Four-straight seasons in the American Hockey League could turn any young prospect sour. But Niclas Bergfors never allowed himself to go there.
Oh sure, the New Jersey Devils' 22-year-old rookie wondered privately if he had the patience to wait out the organization or would he better served going home to Sweden to play in the Elite League?
"When you have four years in the AHL you start thinking, 'Am I getting better down here?'" Bergfors told NHL.com. "I'm young and I want to take the next step somewhere."
Bergfors only had to wait just a little bit longer for that somewhere to be the NHL. The Devils let Brian Gionta leave via free agency over the summer, opening a spot for the young Swedish wing to finally earn his role with the club during training camp. He skated away with it and after 15 games, Bergfors doesn't appear to be losing his hold.
He has 4 goals, including a pair in last Wednesday's game against Washington, and is third on the team behind Zach Parise and Brian Rolston with 47 shots, which is second among all rookies in the NHL. He also has 5 assists for nine points.
New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire likes his steady play and his battle-level. Bergfors just likes his new full-time job in the NHL, one that was a long time coming.
"A lot of stuff crossed my mind, of course, but going into this year all I was thinking about was the NHL, the NHL," Bergfors said. "If I didn't make it I don't know what I'd be thinking right now, but I never got to that part. I never had to have those other thoughts going around in my head."
Bergfors won over his coach enough that Lemaire put him on the top line with Parise and Travis Zajac in the third period against Washington. He responded with two power-play goals to lift New Jersey to a 3-2 victory.
"We mention pretty much every game that we have to get pucks at the net," Lemaire said, "and I guess he's one of those who heard what we had to say and tries to do it."
Bergfors has definitely won over his teammates.
"When you lose a player like Gionta that kind of opens the door for a guy like him and he's done well in that situation," Parise told NHL.com. "He's going to be good for us."
He's certainly getting there, which goalie Martin Brodeur believes has something to do with his growth spurt. Not in height or weight, but in confidence.
"You can see in practice, he's just a little more comfortable than he was in the past," Brodeur said. "Hopefully it's going to be good for us to have a young guy like that to be able to contribute and get the pressure off certain guys in our lineup."
Bergfors was a work-in-progress for four years in the AHL. He came to New Jersey as the 23rd pick in the 2005 Entry Draft and his first year in Albany, the Devils' former AHL affiliate, and had 40 points in 65 games in his first season in North America.
But his numbers dipped in each of his next two seasons in Lowell. He had 32 points in 2006-07 and bottomed out with just 27 points and a minus-12 rating over 66 games in 2007-08.
Was he a bust?
"I think my first year was a good year, but the middle two years I came down," Bergfors said. "It was bad confidence and frustration. We were losing a lot and we weren't a playoff team."
Knowing he was getting close to using up his last lifeline in North America, Bergfors relaxed last season and just tried to enjoy the game. He wound up with 22 goals and 29 assists for 53 points over 66 games. The Devils were finally ready to bring him along.
"When you have four years in the AHL you start thinking, 'Am I getting better down here? I'm young and I want to take the next step somewhere."
-- Niclas Bergfors
It helped that he spent a month in New Jersey, playing eight games from Nov. 1-20. He scored a goal, but more importantly he got a feel for the NHL and the confidence that he belonged.
Going back to the AHL wasn't a bummer; it was an opportunity.
"When you're young, 18 and you get drafted, you don't know much about it and I didn't know much about what would happen," Bergfors said. "Four years seems like a long time down there, but there were a lot of ups and downs and different situations and the time rolled by quick."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org