|Emil Axelsson, Stefan Ridderwall, Kim Johansson and Robin Figren |
Whether it's by their blonde locks or their style of dress, the four Swedes at the 2007 Islanders Prospects Camp are easy to spot among the 35 other players. Defenseman Emil Axelsson, the Islanders' 2004 seventh-round draft pick, makes his third visit to Long Island for the Prospects Camp. Goaltender Stefan Ridderwall, a 2006 sixth-round draft pick, and forward Kim Johansson, a 2006 fifth-round draft pick make their Prospects Camp debuts. Injured forward Robin Figren, drafted in the third round of the 2006 draft, makes his second appearance at the Mini-Camp.
Figren is the only one of the bunch who has made the jump from playing in Sweden to North America. After skating in Sweden his entire life, Figren joined the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL for the 2006-07 season. In 62 games, Figren was 10-17-27, which placed him first among rookies on the team in goals and points. His seven power play goals were ranked fifth on the team.
"The transition to the North American game wasn't as easy as I thought it would be," said Figren. "I didn't know what to expect coming here, but it ended up being a lot of fun. By Christmas, I started to figure it out."
Figure it out he did, helping lead the Hitmen to the Conference Championship Series. Considered one of the best forwards on the Hitmen during the playoffs, Figren was 4-4-8 in 18 postseason contests. Next season, Figren is expected to play for the newly formed Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL.
"It's a great opportunity for me to play with a new organization," said Figren. "I'm hoping to have more of a leadership role with them, and improve my game."
Axelsson is by far the biggest of the four, at 6-3, 207 lbs. Axelsson has been putting his body to good use by throwing his weight around at this year's Mini-Camp.
"I work with my body because I'm a fairly big player," said Axelsson. "I try to play a tough game, considering my size."
Axelsson has spent the past three seasons skating in the Tier-2 Swedish League, Allsvenskan. He spent much of last season with Arboga, leading the team in penalty minutes, with 85. Axelsson then spent the final five game of the regular season with Vasteras and had a taste of the Elite League in two games with Linkoping. The native of Orebo plans on playing one more year in the Allsvenskan before moving up to the Swedish Elite League or making his way to North America.
"Playing in the Elite League for a couple of games was a nice opportunity to play with older guys," said Axelsson. "I got to play a lot on a team that was near the bottom of the standings. It was nice to play in a few games with Vasteras and win some games."
Meanwhile, Johansson makes his first visit to the United States after leading his Malmo team in scoring in the Junior Swedish League. In 27 games, Johansson was 8-17-25 with five power play goals and two shorthanded tallies.
"I led the team in scoring, but I thought I had a lousy season," said Johansson. "I was a little too shy on the ice. Hopefully, I bring my experience at this camp back to Sweden and get tougher on the ice."
Johansson will look to fill out when he joins the Allsvenskan league next season, where he'll be playing against bigger, better and stronger players. This week he's going up against just that, at the Mini-Camp.
"It's a different game here," said Johansson. "The guys are tough and it's more intense than in Sweden. I like the physical stuff, it's just different. In Sweden, there's a lot more passing, but the Americans like to just go straight to the net with the puck."
The final Swede of the group is Ridderwall, who like Figren, has had a smile on his face all week. From his quirky superstitions, which include kissing a dinosaur before going onto the ice to his likeable personality, Ridderwall has been enjoying this week's camp as much as anyone.
"I spoke to some of the other Swedish guys like (Figren) who have been here before," said Ridderwall. "They said it's a lot of fun off the ice, but on the ice, it's a lot of focus and you work hard. I'm here to show the organization what I can do on the ice and have fun off the ice. So far, it has been fun."
Ridderwall had an incredible season with Djurgardens in the Junior Swedish League. He led the league with a .934 save percentage and was second with a 1.93 GAA. Ridderwall took his team to the championship series, where they fell 2-1 in the deciding Game 3.
"We didn't play that well at the beginning of the season, so we ended up with one of the last playoff spots," said Ridderwall. "We played well in the first couple of series. We won the first game of the final series, but lost in the final. It was a tough series."
After making the Junior League look easy, Ridderwall will jump to the Elite League and play for Djurgardens nest season. He is set to serve as the back-up, but if the No. 1 goalie drops a few too many games, Ridderwall could see some extra playing time.
Besides Figren, the rest of the Swedes at camp rarely get to play against players from outside Sweden. The Islanders Prospects Camp is a perfect place to see how their game matches up against fellow future Islanders.
"It's an adjustment for these guys," said assistant GM Ryan Jankowski of the Europeans playing at Camp. "They don't play on this size ice very often. For them, it gives them a chance to play against guys who are a little bit bigger than they're used to. It starts the adjustment for them. Frans Nielsen
is a great example of a European who used this camp as a tool to adjust to the North American style before making the jump to the AHL last season. Just because they can perform on the big ice in Europe doesn't mean it translates to the North American game. This camp helps that adjustment."