In NHL scouting circles, the young Swedish player by far drawing the most attention for the 2011 Entry Draft is Skellefteå AIK defenseman Adam Larsson.
The youngster, who is already a mainstay in the Swedish Elite League (Elitserien), has been touted for the last two years as a potential lottery pick -- and possibly even the top overall pick) in 2011. Thus far, Larsson has not disappointed, playing solid hockey for the third- place club.
Beyond Larsson and already-drafted NHL prospects in Elitserien, such as Detroit Red Wings prospect Calle Jarnkrok (6 goals and 11 points for Brynäs IF Gävle) and Nashville Predators hopeful Patrick Cehlin (3 goals and 5 points for Djurgårdens IF Stockholm), there are several pleasant surprises to emerge so far this season in the top Swedish junior league (known as the J20 SuperElit) and a couple undrafted junior-eligible players in Elitserien.
Far and away, the player who has taken the biggest leap forward since last season is Modo Hockey Örnsköldsvik right wing prospect Jesper Olofsson. The 18-year-old had never previously been a standout in the Modo junior system, at least in terms of being a clear-cut prospect for professional hockey. Most notably, he represented his home district of Ångermanland in the 2008 TV-Puck tournament, scoring 2 goals in four games, and averaged nearly a point per game in his final season at the J18 level before moving up to Modo's top junior team last season.
A year ago, Olofsson posted 13 goals and 26 points at the SuperElit level. While that is certainly encouraging production from a 17-year-old playing against opponents up to three years his senior, the top-caliber prospects often breeze right through the Swedish J20 level, where the talent level is somewhat higher than Canadian Junior A and somewhat lower than the Canadian major junior.
This season, however, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound teenager has come into his own.
Through the first 14 games of the first phase of the SuperElit season, Olofsson has already surpassed his goal total from all of last season. He has racked up an astounding 17 goals while playing on a line centered by Anton Byström (11 assists).
Olofsson leads both segments SuperElit league -- which is divided into northern and southern circuits during the first part of the season -- in the goal-scoring department. Pathrik Westerholm, a center for the IF Malmö Redhawks in SuperElit South, is the next closest with 13 goals in 12 games, while HV 71 Jönköping (SuperElit South) left winger Jonathan Thollander has a dozen goals in as many games.
Meanwhile, Olofsson's 19 points ties him with Djurgården winger Marcus Sörensen (a fourth-round draft pick by the Ottawa Senators in the 2010 Entry Draft) for the overall scoring lead in SuperElit North.
The scoring leader in SuperElit South is Pathrik Westerholm (23 points), followed by Thollander (20 points). Westerholm -- playing on a line with his twin brother, Ponthus (7 goals, 17 points) -- has been an offensive force throughout his junior career.
Praised for his puck handling, ice vision and quick shot release, Pathrik has been touted as a potential pro for several years. Last season, he compiled 22 goals and 46 points at the SuperElit level en route to representing Sweden at the Under-18 World Championships.
Conversely, Olofsson seems to be taking an early career path somewhat similar to that of his father, Tony Olofsson. A defenseman, the elder Olofsson was not a highly touted prospect as a youth but became something of a late-blooming offensive sparkplug at the lower levels and parlayed it into a career in Elitserien with Modo in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"Last season, Jesper was a pretty ordinary player but this season he has been on fire," notes Swedish Web Radio Modo play-by-play announcer Martin Sedin. "He seems to have the ability to be wherever the puck ends up. I would say Olofsson doesn't have any real strengths that jump out at scouts but he gets the most out of his ability. He is not big, is not a great skater, and doesn't have great natural hands but he does seem to know where the goal is and anticipates the play."
Led by efforts of Olsson and Byström, Modo's J20 team is in fourth place in SuperElit North, 13 points behind the Skellefteå AIK J20 squad.
SAIK has won 11 of its first 13 games, even with Larsson suiting up full-time for the big team. The roster has tremendous balance, with five players averaging better than a point per game (Viktor Arvidsson, Petter Emanuelsson, Sam Marklund, Marcus Wallmark and Oscar Lindberg), stellar goaltending from 2011 NHL Entry Draft prospect Oskar Sehlstedt (1.57 GAA, .946 save percentage), backed by the northern league's stingiest defense.
Scouts are especially impressed by Sehlstedt and Arvidsson.
"Sehltstedt has tremendous size (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) and he's a good prospect for the future," says a Sweden-based scout for an NHL Western Division club. "He's raw, as you would expect from a young goaltender, but he covers a lot of net and he's athletic for such a big goalie."
Arvidsson, who turned 17 in April, is a potential fast-track player to the professional level. While he is still lacking in size and muscle (he is currently listed at 5-9 and 165 pounds), Arvidsson is a superior stickhandler and a shifty skater who is deadly from the blue line in.
Arvidsson tore up the J18 level last year to earn an early promotion to SAIK's J20 team. He is a virtual shoo-in to play for Team Sweden at the 2011 Under-18 World Championships.
In five international games to date at the Under-18 level, he has scored 5 goals. He currently ranks fourth in scoring in SuperElit North with 7 goals and 16 points through his first 13 games.
In SuperElit South, HV 71 has been every bit as dominant as SAIK has been in the North. The top junior team of the defending Elitserien champion has won 11 of its first 12 games through a similar combination of assets to SAIK.
Led by its top line of Thollander, center Kristian Frisk (3 goals, 15 assists), and right wing Pontus Netterberg (7 goals, 16 points), the club has a half dozen players averaging at least a point per game. The team's most advanced forward, New York Rangers prospect Jesper Fasth (drafted in the sixth round of the 2010 Entry Draft), was called up to the big team but has posted 6 points in his three games with the J20 team.