Traverse City, Mich. -- The path to the NHL doesn't have to be a lonely one. It hasn't been for Swedish defensemen Carl Dahlstrom and Robin Norell, who are gearing up for their second professional season after four years entrenched in the Blackhawks system, developing side by side after being drafted by the Blackhawks in 2013 -- Dahlstrom in the second round, Norell in the fourth.
They've attended the same camps and tournaments, received valuable feedback from the organization and then gone home to put in the hard work.
In 2016, they also took a big step in their careers together, signing their entry-level contracts two weeks apart and arriving in Rockford in the fall. They'd both dipped their toes in for brief spells in each of the previous springs, but last season was the real deal.
Rather than the seismic cultural shift that some might imagine for international prospects making the jump across the pond, both Swedes referred to it simply as "an opportunity" -- a vote of confidence from the organization, sure, but also an extended commitment to continue refining their games, now much closer to the team they both hope to play for soon.
In fact, Dahlstrom said the most difficult part of settling in North America was actually the first few days after his arrival.
"We had to get our social security number, get a car sorted out and find a place to live," he said. "There were a lot of things that you're not used to [when] playing in Sweden because you've got it all set up for yourself, but once we got that sorted out, I enjoyed playing in Rockford a lot."
Communication wasn't an issue, nor was the new environment, with Norell describing the AHL as "not that different" from the Swedish Hockey League, where he spent his early playing years in the Djurgardens system.
Dahlstrom's season total of six goals and five assists in 2016-17 might not have turned heads, but it was an offensive explosion as far as his career went, having never reached double digits in points in Sweden. In Traverse City, he scored in each of the Blackhawks' first two contests, and they weren't cheap, each of the goals a result of being in the right place deep inside the offensive zone.
"One aspect of the game that I didn't show as much in Sweden is maybe my offensive game," Dahlstrom said. "I don't know if the smaller-sized rink gives me more abilities to shoot or what. I take pride in being a defensive D, but I always want to contribute offensively too."
Norell, although by nature a more defensively oriented blueliner (his nine points last season tied a career best), agrees that the North American game suits him.
"I like to compete and the rink is smaller, so it fits my play because I like to play aggressive and block shots," he said. "I didn't have to spend so much energy to focus on speed [compared to the larger ice in Sweden], so here I could focus more on positioning."
At this point in their careers, their development is more focused on refining their existing skill sets rather than adding new dimensions to their games, although the Blackhawks are also asking the pair to demonstrate their leadership qualities, especially with a large incoming class for Rockford this fall. Naming Dahlstrom and Norell alternate captains in Traverse City was a start.
"During this tournament I got the opportunity to wear the big 'A' on my jersey, and I feel a lot of confidence and respect wearing it," Norell said. "I want the players to look up to me, like they can really talk to me, and I want to support them the best I can. I want to make them better, because they will make me better."
"This year, coming in with more experience, I feel like I need to take a bigger role than last year and try to lead this team," Dahlstrom added. "Getting the 'A' is a lot of fun. It's my first time at any level -- I'd always played with older guys. I take pride in it."
Dahlstrom and Norell are part of a large contingent of prospects that is going straight from the tournament to Blackhawks training camp, which begins Friday. That's where the real battle begins, with a blue line in flux after the departures of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk. The duo is hoping to sneak onto the radar, building off their first year of North American competition and strong showings at the prospect tournament.
As good friends, they'll fight for a spot together. But as left-handed defensemen who play similar roles, they'll likely fight for the same spot, along with a host of other hopefuls ranging from 21-year-old Gustav Forsling to AHL veterans like Jordan Oesterle and Erik Gustafsson.
"There are a lot of spots we're competing for," Dahlstrom said. "There's a lot of guys too, so it's going to be interesting."
"It would be a great opportunity for me to show my best, because I feel a lot more confident and I'm not thinking so much this year," Norell said. "I'm more relaxed and I can play my game a little easier."