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Swedish prodigy Paajarvi could be top-5 pick

by Bill Meltzer
For as long as he can remember, hockey has been central to 17-year-old Magnus Paajarvi's life. The Swedish prodigy has been around the rink since he was a tot, and has played the sport competitively since he was 6 years old.

Today, the strapping 6-foot-1, 195-pound left wing with world-class skating ability, uncanny ice vision and soft hands is considered one of the top prospects for the 2009 Entry Draft.

"The sky is the limit for Magnus," coach Stephan "Lillis" Lundh said after Sweden's gold medal at the 2007 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, nearly two years ahead of the Paajarvi's draft eligibility. "He's a very skilled and creative player. Magnus is a player who has a good attitude and does his best every game and practice. He wants to improve and he likes the challenge."

Known in Sweden as Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson, the blue-chip prospect is the son of Gunnar Svensson, a former player and longtime coach and general manager who today is a player agent. In addition to sons Magnus and Björn, the elder Svensson's clients have included the likes of Nicklas Backstrom (Bäckström) and Anton Stralman (Strålman). Björn Svensson, 22, is a checking wing for Swedish Elite League (Elitserien) team Timrå IK, where he and Magnus are teammates.

Paajarvi, who uses his mother's hyphenated surname in honor of his Finnish grandfather, has drawn lofty comparisons to some of the elite players Sweden has produced, including former Timrå player Henrik Zetterberg. But the youngster says that he's never tried to pattern himself after a particular player.

"I never really had a specific hero," he said. "I always watch the best players and try to take a little bit from all of them, but I don't pattern myself after anyone special."

A Western Conference European scout, however, says he sees a lot of Markus Naslund (Näslund) in Paajarvi, with a few twists.

"Paajarvi gets from point A to point B as fast as anyone in this draft," the scout said. "He also reminds me of Näslund in the way he can hide out from the defense, but he's more of a playmaker than Markus and not as good of a scorer. Timrå has that combination of Paajarvi and (fellow 2009 first-round draft candidate Anton) Lander. I wouldn't say their impact is like Peter Forsberg and Näslund on Modo (in 1991-92), but they are still quite impressive players."

Paajarvi's list of accomplishments is already quite impressive. He competes among men because he dominates against even 19-year-old competition.

In 2005, he lit up the famous TV-Puck tournament, racking up 8 goals and 11 points in eight games for his home district of Skåne. Last year, he became the youngest player ever to suit up for Sweden at the IIHF Under-20 World Championships and one of the youngest for any country. His selection put him in the company of Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros and Sidney Crosby as one of the few 16-year-olds to play in the World Juniors. In the spring, Paajarvi played in the Under-18 Worlds.

"The big thing I remember from last year's tournament is how fast it went by, and how good everything was for us," Paajarvi said.

Midway through last season, Paajarvi cracked Timrå's senior team after tearing apart the Swedish J20 level early in the campaign. He is now a regular starter for the club.

In his first 11 games this season, Paajarvi has 2 goals and 8 points (including a goal and a game-winning assist in Timrå's recent 3-2 overtime win against Skellefteå AIK). Those are outstanding totals for a 17-year-old in one of Europe's best pro leagues. But Paajarvi acknowledges that playing in Elitserien has been an eye-opening experience compared to the J20 level.

"There's no room for mistakes. Every part of my game can be improved, but the number one thing is my play without the puck."
-- Magnus Paajarvi

"Obviously, the defensive play has been the biggest challenge," he said. "But you also get a lot less time to make plays. There's no room for mistakes. Every part of my game can be improved, but the number one thing is my play without the puck."

Paajarvi's self-assessment falls closely in line with the NHL scout's read on the player.

"The biggest thing Magnus needs to work on his defensive play and his attention to detail when he doesn't have the puck," the scout said. "But that's typical of a player his age, especially when he's always been a top offensive player. Consistency takes time, and he's still learning that. He also needs to get a little stronger physically and prepare to deal with the physical game he'll see over there."

Paajarvi's earliest hockey days were tied to his dad's travels. He was born April 12, 1991 in Norrköping (north of Stockholm), where Gunnar Svensson was the coach and general manager of minor-league club IK Vita Hästen (the White Horse ice hockey club).

Later, he rose through the junior system of Malmö IF, located in the southern tip Sweden near Denmark. Gunnar Svensson served as the manager of Malmö in 1995-96 before making the transition to representing players as an agent. After the 2006-07 season, Paajarvi left Malmö to join Timrå's J20 team, where brother Björn was already in the fold at the senior level.

 "I needed a change," Paajarvi says in explaining the move to join the Timrå. "I really enjoyed Malmö, but I just needed to move myself."

The 2009 Entry Draft could be the year of the Swede. Modo defenseman Victor Hedman is virtually a shoo-in to be the first or second pick. Paajarvi could be a top-five pick, while Jacob Josefson, Lander, and Jakob Silfverberg could also be chosen in the first round.

In the short-term, however, Paajarvi is focused on the 2009 World Junior Championships. Last year, he was generally spotted in situations where his offensive prowess could step to the forefront. This time around, he should get a little more ice time as Sweden attempts to turn last year's silver into gold.

By the time his international junior career is finished, Paajarvi figures to play in four World Junior Championships. That's a testament not only to how advanced he is at such a tender age, but also of his boundless potential in the future.
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