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IN-DEPTH: The highs and lows of Lindblom's fight to get to the NHL

The full story of how Oskar focused on proving himself right and the critics wrong

by PhiladelphiaFlyers.com @nhlflyers / http://www.philadelphiaflyers.com/

The Flyers annual "Fathers' Trip" is meaningful to all of the players whose dads are able to be on hand. It may, however, have meant just a little more to Flyers left winger Oskar Lindblom.

Oskar's father, Johan, made the 4,000 mile journey from Sweden to Philadelphia in order to come along on the trip this year.

"To have him here was pretty special, and something we'll always remember," Oskar Lindblom said.

This year's father's trip marked just the second time Johan Lindblom had the opportunity to come to North America to see his middle son play in person, and the first since Oskar was promoted to the NHL level. Last season, Oskar had family members visit and see him play while he is the American Hockey League with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. 

CLOSE-KNIT FAMILY IN A HOCKEY CITY

Located in the eastern central Swedish district of Gästrikland, the city of Gävle traces its history back to the early 1400s. Nowadays, there are about 100,000 residents in the municipality, which is situated by the Baltic City. Oskar Lindblom was born and raised in Gävle, along with older brother Marcus and younger brother Linus. 

Born in 1973, Johan Lindblom played minor league hockey in Sweden. A forward, he advanced as far as the Division 1 level (roughly the Swedish version of the ECHL), playing for Team Gävle, Hille/Åbyggeby IK and other teams. At age 33, he retired as a player and turned to the coaching side of the game. 

All three of the Lindblom boys were bitten by the hockey bug at young ages. Their father offered his support and the benefit of his knowledge, but did not try to live vicariously through their hockey development. 

"My father has always been a big help to me and my brothers. We have a really good father. I'd also say he was really good hockey dad, too, Didn't put pressure on me, and he's been there when I've needed him," Oskar Lindblom said.

Outside Sweden, Gävle is perhaps best known for famous coffee bean roastery and the Gevalia coffee brand that bears its name. Gävle is also known for it hockey team, Brynäs IF.

Founded in 1912, Brynäs has continuously played in Sweden's top division (known today as the Swedish Hockey League, or SHL) since 1960. The team has won 13 Swedish championships. Brynäs also boasts one of Europe's top junior development programs, which has produced several dozen NHL draft picks and given rise to many future NHL stars and international hockey standouts. 

"Yeah, there's been a lot. You kind of look at those guys who have success. Nicklas Bäckström was coming over [to the NHL] when I was a kid, and he was kind of the first from [the current-day generation]. Jakob Silverberg was Brynäs, and Calle Järnkrok. Elias Lindholm came from Brynäs, too," Lindblom said. 

All three of the Lindblom brothers came up through the Brynäs junior hockey system via the Hille/Åbyggeby IK youth hockey program: Marcus, who is 18 months older than Oskar, was the first. Oskar, born Aug. 15, 1996, came next. Currently, 15-year-old sibling Linus plays for the Brynäs under-16 squad. 

 

RITES OF PASSAGE

Playing in the TV-Puck tournament (TV-Pucken in Swedish) is a rite of passage that the vast majority of Swedish players who go on to notable professional careers underwent in their mid-teens. Founded in 1959, the nationally televised tournament features young players up to the age of 16 (age 16 representing each of 24 geographical district teams. 

The list of TV-Puck alumni reads like a who's who of Swedish hockey over the last 59 years. Among those who played for the first time on the national stage in this tournament were the likes of Börje Salming, Pelle Lindbergh, Ulf Nilsson, Anders Hedberg, Håkan Loob, Stefan Persson, Thomas Steen, Calle Johansson, Nicklas Lidstrom, Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg, Markus Näslund, Mikael Renberg, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Henrik Lundqvist, Nicklas Bäckström, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman,and many more.

