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2011 NHL Entry Draft: Swedish Prospect Preview

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2011 is shaping up to be another banner year for Swedish prospects.  The country is producing more NHL drafted prospects than every other European country in the past five years, and there have been plenty of quality ones in that span as well.  In the past five drafts, 93 Swedes have been taken, with 31 being taken in the first two rounds of the draft.  This year, expect a similar output of around 20-25 Swedes being drafted with about 7-10 taken in the first 61 picks.  As an added bonus, Sweden is quite likely to have three top 10 picks this year, and possibly two in the top five by many projections. 

My own list is a bit different than most, admittedly.  I definitely ask you all to defer to more professional sources for your rankings, but I figure my own highly amateur take is worth a post here.

1.  Adam Larsson, D, Skelleftea (Elitserien)

I'm bullish on Larsson.  He possesses the blend of size, skill, and smarts that the current NHL values immensely.  His offensive numbers took a dive this year, taking a backseat to the incredible breakout campaign of David Rundblad.  The offense is definitely a concern, but his usage by his coach is also noteworthy.  At the start of the season, Larsson's ice time was down noticeably.  I'm not entirely sure if he was battling injuries early in the year or not to limit his ice time, but he only missed two games before the U20s in Buffalo, where he was Sweden's #1 d-man in a 4th place finish.  After the U20s, Larsson missed a month of playing time due to a groin injury.  When he returned, his ice time shot up from before the U20s.

Down the stretch, Skellefteå was battling for first overall in the standings, and Larsson became a major player for the team.  He only recorded two games of under 20 minutes in that 9 game stretch drive, after only 6 games in his first 28 above the 20 minute mark.  Skelleftea finished in a three way tie for top of the table, but tiebreakers gave them third place.  The team then proceeded to use Larsson even more in the playoffs, averaging between 21 and 27 minutes of ice time each game.  Skellefteå eventually lost in the Finals.  For a nearly complete look at his game to game stats (I thought I had finished, I swear), check out my Google Doc.

Larsson's strengths are his skating, his passing which leads to crisp breakouts, his keen hockey sense, strong defensive positioning and his strength.  Injuries may be a concern, as he will be targeted on forechecks due to his desire to handle the puck.  He's already played two years professionally in Sweden, and that may have prepared him for a quick transition to the NHL.  There is talk about staying in Sweden for one more season, which would allow him to assume more offensive duty as Rundblad will be coming to North America.  He does not project as an elite scorer from the blueline, but he will be able to handle a lot of minutes in every situation.   I think he's the best overall player in the draft, but would understand selecting an offensive forward ahead of him.  The Edmonton Oilers have a tough decision to make.

2.  Gabriel Landeskog, RW, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)

NHL scouts are going nuts over Landeskog, and its easy to see why.  He's been a high end scorer in the OHL without much PP scoring, and he has played a more "North American" style of game than any of the North Americans near the top of the draft board.  He is more likely to score a goal from the front of the net than off the rush, and he is already more physically mature than his peers in terms of strength and conditioning, topping out at 205 lbs on a 6' frame.  Many believe he will have an impact in the NHL almost immediately as a result, and the Kitchener Rangers will be searching for a new captain as a result.  He is fully acclimatized to North America, speaking perfect English while dominating the top major junior circuit in the world.  An ankle injury robbed him of his U20s, but a strong return and playoff run helped ease any long term concerns. 

What Landeskog doesn't possess is the high end skill set normally reserved for top 5 picks.  His physical maturity has helped him pad his junior stats at a younger age, not his amazing stick skills and shot.  While he claims to model his game after Jarome Iginla, some believe the evidence isn't there that he will be a high end scorer, and think teams should pass on him in the early part of the draft for a player with more upside.  Personally, I'm caught in the middle:  I'd take him in the top 10 easily, but not the top 5 based on the talent available.

3.  Mika Zibanejad, LW/C, Djurgården (Elitserien)

It's almost too bad that Landeskog went to Ontario, as it robbed us of having both Zibanejad and Landeskog on the same team for comparison.  Zibanejad is younger than his two countrymen ranked ahead of him, which must be considered in projecting their pro potential.  Mika plays an up-tempo game full of skating and even a bit of aggression, though within the rules of the game.  His dogged pursuit of the puck and incredible passing ability makes him one of the real wildcards early in the draft.  Like pretty much every Swedish skater on this list, his skating is seen as a strong asset but its his puck skill that sets him apart from his countrymen.  He needs a bit of physical maturity but he's already got a decent frame at 6'1", 180 lbs., and should assume a larger role on a team that had a bit of a tough year.  He should be a key player for Sweden's U20 team after a starring role at this year's U18s, and is likely one or two years away from coming to North America.  I'd be surprised if he was taken before Landeskog but could understand why a team would value his upside greater.  He's a probable top 10 pick, though likely not a top 5. 

