Two years ago, a giant Swedish defenseman with high-end skills shot to top of every team's draft board.
The feat is about to be repeated this season, as Adam Larsson
has wowed scouts and already is just as highly regarded a draft prospect as Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman
, who was the second pick of the 2009 Entry Draft.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound defenseman isn't quite as big or physical as the 6-6, 230-pound Hedman, but scouts see Larsson as having a higher top-end offensively than the gifted Hedman.
"He is a leader on and off the ice," NHL Director of European Scoring Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "A big, strong, all-round top prospect who we will most probably rank as No. 1 in Europe. He has excellent hockey sense, size and strength. He is dominating the game when on ice. He has a very high overall skill level, is a great playmaker and uses his size and strength very well. In other words, a more or less complete package and a new Hedman."
"This guy's puck game, power play-type game, is way ahead of Hedman's at this age," one scout from an Eastern Conference team told NHL.com. "His puck game has always been the same. He's a cool customer again out there. That's his forte. He just never panics. He is just such a big, thick kid already at his age."
"He's one of the kids who gets better during the season," Sweden World Junior coach Roger Ronnberg told NHL.com. "I know his daily habits are the key to his success. He's one of the guys that you have to drag out of the gym. He's always the last guy out and the first guy in. He's not leaving anything out there. He's ready to do whatever it takes to be successful."
Like Hedman, Larsson is getting used to playing at the highest levels as a teenager. Playing with Skelleftea, he debuted in the Swedish Elite League at age 16 two years ago, and last season, his first full campaign in the SEL, he had 17 points in 49 games, tops among the league's junior-age players. He was voted the best defenseman at April's World Under-18 Championship, after he had 3 points in five games to help Sweden to a silver medal.
But what Larsson said really helped him was his experience at the 2010 World Junior Championship. He had 4 points and a plus-3 rating in six games to help Sweden win a bronze medal, but what really helped was getting the feel of playing on the North American-size rinks that were used in Saskatoon. He added to that with his time at the USA Hockey Junior National Evaluation Camp in August, where he had 4 assists in four games against the U.S. and Finland.
"This is my second time playing on small rinks," Larsson said then. "I learned from it (last year in Saskatoon). It's more intense games on the small rinks. It's fun to play there."
His teammates certainly have had fun watching how much he's developed this season.
"You see him on the ice, he takes more responsibility on the team," Sweden captain Anton Lander
told NHL.com. "He's getting to more pucks. And in the locker room, he takes up more space there, too."
"He's real smart," added teammate Magnus Paajarvi
. "One time he's there, the next time he's another way. You can't (predict) him, he's all over the place. He's very good with the puck, never makes a mistake. Great on the power play, great in (the penalty kill) box, as well. I think he's going to be a real good defenseman in the future."
Paajarvi spent years playing with and against Hedman and sees some similarities in their games.
"I believe Adam Larsson
is a little bit better with puck handling, but Victor Hedman
has the physique, he's bigger and he uses that to take the puck away from the opponents," Paajarvi told NHL.com. "Adam is a little bit better on the power play, better with the puck, but Victor is better defensively."
Larsson said he doesn't mind the Hedman comparisons, but he watches another defenseman to guide his game.
"I like (Chicago's) Duncan Keith
," he said. "I look up to him, see what he does. He plays good with the puck and he's physical, he does everything right. He plays simple."
Keith isn't known as an overly physical defenseman, but certainly can get the job done in his own end.
"He's played with a little bit of an edge, but he's reliable and takes his man," another NHL amateur scout told NHL.com. "He might not overpower him, but he's strong. I've got nothing but good things to say about this kid."
The Eastern Conference scout predicted Larsson will be no worse than a top-five pick for the 2011 Entry Draft.
"I don't think there's any question," said the scout. "For a defenseman to be able to do what he does with his head and his shot and his passing -- he's just so cool with the puck."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com