Johan Lindblom played in the tournament, too, representing Gästrikland in 1988. His sons would follow suit. Oskar played for Gästrikland in both the 2010-11 and 2011-12 tournaments. The first year, one of his teammates was older brother Marcus.

"That was fun and a very exciting time," Oskar recalls. "That tournament is a big thing back at home." 

In the 2011-12 tournament, 16-year-old Marcus posted one goal and seven assists in eight games. Oskar was tied for second on the team in goals (four) and points (seven) despite being a year to 18 months younger than many of the other participating players. 

That same season, Oskar captained the Brynäs J16 team but was clearly too advanced for that level (18 points in nine game), so he was promoted up the 18-and-under team. He also played his first international tournament hockey, representing the Swedish national under-16 team. 

The next year, Oskar dominated TV-Pucken. An alternate captain for Gästrikland, he racked up 20 points (14 goals, six assists, +16 rating) in eight games, second most in the tournament. He led his team in scoring by a whopping nine points over the next closest player, Jens Lööke (today an Arizona Coyotes prospect who plays in the American Hockey League). The Gästrikland team reached the finals but lost in the championship game to Team Stockholm North.

Nowadays, scouting of young players for the NHL Draft begins well ahead of their actual eligibility. Within the realm of scouting within Sweden -- keep in mind that few of the players are mature enough physically or in their hockey development to play in major international tournaments such as the Under-18 World Championships -- the TV Puck tournament is a place where differentiation between top-notch prospects and the rest of the pack starts to become evident.

By this point of his development, Oskar created mismatches against even players a year or two older than himself.  

Playing for the Brynäs J18 team in 2012-13, 16-year-old Lindblom posted a combined 31 goals and 59 points in 33 games during the regional and national competition phases of the league's schedule. Internationally, the middle Lindblom brother captained Sweden's national Under-17 team (10 goals, 21 points in 12 games) and even earned a spot on Team Sweden at the Under-18 World Championships and more than held his own against many of the world's best under-18 players (two goals and four points in five games). 

There was another side to Lindblom's game: apart from being an offensive threat, he was also developing an impressive two-way game for such a young player. He did not cheat out of the defensive zone, backchecked diligently and was willing to dig out pucks along the boards. Lindblom also was not one to make many low-percentage plays. He showed an advanced hockey IQ in going to the right spots and not blindly throwing away pucks on "hope" plays where the odds of succeeding were low. 

"You're not always going to be able to score, but I think you can help your team in different ways. Defense can lead to offense. So that's something I think I've tried to pay attention to. I want to score, too, obviously. But I just try to play a good overall game, and then the chances will come," Lindblom said. 

 

NOT YOUR AVERAGE 5th ROUND PICK

Oskar turned 17 on August 15, 2013. He was still a year away from being eligible for the NHL Draft but scouts from around the world were already quite familiar with him and extremely high on his upside to someday develop into an above-average NHL player both as a scorer and a potential all-situations player.

When International Scouting Services (ISS) released its 2013 NHL Draft Guide, it also included one-year (2014 Draft eligibles) top 50 projections. It also published a two-year (2015 Draft) top 30 list that included future Flyers Travis Konecny at 16th and Ivan Provorov at 17th.

The ISS projection for Lindblom was that of a likely top-10 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. He was ranked 7th overall in their top 50, one spot behind Michael Dal Colle (ultimately selected 5th overall by the New York Islanders) and one ahead of Jared McCann (later taken 24th overall by the Vancouver Canucks). 

Sometimes, however, being so prominent on the scouting radar for a prolonged period of time -- as Lindblom had been ever since tearing up TV-Pucken -- can actually work against an early-blooming player. The more he's viewed come his draft-eligible season, the less attention is paid to the things he does well (which are taken for granted by this point) and more is placed on areas that perhaps aren't improving as rapidly as hoped or a couple of so-so games in tournament viewings can suddenly cause undue concern. Meanwhile, as later-blooming players start to assert themselves, they can shoot up the charts.

