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A new generation of talent emerging in Elitserien

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com

Nashville Predators prospect Patric Hörnqvist is coming off a sensational rookie season for Djurgårdens IF. He is considered one of the top young offensive players in Europe.
In the not-too-distant future, there will come a day when members of Sweden’s “Golden Generation” (the top group of players born between 1970 and 1975) no longer are able to carry the torch in the NHL or international competitions.

The good news for Sweden and the NHL: There’s an emerging pool of talent in Elitserien (the Swedish Elite League), with the potential to someday become impact players at the NHL and senior international levels.

Among the most intriguing prospects in Sweden is a group of already-drafted Swedish youngsters between the ages of 19 and 22 that have been turning heads in Elitserien this season.

Their ranks include Djurgårdens IF forwards Patric Hörnqvist and Dick Axelsson and goaltender Daniel Larsson, Luleå HF left wing/center Johan Harju, Brynäs IF winger Johan Alcén and defenseman Niclas Andersén, and young Linköping HC defenseman Jonas Junland. Undrafted Färjestads BK rookie Fabian Brunnström also has established himself quickly in Elitserien this year.

Djurgården trio makes a fast impact

Djurgårdens IF Stockholm is a traditional Elitserien powerhouse that has had to remake its image in recent years due to its financial reorganization. The 16-time Swedish champions now rely more on young players than competing for high-priced veterans.

While DIF’s youngsters have had to play more prominent roles in recent years, the club historically has been an important early proving ground for NHL talent. Until the 2007 draft, when Djurgården was eclipsed by Frölunda Indians Göteborg, the organization stood as Sweden’s most prolific producer of players drafted by NHL clubs. In all, 38 NHL-drafted players have worn the Djurgården crest, most famously Mats Sundin.

 

Last season, Djurgården finished ninth in the 12-team Elitserien and missed the playoffs. One of the team’s bright spots was the play of Nashville Predators prospect Patric Hörnqvist. Selected with the final pick (230th overall) of the 2005 Entry Draft, the 20-year-old Sollentuna native is a product of the Väsby IK junior system. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound winger thus far has made both DIF management and the Predators look brilliant for taking a chance on him. Predators European scout Lucas Bergman pushed for the player’s selection late in the 2005 draft for reasons that soon became apparent.

Last season, Hörnqvist accomplished the rare feat of earning roster spots on Team Sweden at both the World Junior Championships and IIHF World Championships in the same year. After scoring 23 goals and 43 points for Djurgården last year, he has emerged as one of the fastest-rising young offensive stars playing in Europe.

“He has both the type of skill and work ethic we look for. Not too many players are capable of scoring the way he did at his age in the Swedish league. We’re very excited about his potential,” says Paul Fenton, the Predators' assistant general manager.

The Predators invited Hörnqvist to training camp this year, with the understanding that the player would return to Djurgården for one more season. Before heading back to Stockholm, he earned praise from Predators coach Barry Trotz for his intelligence and maturity, as well as his skill. In the early going of the 2007-08 Elitserien campaign, Hörnqvist has scored at a decent, but not overwhelming clip (five goals, eight points in 14 games). But Djurgården general manager Tommy Engström notes that it often takes a while for young players to move past their rookie success.

“Your second full season at the highest level is usually tougher,” Engström says. “Many teams now know that Patric, together with Linkan (right wing Fredrik Bremberg), is a major threat. As a result, they hone in on him, which usually makes it tougher, not just on the power play but also in regular five-on-five play. That, together with some missed finishing opportunities, has meant he hasn’t produced as much so far as he wants to. But if he remains patient and focused and has a positive attitude, there will certainly be a turnaround (offensively). Otherwise, he’s played hard and sacrificed for the club the whole season."

Currently, Djurgården sits in third place in Elitserien, eight points behind pacesetting HV-71 Jönköping and six points ahead of ninth-place Luleå HF. Despite Hörnqvist’s modest start this season, he has been named to Team Sweden’s roster for the Karjala Cup in November. In addition to the play of Hörnqvist, DIF’s solid start has been driven by the production of veterans Kristoffer Ottosson, Bremberg and Niklas Anger, a stingy team defense (DIF has allowed the fewest goals in the league to date), and the rapid emergence of Dick Axelsson and Daniel Larsson.

