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How Swede It Is

A look at how & why Flyers prospects are thriving in Swedish development programs

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer / http://www.philadelphiaflyers.com

From an historical standpoint, the Flyers organization has arguably had its greatest scouting and drafting success in Sweden among all European hockey countries. Indeed, a formidable starting lineup could be created among Swedish players drafted by Philadelphia.

Among others, future Hockey Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg (widely panned by pundits as an "off-the-board" pick at the time the Flyers took him sixth overall in the deep 1991 Draft), future Calder Trophy finalist and subsequent Legion of Doom right winger Mikael Renberg, future Bobby Clarke Trophy winning playmaker Pelle Eklund, and the future Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Pelle Lindbergh were all Flyers' scouting "finds" in their respective draft years.

From a drafting and development standpoint, the Flyers organization later experienced a fallow period in Sweden relative to some other NHL clubs. However, the pendulum has swung back in a favorable direction in the 2010s and the efforts may soon start paying dividends at the NHL level. Left winger Oskar Lindblom and defenseman Robert Hagg are knocking on the door of cracking the NHL roster. Goaltender Felix Sandstrom is also among the Flyers' top prospects.

For a breakdown of Sandstrom's game, see his feature story here.

In the meantime, three recent draftees are aiming to be part of the next generation of Flyers-drafted Swedes to someday make a name for themselves in the NHL: defensemen David Bernhardt and Linus Hogberg and forward Olle Lycksell.

The Flyers drafted Bernhardt in the seventh round (199th overall) of the 2016 NHL Draft. Large-framed (6-foot-3, 203 pounds) with an offensive-minded bent to his game, the left-handed shooting Bernhardt went on to have a promising 2016-17 season split between the Swedish Hockey League level with Djurgårdens IF Stockholm (27 games, two goals, seven points, plus-seven) and the SuperElit junior level with the Djurgården under-20 team (totaling 21 games, nine goals and 21 points over various phases of the regular season). 

Most notably, the 19-year-old Bernhardt earned a roster spot on Team Sweden for the 2016-17 World Junior Championships. He received significant ice time during the tournament and chipped in three goals and a plus-six rating at even strength while adapting to somewhat different duties than being relied on to trigger offense from the back end.

"That was a great experience for me. It was one of my goals to play World Juniors and I think I [had] a good tournament. I had a little bit different role than with my team in Sweden. I played a little bit more defensive," Bernhard said at Flyers Development Camp.

Bernhardt will turn 20 on Dec. 1. He plans to play a couple more years in Sweden before potentially coming over to North America if the Flyers elect to offer him an entry-level contract. The player aims to continue working on his two-way game and quickness. 

Hogberg, who will turn 19 on Sept. 4, likewise will continue his development path in his home country. The Flyers selected Hogberg in the fifth round (139th overall) of the 2016 NHL Draft. He has begun to fill out his 6-foot-1 frame, and is a mobile blueliner with promising puck-moving abilities, a good first pass and burgeoning two-way awareness. As he has started to gain more physical strength, Hogberg has also improved his agility and exhibited greater confidence. 

Hogberg appeared in 35 regular season games in the SHL with the Växjö Lakers HC senior team (chipping in four assists and even plus-minus). To get him more situational ice time, he also played on a three-game loan to a team at the Allsvenskan (top senior minor league) level as well as 39 games with the Lakers' J20 junior team, for whom he posted seven goals and 25 points. 

"I think last year went pretty good for me, but I can still improve in all ways," Hogberg said.

The teenage defender considers himself neither a defensive defenseman nor offensive defenseman per se, but rather strives to be a balanced all-around blueliner who can be deployed in any game situation or adapt to whatever role is asked of him. Continuing to add more strength is one of his immediate goals. 

Another incentive for next season: he has represented Sweden internationally before in various age-category tournaments but has not yet played in the World Junior Championships. 

Lycksell, a forward drafted by the Flyers in the sixth round (168th overall) of the 2017 Draft, is the youngest and smallest of the trio. He turns 18 on August 24. Lycksell split last season between the J18 and J20 junior programs affiliated with the Linköpings HC team in the SHL. He will likely spend most of the 2017-18 season at the J20 level but may see a few games with the LHC senior team or on an Allsvenskan line if he excels with the junior club. However, the physically immature player will probably need to fill out a bit more and continue to hone his skills before he's ready for full-time duty against grown men at the professional level.

The 5-foot-10, 163-pound Lycksell has quick hands. He impressed fans attending the 3-on-3 tournament on the final on-ice day of the Flyers Development Camp as he bagged five goals to lead all players in the half-ice tourney. 

Despite the player's lack of size, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall, assistant general manager Chris Pryor and the organization's scouting team including Sweden-based scout Joakim Grundberg were all impressed by the youngster's collection of talents and especially by his head for the game.

"Hard worker, two-way game. He just understands the game, with good hockey sense, and plays hard," Hextall said of Lycksell after the Draft, and noted that having a longer evaluation window available for him than for a Canadian junior "helps as well." 

When NHL teams draft players from Sweden, they have up to four years to make a decision on whether to sign the player to an entry-level contract. Conversely, if a player selected from the three CHL-affiliated leagues in Canada (Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) there is only a two-year time frame to make a signing decision before losing the player's rights.

Just as important in Hextall's mind is the development methods that are commonly used in Sweden as junior players prepare to play professional hockey and then work their way into larger roles at the SHL level. While the CHL-to-AHL-to-NHL route is also a tried-and-true development path, Hextall said that the organization is also "very comfortable" with having draftees develop through the SHL path and then come to North America when both the organization and the players themselves feel ready.

"They have good programs over there in Sweden. In my opinion, they do things the right way. They challenge players but they also don't put them in situations they aren't ready to be in, and their top league is pretty close in caliber to the AHL," Hextall said. 

Only time will tell how many of the current batch of Swedish-trained prospects in the Flyers farm system go on to someday become NHL contributors. In the broader picture, the Flyers have re-established themselves as an organization with a keen scouting eye on talent from the NHL's current third-largest contributor of talent, behind only Canada and the United States.  

Keep in mind also that not all players who develop their games in Sweden are Swedish nationals. Current Flyers forward Michael Raffl, an Austrian, and now-former Flyers forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who hails from France, are among the growing ranks of foreign-born players who elevated their games by playing in Sweden before being signed to NHL contracts. With the current Philadelphia prospect pipeline, Czech forward David Kase, a 2015 fifth-round pick, is slated to play next season in Sweden for Mora IK.

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