Jakob Lilja offers an honest assessment of his decision of his decision to come to North America as a 26-year-old.
He could have stayed in his native country and continued to be one of the best players in the Swedish Hockey League. It might have been the easy thing to do, but chasing a childhood dream took precedence.
That dream is to play in the NHL, and Lilja is now one step closer to it after signing a one-year deal with Columbus this offseason.
"Of course, when I signed here, my goal is to play in the NHL," the winger said before adding with a laugh, "Otherwise I think it's stupid to come here."
Lilja will face a bit of a crowded Blue Jackets forward group, but he thinks he can do it after finishing in the top 10 in the SHL a year ago in assists and points.
His first chance to make an impression comes this weekend in the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, and he skated on the first line for the Blue Jackets with Alexandre Texier and Trey Fix-Wolansky. The other three combined for three goals, while Lilja had an assist in the 6-2 win vs. the Rangers.
"He's good," Fix-Wolansky said after the game. "He's very strong on the puck, good skater, he sees the ice well too so I think we had some good chemistry there with Tex. Hopefully we continue to build off that as the tournament goes on."
It's a continuation of a year ago when, as a teammate of fellow CBJ signee Emil Bemstrom, he posted a 12-25-37 line for Djurgardens IF in 52 games. Again, he could have stayed in his native country and again been a top player, but last season his play started to turn heads among NHL scouts. He talked to teams throughout the 2018-19 campaign and eventually decided to sign a one-year deal with the Blue Jackets in June.
"You have to go over your gut feeling, and this is what felt best," he said. "Who knows? I'm just following my feelings and this is where I landed."
Last year was Lilja's best statistical season in the SHL. After coming up through the youth systems at Sunne IK and Rögle BK, making his SHL debut with the latter in 2012-13, he moved to Linköping HC in 2015-16. There, he spent his first full season in the SHL, and in three years with LHC he had 35 goals, 26 assists and 61 points in 141 games. He moved to Djurgardens a season ago and had his best season while playing a career high in ice time.
"I think I'm a two-way player," he said. "I put a lot of focus on the defense and the offense. I use my skating a lot, so I want to bring that and have a good forecheck and create some offense with my speed. In Sweden I was able to put up some points and stuff like that. I don't know how big the difference in levels is here. It's going to be fun playing here."
It's a risk to come to North America but a calculated one. It goes back to when Lilja was a kid who wanted to play hockey at the highest level. Now, the chance is his. He just has to make the most of it.
"When you are a kid, you are always thinking about it," he said. "Then when you start playing pro in Europe, it's more like you need to have a good year and play well for a long time to get the chance because I didn't go in the draft. It was more like trying to be a good player in Sweden and then take it from there. I had two good years and the chance came and I just took it."