, even if he needed time to adjust. His SHL showing was also extremely promising.
If you’ve followed and appreciated the achievements of Flyers pick Oskar Lindblom, you’re going to want to think very seriously about taking Boqvist, because I think he’ll have the same SHL impact within two seasons’ time. This all said, I’m not comparing his style directly to Lindblom or Dahlen, although his play certainly contains elements of both. And this is a kid who just really enjoys scoring goals.
All this said, I’m pretty doggone excited about his brother Adam, a right-shooting 16-year-old defenseman for the same organization who is eligible for next summer’s draft.
C: Which Swedish draft eligible has been your biggest surprise this season?
C: I’d have to say Lucas Elvenes of Rogle. It’s not that he’s become a superstar prospect, but he has a good shot of going top 90 this summer and he wasn’t really on the map for me coming in, partially due to his older brother not really having taken the steps once expected of him. Lucas got into 12 SHL games, going pointless, and had a less than impressive two points in three playoff games for each of his U18 and U20 clubs, while then chipping in three assists and a minus rating at the U18 Worlds. But I can’t deny that the 45 points in 41 games he had at the U20 level as a player who will first turn eighteen on Aug. 18 were very impressive and a team will be getting a kid who is among the youngest in this year’s draft. He comes from a true hockey family as well and his game includes many of the elements you expect to see from players “made in Sweden”.
He is currently scheduled to play for Oskarshamn of the Allsvenskan next season, but something tells me we may yet see him somewhere in the CHL instead.
C: Who has been your biggest disappointment?
C: I don’t really have a disappointment this time around, but Olle Eriksson-Ek is considered one of Europe’s top goalies in this draft and we didn’t necessarily see that at the U18 Worlds. He’ll still be taken and is still a solid prospect for this draft, but I was hoping he’d be more heavily talked about at this juncture.
I’d like to mention that I did think overager Jonathan Davidsson would arrive on the scene for Djurgarden in a much more defined manner this past season. He started well, but things just never really got going. His younger brother Marcus scored just as many points as he did (nine) and will likely be among this summer’s top 75 picks. I can’t see anyone taking Jonathan at this juncture, but keep your eye on him for the future. He may one day reach his potential and get a shot via a free agent contract.
C: If you had to choose a most overrated and most underrated Swedish prospect for this year’s draft, who would they be?
C: It’s extremely difficult to call any of this year’s group overrated. If anybody, it might actually be Liljegren and I’m fairly sure some in no less than the Twittersphere will see the many mock drafts out there that have him going top eight and think, “Oh, they’re overrating that kid,” but we shouldn’t forget that William Nylander had a poor draft year and there were certainly tones of him being overrated when thought of as a top eight pick.
Although I feel Jesper Boqvist and Rickard Hugg have some pretty good possibilities down the line, the draft-eligible Swede who I feel is the most underrated is overager Linus Olund. He’s 5’11 and 185 lbs., so it’s not like he’s the smallest guy on the planet, but he was considered to be very small the past few years. He’s currently 19 and after ripping apart the U20 league in 12 games, he finished the year for SHL finalist Brynas, for which or for whom he “quietly” collected 17 points and a +9 in 39 regular season games before chipping in another 10 points and +2 in 20 playoff games. Moreover, he was simply very involved and looked like a kid ready for bigger things. Brynas’ run to the final was very unexpected and players like Olund had a heavy role in making that possible.
C: Lastly, who’s your favourite Swedish draft eligible and why?
C: Elias Pettersson. And Lias Andersson is a close second, but Pettersson has me very excited. I simply appreciate the smarts that Elias has and his understanding for the game and the creation of offense. What he did in the Allsvenskan this year is no easy feat and as a spectator, you always wanted to see more and more. He’s given us good reason to think that had he played in Canadian juniors this past winter, he’d be a fixture in the discussion on the top five players. He still has a ways to go in the department of bulking up, but he’s known that since his Ivan Hlinka performance a few summers back. The height and frame are there. His head for the game is truly above average.