Not surprisingly, Axelsson and Larsson are Detroit Red Wings prospects. The Wings have a knack for mining top talent from Sweden. The handiwork of Detroit European scout Håkan Andersson is evident at the NHL level (where Detroit features seven Swedes), and in the club’s farm system, which also includes recently drafted Frölunda Indians/Borås HC center Joakim Andersson (a Samuel Pahlsson clone the Wings chose in the third round of the 2007 Entry Draft).

Axelsson, selected by Detroit in the second round (62nd overall) of the 2006 Entry Draft, has a playing style that is silk on one side and sandpaper on the other. The 20-year-old product of the Huddinge IK program has made an immediate impact on the Djurgården lineup in his first Elitserien season.

“Axelsson had been playing very well. He has a ton of talent and is starting to put it all together,” says Andersson. “He primarily needs to add strength, and with this his consistency will get better. If he makes it in the NHL it will be as a top two-line forward with the potential to sore a lot of points.”

To date, Axelsson has posted nine points (five goals, including two power-play tallies and a shorthander) in 12 Elitserien games. A smooth skater with soft hands, he has been a scorer at every level at which he’s played. In 2005-06, his draft year, Axelsson scored a combined 43 goals and 76 points in 64 games at the J20 and Division I (second-tier adult minor league) levels. Last season, he scored 13 goals in 25 games for Huddinge in Allsvenskan (Sweden’s highest minor league).

Just as importantly, the 6-foot-2 winger plays the game with a physical edge that makes him a good candidate to thrive in the North American game. In Sweden, referees are sometimes prone to calling penalties that sap the physicality out of games. Despite lacking muscle (Axelsson weighed just 176 pounds at the 2006 draft and still has a ways to go to fill out his frame), the forward plays an uncompromising style.

Axelsson’s aggression sometimes works to his detriment as he’s spent a little too much time in the penalty box during his young career. Last season, he racked up 113 penalty minutes in his 25 games with Huddinge. The previous season, he totaled a combined 177 penalty minutes. But to coaches and scouts, it’s preferable to find a spirited young player who needs to learn greater discipline than it is to convince an unmotivated player to battle in hockey’s high-risk, high-reward trenches.

Axelsson was supposed to play with Djurgården last season, but his arrival was held up by a transfer dispute with Huddinge. After sitting out the early part of the 2006-07 season, he returned to his parent club before transferring to DIF this season. He’s been worth the wait.

"Dick has managed the change from Allsvenskan to Elitserien well,” says Engström. “He creates goal-scoring chances offensively, both by his own hand and together with his linemates. He plays on the power play and he’s a threat to the opposition. He’s played some really good games where his efforts have been a little more anonymous, but the whole time he’s been building up experience to become a more even, balanced player. He’s improved his defensive play tremendously since the start of the season, and has even sometimes been used – and played well – on the penalty kill.”

Meanwhile, 21-year-old goalie Larsson has emerged as the front-runner in a crowded pack of promising young Djurgården keepers that also includes New York Islanders prospect Stefan Ridderwall (2006 sixth round pick), and junior goaltenders Mark Owuya (unselected in 2007, eligible for the 2008 draft) and Tim Sandberg (eligible for the 2008 draft).

Chosen by Detroit in the third round (92nd overall) of the 2006 Entry Draft, the 21-year-old Larsson has established himself as the DIF starter and as one of the most promising young goaltenders in Europe. In 12 starts to date, he has posted an outstanding 1.98 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage and a league-high three shutouts (last season Timrå IK’s Johan Backlund and Brynäs IF’s Robert Kristan paced the Elite league with six shutouts).

“Larsson has adapted well to being a number-one goalie. He is very well schooled, his side-to-side game is very strong and he can read the game with excellent maturity for a young goaltender. Coming from northern Sweden (Boden), he’s calm and not a man of many words,” says Andersson.

