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Swedish program rebounds; 13 players at Combine

Thursday, 05.28.2009 / 11:14 AM / 2009 NHL Entry Draft

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

TORONTO -- Not since four mop-topped kids from England arrived in North America in 1964 has there been this much European talent on the continent.

While no one ever will be in the class of John, Paul, George and Ringo, names like Hedman, Paajarvi-Svensson, Josefson and Ekman-Larson could come to be just as big in a hockey sense.

They are just some of the 13 Swedish players here for the 2009 Scouting Combine -- out of 21 European players in total. The top eight players on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of European skaters are Swedish, as is the top European goaltender. And anywhere from four to nine Swedish players could be chosen in the first round of the 2009 Entry Draft.

"I haven't seen this amount in another nation," Boston Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli told NHL.com. "We were joking, 'Is there any other Swedish kids we haven't interviewed in the whole nation?' This has been a unique year for them. You look at all of them, and you talk about them in the high rounds, if not the first round."

Heading the list of top Swedish players is defenseman Victor Hedman, who is almost assured of being one of the top two players selected when the teams convene in Montreal June 26-27. The 6-foot-6, 220-pounder has spent the last two seasons playing for MODO Ornskoldsvik in the Swedish Elite League.

Besides Hedman, the Swedes boast an impressive group of defensemen. David Rundblad is a strong offensive force, while his teammate with Skelleftea AIK, Tim Erixon, is considered a top defense-first blueliner. And Oliver Ekman-Larson, who spent most of the season with Leksand's junior team, is a favorite of the scouts.

"He's got a chance to be a really good player," a scout for an Eastern Conference team told NHL.com. "Great skater, good hands, good hockey sense, all-round good defenseman."

Ranked second among the European skaters is Timra IK forward Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, a big, creative wing who excelled for Sweden at the World Junior Championship. He tied for second on the team in points (7) and plus-minus (6) in six games.

Jacob Josefson and Marcus Johannson are creative centers with bright futures, and Carl Klingberg is a 6-3, 205-pound power forward just starting to grow into a strong skill set.

"He's a power forward," Hedman told NHL.com. "He always skates and keeps his feet going. It's very hard to play against him. ... I think he's like (Alexander) Ovechkin -- he can play physical and score goals, that's his style of play."

This increase in top-flight Swedish players is a relatively new phenomenon. After the generation of Swedish NHL stars -- Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Mats Sundin, Nicklas Lidstrom -- that debuted in the late 1980s and early '90s, there was a talent drought. After years of poor performances at international junior tournaments, in 2002 the Swedes re-examined their development model.

"Around six, seven years ago, their junior national teams, under-18 and under-20, they didn't win too many games and didn't produce too many talents," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "About 100 Swedish hockey experts -- managers, scouts, some older players -- they sat down in a meeting in Stockholm. They scrapped all the systems they had in producing talent and they rebuilt the whole thing."

The result was the establishment of more than 40 hockey schools, where players can train and play full-time while also receiving an education. Also, the national federation sends coaches to youth programs to advise those coaches on how they want the players to practice and develop.

The first group to receive the benefits of the 2002 restructuring was last year's draft class, which included three first-round picks -- Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson (No. 15), Washington center Anton Gustafsson (No. 21) and New Jersey left wing Mattias Tedenby (No. 24) -- plus Florida goaltender Jacob Markstrom, the first pick of the second round who is widely considered the best European player not currently in the NHL.

Karlsson was voted the best defenseman at the 2009 World Junior Championship, and Markstrom was named the best goalie. Joining them on the silver medalists were a number of players from this year's draft class -- Hedman, Rundblad, Erixon, Johansson, Paajarvi-Svensson and Josefson.

"We basically know each other since we were 15 years old. Going through this experience with these guys is unbelievable. There are 13 guys here from Sweden so it feels like home."
-- Victor Hedman

It was just another high-level event for this year's group of top Swedish players, who have played numerous international tournaments together.

"We've been together since our under-16 year with the national team," goaltender Robin Lehner told NHL.com. "We've always been together up to this point. It's real fun. You became very good friends. We talk about almost everything. If somebody needs help you're there helping him. You became a little bit like family."

That family feeling has carried over to the combine. Many of the Swedish players met with more than a dozen NHL teams, and all the meetings were held in English. Meeting future employers while speaking a second language can be an intimidating experience, but the Swedish players have formed their own little support group.

NHL Scouting Combine Gear "We usually talk to each other after the interviews," Josefson told NHL.com. "It gives me a little bit of confidence when you know the people around you. You're more calm. That's good for me."

"We basically know each other since we were 15 years old," added Hedman. "Going through this experience with these guys is unbelievable. There are 13 guys here from Sweden so it feels like home."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com