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Swedish Stenlund solid in first few games after debut

Big forward getting feet wet at NHL level

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

For Kevin Stenlund, his "welcome to the NHL" moment was literally a welcome to the NHL. 

As the Blue Jackets forward readied for a faceoff in the midst of his first NHL game Saturday at Washington, a fellow Swede had a congratulatory message in their native tongue. 

"(Nicklas Backstrom) asked me if it was my first game and I said yeah," Stenlund said. "He said congrats. Swedish buddies." 

The last line was a bit of dry humor -- the two hadn't really met before that moment on the Capital One Arena ice -- but it was a nice gesture from a fellow countryman. 

Similarly complimentary words have come from Columbus head coach John Tortorella, who likes what the 6-foot-4, 22-year-old native of Huddinge, Sweden, brings to the table. 

"I liked him in camp," Tortorella said after Stenlund's debut. "He's a big body, he won a couple of faceoffs. First period I thought he did some really good things on the wall, made a couple of five-foot plays. He hasn't been overwhelmed by any means." 

Of course, nothing is perfect -- Tortorella would like to see him be a little more aggressive on the offensive end, and he'll continue to learn in the defensive zone as his game translates to the middle at the NHL level -- but Stenlund's first three games have been solid thus far. 

Playing mostly wing despite center being his natural position, Stenlund is without a point while averaging 11:03 per game, and he's used his big body to protect the puck along the wall and to free up teammates with open ice. While out on the ice at 5-on-5, his line hasn't been a victim of a goal against. 

Twice, he nearly got his first career goal -- Sunday against the Rangers when his stick was slashed just before he had a shot at an open net, and in Tuesday night's win vs. New Jersey when a puck off his stick got behind Keith Kinkaid before the goalie covered it in the crease with his glove. 

While Stenlund had a simple answer when asked how he wants to add to what he's shown so far -- "Score a goal," he said -- he hasn't shown any nerves to this point. 

"It was more before than when you're in the game," he said of the nerves before his first game. "When you're in the game, it was fine actually. Just a couple of strides when I got out there. It wasn't too bad. I was relaxed. Just trying to play hockey." 

Columbus drafted Stenlund in the second round of the 2015 draft, but this is his first season in North American hockey. He made his first appearance in the SHL, Sweden's top level, in 2014-15 and was a full-time player there for the most part over the last three seasons, totaling 22 goals and 23 assists in 151 games. 

This year, he started with the Cleveland Monsters of the AHL and had nine goals and seven assists in his first 33 games. 

"He's got to get used to the North American style - a little more intense, a little quicker in the smaller rink," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said on the Blue Jackets Radio Network. "He's a big body, 6-foot-4, so he doesn't look real quick off the mark, but once he gets going he's got some pretty good speed too. Got great hands, great shot, can make a play - he's a smart hockey player that way.  

"I think the intensity level has to notch up and I think he has a good chance to make a future for himself in the NHL." 

Stenlund admitted the switch to the smaller rink used in North American hockey has been an adjustment, as has been getting used to living in Ohio after spending his life in Sweden.  

He's also a man of few words despite his laid-back disposition and long hair and man bun - at least for hockey. Still, when he first arrived to join the Blue Jackets, his reaction to his NHL call-up was the same as it is for anyone. 

"I'm really excited," he said. "It's a dream come true." 

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