Larsson’s outstanding play in goal is a major reason why DIF has allowed just 27 goals to date this season. Ridderwall also has excelled in his two starts – turning back 40 of 42 shots – but right now the DIF starting job clearly belongs to the Detroit prospect. Owuya, who has started nine games for Djurgården’s J20 team (2.95 GAA, .872 save percentage) has served as the big club’s backup in three games.

Versatile Harju a quick study for Luleå

Among players selected in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Luleå HF forward Johan Harju quietly has emerged as a top early candidate to be a late-round steal. He was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the sixth round (167th overall) at the recommendation of chief scout Jake Goertzen and the club’s European scouts.

Harju, 21, now is in his third season as an Elitserien regular. The 6-foot-2, 207-pound Övertorneå native is coming off a solid 2006-07 season (12 goals, 22 points, plus-8 in 55 games) for the Bears. He’s continued to build on that foundation this year.

The forward, who has played center and left wing, currently leads ninth-place Luleå with eight goals and 11 points and plus-2 rating in 14 games. His emergence has been the most pleasant development on a team that has allowed a league-worst 45 goals while scoring 37 (tied for sixth).

The forward does not play with as much sandpaper in his game as Axelsson, nor does he have the same wheels. But Harju always has been a good producer who flew under the radar until recently. Harju is very strong on the puck and makes up for whatever first-stride burst he lacks with excellent anticipation.

Offensively, Harju’s greatest asset is a very heavy, accurate slap shot that some have been likened to Fredrik Modin’s, while another likened it to John LeClair's shot prior to the former Legion of Doom member developing back problems.

“He’s an older guy we considered drafting this year, and I think Tampa did a nice job drafting him where they did. I’m sure they’re happy with the way he’s played so far,” says an NHL European scout. “You don’t always have to be a great skater to be a good NHL player – look at a guy like (Luleå HF alumnus) Tomas Holmstrom. Harju still has some things to work on in his game in order to play in the NHL, but he’s not that far away.”

The Lightning offered Harju a two-way entry-level contract this summer, but the young player opted to play an additional season with the Luleå Bears rather than take his chances in the American Hockey League. If Harju continues his strong play for Luleå, he could be in the mix to compete for a spot in camp next season.

Brynäs pair making name for themselves

By far, Washington Capitals rookie center Nicklas Backstrom is the most highly touted NHL prospect to emerge from Brynäs IF Gävle (or anywhere in Sweden) in the last few years. But Bäckström’s departure for the NHL has allowed other youngsters on BIF the opportunity to earn attention for their play.

Johan Alcén, a 19-year-old right winger taken by the Colorado Avalanche in the seventh round (195th overall) of the 2007 Entry Draft, is the current scoring leader among all Elitserien players eligible to play at the 2008 World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic. In nine Elitserien games to date, he has five points (including a pair of goals), and is a plus-3 for 10th-place Brynäs. He also has suited up for a pair of games for the Brynäs J20 team, and torched the opposition for five goals and eight points. At this point, he’s clearly an Elitserien-ready player.

Detroit Red Wings prospect Dick Axelsson has emerged as a force for Djurgårdens IF. The young winger combines skill, speed and a willingness to play a physical game.

Alcén spent much of the 2006-07 season getting his feet wet at the Elitserien level, playing on Brynäs’ fourth line after dominating the J20 level earlier in the season (17 goals, 46 points in 17 games). He dressed in 32 regular-season games and one postseason tilt for the big club, failing to register a point but gaining valuable experience. In nine Elitserien games played to date this season, the youngster has shown the benefits of improved strength, although there’s room for further improvement. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he’s capable of physical play but generally prefers more of a positional style. If Alcén continues to get stronger, scouts say he’s capable of fitting into the prototypical two-way Swedish forward mold to which NHL fans have become accustomed.

Another junior-aged Brynäs player, defenseman Niclas Andersén, also has come along nicely for the team this season. A fourth-round pick (114th overall) by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2006 draft, Andersén has moved up this season from the Allsvenskan level.

