Edmonton, AB - We're only a week into the Elitserien season, but it appears Farjestad BK has a new No. 1 weapon at their disposal.
Playing over 25 minutes and recording an even rating in this past Sunday's 2-1 overtime win over AIK Stockholm, Oilers prospect Oscar Klefbom is starting stronger than he ever has. Compared to last season when early-season injuries mounted as he slipped lower on Farjestad's depth chart, 2012-13 has so far been a complete reversal of fortune.
"Last year was tough -- my start wasn't good at all," he admitted over the phone between bus rides to Angelholm for a road game vs. Rogle BK Thursday. "I kept getting hurt and when I came back, there were so many good players playing ahead of me that I couldn't get much ice time. It wasn't easy.
"But in November and at the World Juniors especially, I got a big confidence boost and when I came home, I got a lot of ice time and I did stuff with the puck that I didn't have the confidence to do earlier in the season. It comes with age as well, but it's much better now this year."
The 19-year-old was a star at the 2012 World Junior Championship, posting a goal, two points and a tournament-best +8 rating. Klefbom was also named as a First Team All-Star, all in addition to a gold medal that snapped Sweden's 31-year U-20 drought.
When he made his return to Sweden in January, his ice-time began to increase and by the end of the year, it wasn't unusual to see his playing total cap near the 19-minute mark.
Understandably, he and the Oilers organization wanted to see that number at and above 20 minutes. While there was some debate about whether or not Klefbom would make his North American debut in 2012-13, a decision was made to keep him in Sweden for one more year of development in his hometown.
"Oscar has been working a lot with (Assistant Coach) Radek Hamr," said Farjestad Head Coach Leif Carlsson. "Radek was in the Ottawa (Senators) organization for a while, so he has some North American experience that he's passing down to him. They work with each other every day, so I think he's going to have a good leg to stand on when he comes over to Edmonton."
First as an assistant coach, working in a role similar to Hamr's until last year and now as Farjestad's lead bench boss, Carlsson has worked directly with Klefbom for the past four years. Better than anyone, he's seen how the Oilers' second pick, 19th overall in 2011 has developed.
But perhaps most importantly, he's privy to Klefbom's weaknesses and is working diligently with the young defenceman to correct them.
"He needs a bit more quickness," Carlsson said. "He's quick, but his first step could be better. Right now he needs about two or three metres before he reaches his full speed potential. We're constantly working on that and I think Oscar is much better now than he was a year ago. He can keep up with the Elitserien's best players easily.
"He also needs to be more confident in himself, because he truly is a great player. Sometimes my feeling is that he thinks he's not as good as he really is. He'll get out onto the ice and think, 'Oh, I can't do this' because it might seem too difficult, but he should think otherwise because I think he can be one of the best players in Farjestad, Edmonton, on the Swedish National Team or wherever. He's a really positive guy, too, so I think one more year and more experience is going to help him take that step."
"Oh my God. Those are big words from a coach," laughed the almost-speechless 6'3", 204-pound prospect. "I'm very glad to hear that, it's very nice. I still have a few goals to make, so I'm just trying to work hard every day and take it one day at a time. So we'll see, it's a long way to the NHL still."
Carlsson recognizes that, too, so he's doing everything he can to help Farjestad compete while providing Klefbom with the experience and difficult circumstances necessary to better round-out his game. With veteran Chris Lee sitting out Sunday's game as he and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child, Klefbom was paired with Ville Lajunen and was given the (up until now) rare opportunity to skate on the team's first power-play unit.
"Oscar has a really good shot and we want to use that," Carlsson said. "He needs to play more on the power-play to get that experience; and I hope he takes that step, too, because he's young and we really want him to further develop that side of his game. I honestly think he's going to become a really good offensive player, but I think it's going to take one or two more years before he gets there.
"He's steadily improving every week. It all comes with experience and he needs to get used to being used in those types of situations."
"I've always said I try to be a two-way defenceman, but that shouldn't mean I can't score and put up points," Klefbom added. "I hope I can get better in that area, of course. A lot of people see me as a defender that's really good in the defensive zone, but maybe not so good in the offensive zone. It's my goal to change that and I think I can because I have some pretty good tools to make it happen. These are the things I'm trying to work on every single day."
Since his pro career began in 2010 and in the 58 games he's played to this point, Klefbom has scored only three goals and four points. Keep in mind, he debuted as a 17-year-old with limited ice-time, meaning opportunities were scarce against much older and much more experienced opponents. During his final junior season with Farjestad's U-18 squad, Klefbom scored 10 goals and 28 points in 31 games -- so the the prerequisite skill-set is there.
His production (and progress) can be better evaluated this season. Carlsson agrees and believes his young prodigy is more than ready for the challenge.
"I have 100 percent confidence in Oscar," he said. "He knows that we're going to be working hard on those things and that he's going to be playing 20-25 minutes a night because he's so physically prepared for it. Some guys can play one game like that and then need to rest, but he can go every night with that kind of workload."
Now and in the most pivotal season of his young career, Klefbom's physical maturation has been matched on the mental side. Having been brought along slowly and in the proper direction under Carlsson's leadership, 2012-13 is shaping up to be a good one in Karlstad.
"For me personally, it's the exact opposite of last year at this time," Klefbom said. "I'm the same player physically, but I have more confidence and the willingness to try some things.
"That's made a huge difference."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick