Sweden has emerged as a hotbed for producing top NHL talent on defense in recent years.
The percentage of European-born and -trained players selected at the 2014 NHL Draft was the highest it has been in more than a decade. Leading the way was a heavy dose of Swedish standouts; 27 of the 66 European players picked last year were Swedes, and of that group 12 were defensemen.
When the 2015 NHL Draft is held June 26-27 at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., three more names will be added to that list, and likely in the early portions: Gabriel Carlsson of Linkoping's junior team; Jacob Larsson of Frolunda's junior team; and Oliver Kylington of AIK in the Swedish Hockey League.
They're the top three defensemen on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of European skaters, and rank in the top six among all European skaters.
"With Carlsson and Larsson, these are players who began the season in juniors, made the [Swedish Hockey League] team and finished the season playing regular in the league so they both improved very much," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb said.
Carlsson (6-foot-4, 183 pounds) is No. 2 on Central Scouting's final ranking of European skaters, one spot ahead of Larsson (6-2, 191).
"Carlsson is a big, smart, stay-at-home defenseman," Stubb said. "He plays a safe game and is very reliable. He uses his size and reach in a smart way."
Carlsson said the fact he made the most of his opportunity when given the chance to play in the SHL during the second half of the season was one reason he moved up five spots from Central Scouting's midterm ranking to No. 2 in the final ranking.
"There was an injury and I got the call-up and I think I did well; the scouts had their eye on me," Carlsson said. "I'm more of a defensive guy with offensive skills. I have a long reach and good stick to poke check pucks, but I still need to fill out my frame a little more."
Larsson said the 20 games he spent with Frolunda in the SHL, when he had one goal and three points, played a big part in his ascent up the draft board.
"That was huge and it happened right after New Year's," Larsson said. "My favorite NHL player is [Oliver] Ekman-Larsson. He is proof that so long as you take your time and play well in Sweden, you maybe can get a chance in the NHL. I don't think I'm ready to make the jump just yet, but that's something I will discuss with whichever team drafts me.
"I know it's important to be strong and have a good mindset to play in the NHL and you need to be very quick in your decision-making with the puck."
AHO READY FOR A SECOND CHANCE
Defenseman Sebastian Aho, No. 13 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of European skaters eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, is hoping the second time is the charm.
Aho was No. 9 on Central Scouting's final European skater ranking for the 2014 NHL Draft but was not selected. Despite that disappointment, the 5-foot-9, 165-pound left-shot defender is hoping he hears his name at some point during this year's draft.
He had one goal and nine points in 41 games for Skelleftea in the Swedish Hockey League and is No. 13 on Central Scouting's final ranking of European skaters.
"I was surprised when no one took a chance on him in 2014," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb said. "His skating and stickhandling and smarts are good. When you are a smaller defenseman you must rely on smarts and hockey sense and that's what Sebastian did this season."
Aho, 19, also played for Sweden at the 2015 World Junior Championship, and had one goal, four points and 15 shots on goal in seven games.
Kylington (6-foot, 180), was the No. 1 European skater on Central Scouting's midterm list in January, but was No. 6 on the final ranking in April.
"Oliver was a superstar [in 2014-15] and perhaps he thought a little bit too much about that at the start of this season and then he got injured right before the start of the World Junior Championship in December," Stubb said. "I think it is a wise decision for him to begin next season in Stockholm with AIK. He'll receive a lot of ice time and responsibility."
Claes Elefalk, Kylington's agent, said his client sustained a groin/thigh injury in late November and that it hampered him for a large portion of 2014-15. Kylington was on Sweden's initial roster for the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship but was returned home after two exhibition games because he was not healthy enough to play.
"We are confident that he will be drafted in the first round; he is such an exceptional skater," Elefalk said. "He has shown that he can compete with an adult pro player because of his skating. He works out with a track coach on top of his normal workouts so it's no surprise he's able to skate like he does."
Kylington said he credits much of his success to his mentor, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya. Kylington and Oduya are from Stockholm.
"He's been like a brother to me," Kylington said of Oduya. "I talked to him during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and he tells me about life in the NHL."
Kylington said that despite his drop in the rankings, he still has a lot to offer an NHL team. He had 24 interviews with teams during the NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo earlier this month and was set on making a lasting impression.
"Maybe I'm a natural with my speed but my technique is getting better because I've been practicing that since I was very young," he said. "I have a skating coach back home and we dedicated 30 minutes of each 60-minute session to skating.
"I'm OK in the defensive zone and I try to do the job there but my skills are in the offensive zone."
The increase in top-end Swedish defensemen has been building during the past few seasons.
Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes, Jonas Brodin of the Minnesota Wild and Hampus Lindholm of the Anaheim Ducks have been picked in the first round since 2008. Karlsson, Brodin and Ekman-Larsson all spent one extra season in Sweden after being drafted; Lindholm, the sixth pick of the 2012 draft, spent the 2012-13 season in the American Hockey League; Hedman, the second pick of the 2009 draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning, went directly to the NHL.
"I'm not really surprised Hedman is getting so much attention," Stubb said. "The skills were always there. It just took some time for him to grow up to the star and key player he is today."
Hedman, and the others, needed patience and proper development but have grown into franchise-type defensemen.
The same could hold true for Carlsson, Larsson and Kylington. All have contracts with their Swedish teams for two more years. While they could sign NHL contracts prior to their seasons starting, the best plan could be to leave them home for at least one more season.
"Don Baizley (the late hockey agent) once told me that the advice he gave Europeans was to stay at home for a couple of seasons after being drafted," Stubb said. "They should try to make not only the World Junior team but the national team for the World Championship. And then you're ready."