There are a select few hockey players in the world who are blessed with the rare combination of imposing size, explosive first stride and exceptionally soft hands that it takes become a top-end selection in the NHL Entry Draft. Anaheim Ducks
draftee Max Friberg
is not among those lucky ones, but he is nevertheless an intriguing NHL prospect.
Although strong on his skates, Friberg has average size (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) and only slightly above-average natural skill. He was not initially considered a fast-track player to the Elitserien (Swedish Elite League) level. That is why the now 19-year-old winger was still available when Anaheim chose him in the fifth round (No. 143) of the 2011 Draft.
leads the WJC in scoring with nine goals in five games. (Photo: Getty Images)
However, as he has shown during his eye-opening performance at the 2012 World Junior Championships, Friberg compensates for any perceived shortcomings with work ethic and desire. Once Friberg gets his feet moving, he has above-average quickness, which makes his all-around skating ability an asset in actual game settings.
Friberg's play at the World Juniors has been a major reason why Sweden will oppose Russia in Thursday's gold-medal game.
He leads the tournament in goal scoring with nine tallies in five games -- which does not include his crucial shootout goals in Sweden's semifinal victory against Finland and a round-robin victory against Switzerland. His 11 points rank second to top Washington Capitals
prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov
's 13 points for Team Russia.
"I feel that he's a good character person," Detroit Red Wings
European scout Hakan Andersson told NHL.com. "He works hard in practice, skating is fine, good speed, skill is OK. His defensive game is OK in terms of effort, and his physical game is OK here [at the junior international level]."
Friberg is already a regular starter in the Swedish Elite League for Timrå IK. The youngster has struggled a bit playing at that level. He started the season on a top line but was demoted to the checking lines after struggling to finish scoring chances. In 28 games for TIK to date, he has just a goal, two assists and four penalty minutes.
"He's not big in height, but he has a thick build, so the other juniors can't muscle him off the puck," a European-based scout for an Eastern Conference team told NHL.com via text message. "What's surprised me most [at the World Juniors] is the way he's gone to the net, because that's been lacking in his games in Elitserien this year. If he keeps doing that, he can score at higher levels, too."
Friberg has never had a problem scoring goals at the Swedish junior or minor-league levels. He moved up the junior ranks quickly, represented his district nationally in the annual TV-Puck tournament and became a regular for Division I (second-tier) minor league club Skövde IK by the age of 16.
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By his second season, he was playing in all game situations. Twio seasons ago, he finsihed with 30 points in 36 games, which was tops in Division I among all players under 18. Last season, he tallied 40 points in 34 games. He also performed admirably at the international junior levels, scoring a pair of goals and adding three assists for Team Sweden at the 2010 Under-18 World Championships and notching a pair of goals at the 2011 Under-20 World Juniors.
As a result, Elitserien club Timrå signed Friberg after the season and Anaheim took a flier on him in the Draft.
It has taken time for Friberg to get used to the faster pace and superior skill level of Elitserien after bypassing Allsvenskan (the top minor league) after coming up through the Division I level. As with many young players, game-in and game-out consistency has thus far been elusive at the professional level.
"He might be having the tournament of his life here," said Andersson. "I want to see him do this more consistently before I can say he's an NHLer. Over the years, I have seen players who are good in this tournament and then still don't make it to the NHL."
To his credit, Friberg has made good use of practice time to work on his game throughout the season. He is willing to do grunt work along the boards in order to stay in the lineup even when pucks aren't going in for him.
"He works very hard and he's competitive," said Timrå general manager Kent Norberg.
Now that he Friberg has exploded into his own at the World Juniors, the hope is that he'll bring renewed offensive confidence back with him to Sweden.
He is also far more demonstrative and emotional on the ice than is the norm for the "typical" Swedish player. Friberg's exuberant celebrations after scoring goals spurred Team Finland forward Joel Armia
to directly mock him after tallying in the semifinal shootout, which did not phase the Swede one bit.
"I saw it as a tribute to me," he said to IIHF.com.
While Friberg's offensive explosion at the World Juniors has grabbed headlines, both he and the NHL scouts in attendance realize that his work toward an NHL career has only just begun.