BUFFALO - When it comes to international prospects at the NHL Scouting Combine this week, Zurich center Auston Matthews, Tappara right wing Patrik Laine and Karpat right wing Jesse Puljujarvi are in a class by themselves.
But the players that follow on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of international skaters have serious credentials of their own.
The next three players on Central Scouting's final ranking are Farjestad (Sweden) center Rasmus Asplund, Russian center German Rubtsov and Modo (Sweden) right wing Carl Grundstrom.
Though they're not getting the same attention as Matthews, Laine and Puljujarvi, they have found ways to stand out.
Asplund (5-foot-11, 176 pounds), No. 4 on Central Scouting's final ranking of international skaters, made his professional debut in the Swedish Hockey League this season as an 18-year-old; he finished with four goals and eight assists in 46 games. Those numbers don't pop, but his play as a younger, smaller player earned him his ranking.
"He is a smart, effective two-way center," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb said. "He's not very big nor strong, but compensates his lack of size with smart moves, mobile skating and excellent playmaking skills. He makes the play at top speed; both passing and shooting. He has very good acceleration speed, handles the puck extremely well in traffic, and creates scoring chances on every shift. He's a leader on and off the ice."
Asplund hasn't found a lack of size to be a detriment to his game, though he concedes size was the biggest change going from playing against opponents his own age to facing older professionals in the SHL.
"It's a big, big difference," he said. "One of the things I really learned this year was to be strong on the puck because when you meet guys that are bigger in every situation, every battle you need to develop your ability to be strong on the puck and win the battles. I'm a pretty small guy too, so I really needed to improve it, and I think I did."
Size isn't an issue for Rubtsov or Grundstrom. Rubtsov is 6-foot-2, 178 pounds and Grundstrom is 6-feet, 194. Rubtsov had 12 goals and 14 assists in 28 games with Russia's Under-18 team. His size helped him find ways to score and set up teammates, and he wound up No. 5 on Central Scouting's list.
"[Rubtsov is a] hard-working, good skater and competitor; fine straightaway speed," Stubb said. "He has good vision, hockey-sense, skills and skating speed; a consistent two-way forward who competes hard and is strong in traffic. He is a very good stickhandler and finds his teammates with smart passes; a classical Russian skilled forward."
Grundstrom had seven goals and nine assists for Modo in a season in which the team struggled and was relegated. That didn't deter him from playing a style that can rub opponents the wrong way.
"[Grundstrom is] a power forward, a hard worker and excellent competitor," Stubb said. "He's stocky, strong, likes to play an aggressive style; strong, mobile skater, always challenging with his speed. He competes hard, battles for every loose puck; gets under the opponents' skin, takes the body. He has a lot of willpower and 'go' in his game. [He has] decent overall skills, keeps his game simple but effective; a reliable, two-way team player."
Grundstrom's style of play might bring to mind other Swedish players that play a similar style, such as Pittsburgh Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist, but he wants to do things his way.
"I like to be in the dirty areas, of course, but I also see myself as a good player and not like a checker," Grundstrom said. "I'm a power forward with skills so I try to do them both … I don't see myself as anyone else. Maybe [some people] think that I have a similar style as any of these guys, but it's hard to say."
Grundstrom and Asplund played against each other in the SHL but were teammates for Sweden at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. Sweden lost 2-1 in the semifinals to eventual champion Finland, with Asplund scoring the lone Swedish goal.
"We're really different players," Grundstrom said. "We have played together sometimes and I think we played pretty good together, so I think we [complement] each other pretty good … I'm more like a power forward and [like] hitting; he's more like a playmaker and I'm more like a scorer."