Case in point: A huge second half for Calgary Hitmen defenseman Travis Sanheim in 2013-14 vaulted him from being a low-profile candidate for the 2014 Draft right up into many organizations' mid-to-late first-round range in their final internal rankings. He ended up being selected by the Flyers, 17th overall. 

Meanwhile, Lindblom went the opposite way, even though he split time between the Brynäs J20 roster while getting his feet wet on the men's pro team in the SHL (four games) and remained a fixture on the Swedish national under-18 team. He was not quite ready yet for the national under-20, and did not dominate at the J20 level quite to the expected extent. 

"I think with that year, I was called up to the big team and I wasn't playing a lot. It took me awhile to get going," Lindblom recalls. 

There was another concern: Lindblom's feet. In his Draft-eligible year, got low marks from many scouts on his skating. While he was never expected to be a speedster, a perceived lack of explosiveness and overall quickness dropped him way down on many lists from his initial high perch. 

By the time the 2014 NHL Draft weekend in Philadelphia rolled around, Lindblom was no longer expected to be a first-round selection and was not a surprise that the first night of the Draft passed without his name being called. What was quite surprising was just how deep into day two (rounds two through seven) he lasted.  

The second round passed without Lindblom being chosen. Then the third and fourth rounds came and went with the young Brynäs forward still available. Finally, with the 18th pick of the 5th round -- the 138th overall pick of the Draft -- the Flyers chose Lindblom. 

Philly had actually considered taking Lindblom in multiple previous rounds. From the standpoint of the team's scouts and general manager Ron Hextall, it was a no-brainer to select him in the fifth round, and probably also would have been as easily justified pick a round or two rounds earlier based on his offensive skill and two-way hockey sense as well as emotional maturity and coachability. 

Lindblom clearly needed work on his skating, and it was going to be a multi-year process of refinement (which is still ongoing even through his most recent offseason training program). However, there were no doubts about the teenager's work ethic, smarts and dedication. The natural process of filling out and adding lower-body strength would correct some of the deficiencies while the rest would have to come through coaching and establishing muscle memory through routine. 

 

DILIGENCE & PATIENCE PAYS OFF

Oskar Lindblom wasted no time rolling up his sleeves and setting about the task of getting ready to play regularly against grown men. It was a one-step-at-a-time process. He put in extra work on his skating, absorbed all he could through his coaches with Brynäs and the Flyers development coaches.

He was not worried about trying to prove critics wrong. While he was a bit disappointed to have fallen so far in the NHL Draft after he'd been so highly touted a year early, Lindblom already had the mental maturity to realize that the Draft is merely a starting place on an NHL career, not the destination itself.

"I just tried to focus on myself, and to work on my game," Lindblom said. "You have to choose to do the things you can control. It's not easy sometimes, but that just what you need to do."

Very quickly after the 2014 Draft, it was evident that the Flyers had a legitimate NHL prospect on their hands in Lindblom. The 18-year-old played 37 games in the SHL for Brynäs in 2014-15, and performed admirably (a very respectable eight goals and 15 points, while working his way up into a third-line role). He also earned a spot for Team Sweden at the World Junior Championships, and scored a hat trick during the preliminary round.

The next season went even better. Lindblom's SHL point total increased by 11. He played at the top end of the junior national time lineup. He even got his first taste of North American pro hockey, spending the final eight games of the 2015-16 American Hockey League regular season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. After two or three games, he seemed to catch on, and he wound up posting seven points (two goals, five assists) in the eight-game stint.

The Flyers offered Lindblom an NHL entry-level contract, kicking in for the 2016-17 season. It had always been Oskar's dream to play in the NHL, and he did not mind playing in the AHL first as a means to an end. However, he elected to turn down the offer and wait one additional year.

"It really wasn't that hard of a decision, because I still felt like I wanted to work on some things, get a little stronger. I felt like I would know when I was ready, so one more year playing at home would probably be the best decision," Lindblom recalls.