Andersén, 19, had three assists and a plus-12 rating last season for the Leksand Stars. So far this year, he’s held his own at the Elitserien level, with three assists and a plus-2 rating in 11 games for Brynäs. The defensive-minded Andersén will never be measured by the points he points up. The 6-foot, 210-pounder’s NHL candidacy ultimately will be determined by his play in his own end of the ice. He possesses above-average mobility, and just as importantly, will take or dish out a body check. s a result of his aggressive, physical play, Andersén racked up 217 penalty minutes in 36 J20 games for Leksand during the 2005-06 season (once again, keep in mind that referees in Swedish hockey, especially at the junior level, often penalize plays that would not result in calls in North American games).

Andersén’s style of play has been compared to that of Dallas Stars defenseman Mattias Norstrom at the same age. Andersén is considered the superior skater, but Norström emerged as a potential NHL shut-down defenseman at an even younger age.

Linköping’s Junland continues to progress

Jonas Junland, the St. Louis Blues’ third-round pick (64th overall) in the 2006 Draft, is coming off what his Swedish countrymen call a “kannonsäsong”; a season in which the player progressed as if shot from a cannon. So far this season, he’s continued to develop at a steady, if less, dramatic rate.

Junland started the 2006-07 year as the eighth defenseman for Linköpings HC after coming off a shoulder injury the prior year. He quickly showed he was too far advanced for both the SuperElit (six goals, 13 points, plus-8 in nine games) and Allsvenskan levels, and rapidly laid claim to a regular starting spot on LHC’s Elitserien team. By the end of the season, the rookie of the year nominee was a mainstay for a team that reached the Swedish final, scoring five points in 15 playoff games. Junland also had an outstanding World Junior Championship tournament for Team Sweden, registering two points and a plus-5 rating in seven games.

In recognition of his promise and rapid development, the Blues signed the mobile backliner to a three-season, entry-level contract. The youngster, who will turn 20 in November, returned to Linköping for an additional year of seasoning. With defensive players like Junland, statistics rarely are a good indication of his value to the team. Junland’s three points (all assists) and plus-1 rating may not stand out much from his play last year, but he’s taking on larger responsibilities as he continues to gain experience.

Linköping is currently in sixth place in Elitserien, but has allowed more goals (42) than it has scored. Junland is one of just two plus-rated LHC defensemen at this point. The other is the more offensive-oriented 21-year-old Carl Gunnarsson, a seventh-round pick (194th overall) by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2007 draft.

Färjestad’s Brunnström could be an NHL wildcard

One young Elitserien player who currently is unaffiliated with an NHL club but who has emerged as a potential prospect for North American hockey is Färjestads BK left wing Fabian Brunnström.

In past seasons, the 22-year-old Brunnström established himself as a top offensive player in Sweden’s junior and lower minor leagues. Last year, at the Division I level, he racked up 37 goals and 73 points in 41games and helped Borås HC earn a promotion to the Allsvenskan level.

Färjestad General Manager Håkan Loob recognized that the youngster’s offensive ability made him a candidate for Sweden’s top level of play. So far, Brunnström has not disappointed. In 14 games, he has posted nine points and has shown the same type of offensive creativity that made him a standout at the more obscure levels of Swedish hockey. Several of his points have been of the highlight-reel variety.

NHL European scouts have taken notice of the player, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 201 pounds. Brunnström is eligible to be signed as a free agent by an NHL club after the current season.

“He’s certainly a name for the NHL,” says a scout for a Western Conference club. “He is already drawing NHL attention here in Europe and will most likely sign with a team after this season if he keeps playing as he has. He’s got very good speed and hands.”

FBK has been the top team in Sweden for much of the last decade, but is off to a so-so start this season by its usual standards. After 14 rounds of Elitserien play, Färjestad is in fifth place. However, a mere six points in the standings separates second place (Timrå) from eighth (Modo). Last season, Färjestad made its move in the second half of the season, finishing in first place during the regular season before going down in the second round of the playoffs.

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