When the Växjo Lakers signed former NHL forward Mike Iggulden
to a one-year contract in June, it was hardly considered earth-shattering news around Elitserien. The 28-year-old who played 12 games spread across two seasons for the San Jose Sharks
and New York Islanders
has been something of a hockey nomad in his career.
Although "Iggy" was a fine scorer in the American Hockey League, the KHL and Switzerland's National League A, the Cornell University graduate was not considered a game-breaking player. That is, until now.
Through the first 15 games of the 2011-12 Elitserien regular season, Iggulden has been the most electrifying offensive player in the league. In what generally has been a low-scoring season around the SEL, Iggulden leads the league in goals (10, including 4 game-winners) and points (21), while also converting several shootout attempts. Iggulden, who is listed as a right wing, generally has played center for the Lakers, and has won 56 percent (70-for-125) of the faceoffs he's taken to date.
Through the first 15 games of the 2011-12 Elitserien regular season, Mike Iggulden
has been the most electrifying offensive player in the league. (Photo: Andre Ringuette/NHLI)
Meanwhile, Iggulden's linemate, former NHL forward Tomi Kallio
, has had a resurgent season for the Lakers after spending the previous nine seasons with the Frölunda HC Indians. The 34-year-old Finn is fourth in scoring with 14 points (4 goals, 10 assists) to date.
Together, Iggulden and Kallio have accounted for 42 percent of the Lakers' total offensive output (33 goals) to date. If the playoffs started today, the seventh-place Lakers would be in the postseason. While there is a long way to go in the regular season, making the playoffs would be a solid accomplishment for a club playing its first season at the top level of Swedish hockey.
Founded in 1997, Växjo took six seasons to work its way up from lowly Division 4 to Allsvenskan (the top level of Swedish minor-league hockey). After eight seasons in Allsvenkan -- the first five of which were spent as one of the weaker teams at that level -- the club finally earned its first promotion to Elitserien for the 2011-12 season. The franchise invested heavily in upgrading the talent on the roster, and thus far, most of its signings have paid off.
The Lakers have been quite competitive through the first month and a half of the regular season, thanks in part to the play of top forwards Iggulden, Kallio, offensive-minded former New York Rangers
defenseman Ilkka Heikkinen
(7 goals, including 5 power-play goals) and high-profile goaltending addition Martin Gerber
(1.89 goals-against average, .938 save percentage).
Växjo is one of the more import-heavy teams in Elitserien this season. Apart from Iggulden, coach Janne Karlsson's team employs four other North American imports. Alternate captain Brad Moran
, back in Sweden after a 72-point season in the AHL in 2010-11, has 3 goals and 7 points to date. Liam Reddox
, who spent parts of the last four seasons in the NHL (100 games) with the Edmonton Oilers
, has 4 goals and 8 points. Now in his second season with the club, former University of Maine and AHL forward Josh Soares
has 4 goals and 6 points. Diminutive veteran checking-line forward Steve Saviano
(1 goal, 2 points) has been with the Lakers since 2009.
The undisputed offensive star of the club, however, has been Iggulden, who had 13 goals and 40 points for the KHL's Dinamo Riga two seasons ago and 12 goals and 40 points in Switzerland last season for Langnau.
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Iggulden gained immediate favor with the fans in Växjo when he secured what arguably has been the team's biggest victory to date, a 3-2 shootout win against HV 71 Jönköping. The powerhouse HV 71 club has finished in first place in Elitserien each of the last two seasons, and has won three championships since 2004 and lost in the finals in between its championships in 2008 and 2010.
With the local club now playing in the top league and holding its own, fans in Växjo have been turning out in droves in support. The club has played in front of an average 5,021 spectators through its first seven games at its home, Vida Arena. That may not sound like much, but the arena only holds 5,229 people (in other words, 96 percent of the tickets have been sold), and there are a mere 64,200 residents in the small city.
"Things have gone great," Iggulden told Swedish television network Canal+. "The fans in Växjo have been amazing, and there's a tremendous group of guys on the team. It's been a lot of fun. I have good teammates and I've had a little bit of good luck, too. The puck has been going in for me."
Of his uncanny prowess in the shootout, Iggulden admits that it's an area of the modern game that plays to his strengths.
"I've practiced penalty shots since I was a little kid," he said. "I just try to relax and do it. I have a general idea in mind, but honestly, you can get in trouble when you over-think what you want to do."
Växjo is coming off of a 2-0 win on the road against struggling Modo Hockey Örnsköldsvik, which was Gerber's first shutout of the season. The club returns home Thursday to take on defensively stingy Luleå HF. Following road games in Linköping and Gävle, the team will host HV 71 in a return match that most certainly will sell out Vida Arena.