The Flyers organization respected Lindblom's decision to play one more season at home. The SHL is a good league that is comparable in competitive talent to the AHL. One season later, Lindblom's decision seemed to be a very wise one indeed.

Lindblom was selected by Ishockeyjournalisternas Kamratförening (the Swedish equivalent of the Professional Hockey Writers Association) as the top forward in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) for the 2016-17 season. During the regular season, he was second in the league in goals (22), tied for seventh in assists (25) and fourth in points (47). 

"I didn't expect that. I didn't think I was going to score that much or make that many points. But the longer the season got, I played more minutes and more power play. I got more confident in my game. It felt good," Lindblom recalls.

In the 2017 SHL playoffs, Lindblom finished with 14 points (tied for 3rd) in 20 games, with four goals and 10 assists (tied for 1st) as Brynas fell one win short of the championship. Lindblom led all players in the finals with 24 shots on goal and also set up teammates for numerous scoring chances. 

Unfortunately, after scoring a goal in Game 1 of the playoff finals against HV71 Jönköping, Lindblom was unable to get on the scoresheet the remainder of the series. Ultimately, HV71 prevailed in seven games, winning the deciding match by a 2-1 score in overtime.

"It was frustrating and pretty tough to swallow," Lindblom recalls, with a shake of his head. "One more goal [in Game 7] and we win the championship. We had the chances, but the puck wouldn't go in. It's disappointing when you feel like you had more to give."

By now, though, Oskar Lindblom was ready to turn the page and embrace a new hockey life far away from the familiar environs of his hometown team. On May 30, 2017, he signed an entry-level contract with the Flyers.

 

TACKLING THE NEXT CHALLENGE

Entering the Flyers' 2017 Rookie Camp and Training Camp, many observers believed that Lindblom had a strong chance of making the Flyers' NHL roster out of camp. He already played a style that seemed readily adaptable to the smaller rinks of North America, spoke reasonably fluent English and had experienced success during his previous short AHL stint with the Phantoms.

As it turned out, though, the adjustment needed just a little more time.

"To be honest, it was harder than I thought it was going to be," Lindblom said. "The biggest difference is the pace. The game is faster over here, especially in the NHL, so you have to think and react quicker."

Lindblom did not make the NHL team. Late in the 2017 preseason, he was assigned to the Phantoms. Although he understood specifically what he needed to work on, he felt the same emotions that any player in his situation would.

"I was disappointed. When I went to Allentown, for a couple weeks and a few games, I think that affected me a little bit, like I was thinking I'm not supposed to be here. But I had really good teammates, and the Phantoms are a good team. It was up to me to adjust to playing over here and work my way up. After that, I just got back to focusing on my game and I started to feel pretty good," Lindblom recalls.

Despite playing well and earning considerable praise for his work from Lehigh Valley head coach Scott Gordon and assistant coach Kerry Huffman, Lindblom found himself pointless through six games and goalless (with two assists) through eight. 

Over his next two games, Lindblom finally got his first two goals of the season. Every goal counts the same on the scoresheet, but both of these were puck-luck bounces. One went in off his skate, the other off his shin pad. 

Lindblom went on, as the AHL season progressed, to score his fair share of goals in which he shot the puck into the net from the slot, scored off deflections or by bunting aerial pucks just below the crossbar (he has an uncanny knack for both of these, owing to good hand-eye coordination and sheer hockey sense). 

He was also quick to pounce on loose pucks near the blue paint. He had streaks of five goals in six games in late December and in three straight games just prior to his NHL recall to the Flyers. 

More than his 16 goals and 32 points in the 46 games - near the top of AHL rookie scoring during that span - that followed his frustrating first nine games, it was the same well-rounded all-around game. He became a penalty killing regular for coach Scott Gordon's team, as well being on the power play. It was his overall game that earned Lindblom a spot in the American Hockey League All-Star game in his first full season of North American pro hockey.