4.  Jonas Brodin, D, Färjestad (Elitserien)

Brodin fits the mold of the smart, unspectacular two-way defenseman that Sweden has become known for in recent years.  His skating is great, his passing game is solid, but his defensive play is best described as economical:  he aims to take away the pass and start a quick transition rather than make an aggressive move on the puck carrier.  He's one of the more unheralded potential first rounders in this draft as a result, with no real standout quality at his age, other than perhaps being an everyday defender for the best team in the third best league in the world.  He's up a championship on Larsson as a result, but we've only started to scratch the surface with Brodin's potential, as he has yet to reach his 18th birthday or make the U20 team.  If Edmonton were to pass on Larsson for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as most believe, getting Brodin with the #19 pick would be a phenomenal turn of events.  But if a team values a defensman in the 10-15 range, Brodin should be a primary target.

5.  Oscar Klefbom, D, Färjestad (Elitserien)

Choosing between Klefbom and Brodin often comes down to how much one values size and unfilled potential versus smarts and results.  Klefbom has a very large frame, standing at 6'4" and already over 200 lbs.  He rarely uses his size from an aggressive point of view, as one can tell by his low PIM total, but his reach can cover up for sometimes shoddy positioning.  He was the captain of Sweden's U18 team, chosen ahead of Brodin, but Brodin played in the playoffs for Färjestad while Klefbom was a black ace.  Klefbom bounced from the Division 1 level to the Elitserien this year in what has to be considered a developmental year for him.  Next season, he will almost certainly be playing with the defending champions full time.  Klefbom is a first round wildcard:  someone might take him with a pick in the teens based on his physical attributes and potential, while others may be scared off by the fact that he is still quite raw and lacking in top level experience.  However, after the playoffs fellow former Division 1 player Alexander Edler had, Klefbom might just be the risk that pays off big in the end. 

6.  Jeremy Boyce-Rotevall, LW, Timrå (Elitserien/J20 SuperElit)

Boyce is a strong two-way presence who made Timrå out of training camp, scoring his first professional goal in September but couldn't stay with the team for the full season.  This isn't unusual, the fact that he made the team just after his 17th birthday is the real story:  his birthdate is August 28, 1993, one of the youngest players eligible for the draft.  He will be loaned out to Sundsvall in the Allsvenskan for the next year, marking the end of his junior career.  He's flying under the radar, though a strong performance at the U18s with Zibanejad and Viktor Rask as linemates really helped his cause.  There are no real standout parts to his game, though he is a good skater who makes good decisions with the puck, and is a strong presence on the backcheck.  He is physically behind his peers at 6'0", 170 lbs, but as a second round pick that shouldn't be a huge concern.

7.  Rickard Rakell, RW, Plymouth (OHL)

Like fellow OHLer Landeskog, Rakell is a bit more physically mature than his contemporaries, which has served him well in the long schedule of major junior hockey.  Rakell was a bit of a surprise addition to Sweden's U20 team, which undoubtedly helped his standing amongst draft watchers.  He plays a bit different of a game:  its much more physically demanding, with good skating but he relies offensively more on down low plays and deflections than the other players on this list.  He projects well as a penalty killer professionally but his puck skills leave a lot to be desired.  He did manage 19 goals and 43 points in 49 OHL games, but probably is more suited towards a bottom six role as a pro.  That's where Boyce-Rotevall and Rakell differentiate in my view:  I can see Boyce-Rotevall developing into a good complimentary winger in an offensive role, but I can't see beyond 'grinder' for Rakell. 

8.  Victor Rask, C, Leksand (Allsvenskan/J20 SuperElit)

Another wildcard in this draft is Rask.  He fell in the rankings throughout the year, from a possible top 10 selection to almost certainly a second or third round choice.  He appears to be a classic case of developing physically before his peers, and then having his peers catch him when they reach 17 and 18 years old.  His skating flaws are more pronounced now, by far the worst skater on this list.  However, he's still a clever passer and scouts really do value his puck protection skills.  Are players of his type still valuable in today's NHL?  That's really tough to say.  Enough red flags have been raised on him in the past year to think a lot of teams don't believe they can be.

9.  Max Friberg, LW, Skövde (Division 1)

Friberg was hardly known by Swedish hockey fans when he was summoned to Buffalo for the U20s, playing (and excelling) in Division 1, two levels below the Elitserien.  He's a smaller player without great speed, but he has one standout tool:  his shot.  He's quite raw right now, but given time could become a very good professional, though its doubtful he'll be more than an effective compliment for a more capable centreman.  He'll be playing for Timrå in the Elitserien next year, and as a late '92 birthdate, will only have one more crack at U20 gold this winter in Alberta.

10.  Rasmus Bengtsson, D, Rögle (Allsvenskan)

He's rocketing up the ranks right now, and I'm sure he's lower on my lists than a lot of others if they just went by nationality.  However, I see Bengtsson as a legitimate 2nd round pick here, I'm just probably valuing the offensive contributions of the other prospects a bit more.  Certainly, a case could be made that this smooth skating, 6'2" professional should be higher up, but to be honest its hard for me to make that case, since I've only seen him at the U18 level, and as a defensive d-man, I wasn't paying a heck of a lot of attention.  His shot is considered a potentially undeveloped weapon, while he's much more physical of a D than anyone else on this list.  If he really is as good as others are insisting, I'm sure he'd be at least 7th on this list.  Read up more on him from In Lou We Trust

Missed the Cut:  C Joachim Nermark, W Pontus Netterberg, C Pathrik Westerholm, D Klas Dahlbeck, G Magnus Hellberg.