Take Sweden's Brynas IF Gavle, for example. The team finished in seventh place this past season in Sweden's 12-team Elitserien and has not finished in the top three since the 2000-01 season. Brynas may be a 12-time Swedish champion, but is now a dozen years removed from its most recent championship season.
Nevertheless, Gavle remains a hub of NHL scouting activity. Why? The organization boasts a strong junior hockey program and has graduated many of its young Elitserien players to the National Hockey League.
This past season, the club boasted four young position players under the age of 21who are considered bona fide NHL prospects: forwards Johan Larsson, Calle Jarnkrok and Jakob Silfverberg and defenseman Mattias Ekholm.
Larsson, who signed an entry-level contract with Minnesota in May, led all players in Lake Placid with 13 points in five games. Last season, he made his Elitserien debut, scoring 4 goals and 8 points in 44 games after racking up 15 points in 10 games with Brynas' J20 squad. Larsson also appeared in the 2011 World Juniors, tallying 4 points in 6 games.
"Larsson is a smart and mature player," said Predators scout Lucas Bergman. "He isn't the biggest or the fastest player on his team but he's someone who can play in a lot of different situations. He has improved steadily each year and is a competitor."
Although the 19-year-old Larsson has signed with Minnesota, he plans to spend an additional season in Europe before coming over to compete for an NHL job. In the interim, he is a shoo-in to play for the Swedes at the 2012 World Juniors. One major factor that works to his advantage is his ability to play any of the three forward positions.
"It's hard to explain how big it was for me to sign an NHL contract," Larsson told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. "I haven't had too much of a chance to talk with [the Predators] yet, but next year I will play with Brynas or at least that's what I think will happen."
The development plan is similar for Silfverberg.
Drafted by the Ottawa Senators at No. 39 at the 2009 Entry Draft, the 20-year-old winger signed with the NHL club on May 31. He, too, is slated to spend another season with Brynas before taking his shot at North American hockey.
Already a veteran of 131 regular-season and playoff games at the Elitserien level, the youngster started to come into his own at the elite level last season. Known for his heavy right-handed shot, Silfverberg tallied 18 goals and 34 points in 54 regular-season games this past season and added 4 assists in 5 playoff matches. He also made his senior national team debut for the silver-medal winning Swedes at the 2011 World Championships.
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"I would play in the NHL for free if that's what it took [but] the money is just a bonus," he told Hockeysverige. "I want to prove, both to myself and Ottawa, than I can have good seasons in consecutive years. I need to get stronger across the board, both physical and mentally. It feels better go over the season after next and give myself a real good chance to win an [NHL] spot."
Jarnkrok, 19, was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings at No. 51 in the 2010 Entry Draft. The center is coming off an eye-opening season for Brynas this past year. A bit player early in the season, Jankrok's role grew steadily, along with his confidence and production.
Jarnkrok led all junior-aged players in Elitserien in both points (27) and goals (11) and was a finalist for the Elitserien Rookie of the Year award (won by teammate Ekholm). He posted 5 points (2 goals, 3 assists) at the 2011 World Junior Championships. Although he has not yet been signed by the Red Wings, he is said to be very much in Detroit's plans.
Jarnkrok signed a two-year extension with Brynas but has an NHL out-clause in his contract. There is a possibility that he could come to North America for the 2012-13 season or else sign with Detroit and be loaned back to Brynas in the second year of the deal. If he is not signed to an NHL entry-level contract by June 1, 2012, Detroit will lose Jarnkrok's rights.
"We are very excited about Calle's future, but at the same time, we know that he needs more time in Elitserien," said Red Wings scout Hakan Andersson. "The ice time will be important for him and he still needs to get stronger to compete in the NHL. When he's ready, he's got a chance to be a good player in the NHL. Calle has a very high skill level."
Elitserien rookie of the Year winner Ekholm is the lone player of the four who is slated to leave Brynas to play in North America during the upcoming season.
Selected by Nashville at No. 109 in the 2009 Entry Draft, the defenseman has developed rapidly since his selection. He signed with the Predators on May 31.
Previously regarded as more of a stay-at-home defenseman, Ekholm has developed an offensive flair to his game.
This past season, the rookie defenseman compiled an impressive 10 goals, 35 points and a plus-10 defensive rating in 55 regular-season games, as well as 4 assists in 5 playoff games. He scored a goal in six games for Team Sweden at the 2011 World Juniors.
"I would play in the NHL for free if that's what it took [but] the money is just a bonus. I want to prove, both to myself and Ottawa, than I can have good seasons in consecutive years. I need to get stronger across the board, both physical and mentally. It feels better go over the season after next and give myself a real good chance to win an [NHL] spot." -- Jakob Silfverberg
The Predators' plan for the player is for him to play for the American Hockey League's Milwaukee Admirals in 2011-12 and continue his development toward the NHL.
"Ekholm is a very good skater for his size," said Bergman. "He has made great strides in his game, especially in his puck-moving ability. He had a strong year last year with Brynas, but he has the ability to continue getting better."
Remarkably, the well of young talent in Gavle runs even deeper than the aforementioned quartet of players.
Goaltender Niklas Svedberg, 21, put together a very strong campaign in 2010-11, splitting time with San Jose Sharks goaltending prospect Thomas Greiss, posting a 2.28 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 21 appearances.
As a result, the club was largely able to survive last summer's departure of Jakob Markstrom for the Florida Panthers. Although Svedberg has yet to be signed by an NHL club, several organizations have reportedly shown interest.
Meanwhile, the Brynas blue line corps features former Philadelphia Flyers prospect Simon Bertilsson. Selected by Philadelphia in the third round of the 2009 Entry Draft, Philadelphia allowed their rights to expire in June.
A series of injuries have set the smooth-skating defensive defenseman back during the past couple years, but he is still considered a long-range NHL prospect if he can get back on track. Bertilsson participated in the 2011 World Juniors and has already logged 89 Elitserien games despite the frequent injuries.
Asked what the secret is behind both the quantity and quality of NHL prospects arising from the Brynas system in recent years, Larsson said that there may not be a particular formula behind it, yet he believes a lot to do with the training he and his teammates received on the J18 and/or J20 squads before graduating to the club's Elitserien roster.
"It's tough to say but there has been a good education for senior players," said Larsson. "It's firm ground to stand on."