"That was pretty cool. I was [an injury] replacement on the roster but it's nice to recognized. It was a good experience," Lindblom said.

On Feb. 19, 2018, Oskar Lindblom got the message he'd dreamed up since his boyhood in Gävle. The Flyers called him up to the NHL roster. 

 

BREAKTHROUGH

Following his recall, Lindblom spent the rest of the 2017-18 season in the NHL with the Flyers. His stats -- two goals and six points in 23 games -- did not accurately reflect his actual performance.

Lindblom was in the thick of roughly 15 other prime scoring chances during that time, either on the setup or shooting end, but the points were hard to come by for him. Nevertheless, he showed hints of good chemistry with center Nolan Patrick and demonstrated the responsible two-way game and willingness to grind on the walls and go to the net that is the foundation of his game.

In the Stanley Cup playoffs, with the intensity cranked up yet another notch, Lindblom struggled a bit. His ice time was cut in Game 3. He skated on the fourth line in Game 4, and was scratched in the final two games of the series. 

After the Flyers were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games, Lindblom and Sanheim were loaned back to the Phantoms to aid them in their Calder Cup playoff run. Lindblom got off to a quick start but seemed to run out of gas as the playoffs progressed. He was fairly ineffective in the Eastern Conference final series against the eventual Calder Cup champion Toronto Marlies.

In Lindblom's defense, the North American season is far more taxing, both schedule wise and travel wise, than seasons in Sweden. The SHL season is shorter overall (due to tournament breaks). Although games on back-to-back nights are not unknown, they're far less common than in the NHL. In the AHL, teams sometimes play games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday; which happens neither in the NHL nor overseas.

While he's a very well-conditioned athlete and one who refuses the crutch of any sort of excuse-making, Lindblom played like he was worn down by the end stages of his first season in North America. That was another in a series of first-year learning experiences for him. 

 

READY TO GO

At the 2018 Flyers Rookie Camp and Rookie Game in September, Lindblom was a man among boys, both in terms of his physical development and his hockey development. He carried that over through a strong NHL camp and a vastly improved preseason performance compared to his 2017 edition. 

Lindblom scored the Flyers' first goal on opening night of the regular season; a 5-2 win over the defending Western Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights. Since then he, like most of the team, has had a rocky start with one goal (his lone point) to show for his last 10 games. 

While he has individually continued to play well defensively and sporadically been in the middle of scoring chances that went awry due to puck bounces or good saves by opposing goalies, Lindblom has not played as well offensively as he'd have hoped. 

"We can't think we're unlucky. We have to be better around the net. I feel like I can play better, and have more to give," Lindblom said.

Amid the rough start for the team and his own uneven start to the regular season, however, there have been some good times for the now 22-year-old.

Lindblom gets along well with his Flyers teammates, enjoying the camaraderie with his fellow young players. Although he is not the boisterous type, Lindblom usually has a smile on his face on non-game days. With the media, he's invariably polite and honest about how he and the team are playing, although not one who is given to colorful quotes. 

Meanwhile, although the last week of October was a forgettable one for the Philadelphia Flyers as a team and far from the player's own best week on the ice, it was still a special time for Oskar Lindblom the human being. 

Simply having his dad come all the way from back home to personally share in the fulfillment of a journey to the NHL will be the memory that lingers in the years to come. Although passion has to come from within, no one can climb all alone the many steep hills that precede reaching the highest level of one's profession. Everyone needs a support system and someone than can help pick him back up when he stumbles. 

During his visit, Johan Lindblom did not see his son's team win a game nor did Oskar play at the top of his game. Nevertheless, there's pride simply in seeing him play in the nascent stages of his NHL career and confidence in Oskar's determination to carve out substantial success in the future. 

To date, Lindblom is seeing the results of his dedication. During the club's three-game trip to California, he has points in all three games, giving him a new career high point streak with five points in that stretch, while also recording back to back multi-point contests.

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