What a difference a year makes.
At this time last December, World Juniors were about to begin. Defenseman Nils Lundkvist felt he had a lot to prove coming out of the 2018 NHL Draft, when he was selected 28th overall by the Rangers.
"I felt the pressure," the 19-year-old defensemen said. "There were high expectations both from myself and others. It probably made me do a bit too much."
This season, however, the narrative has changed. One year older, wiser and better, the Rangers prospect has been one of the biggest breakout stars in Swedish hockey this season. It's clear that he used last year's challenges as a learning, and that he has improved because of it.
"I'm not forcing plays anymore. I know the chances will come if I play my game consistently. I'm not trying to do too much or too little," he says. "That's the experience I've carried with me from last year. I would say that my best games last year are probably games that I would call 'okay' this year. The bad games I had last year, I don't have those anymore. The level in my game is much higher now."
Suffice to say, the improved Nils Lundkvist has had a productive season. As he left his club team for the Swedish World Juniors camp, he was third in scoring among defensemen in the SHL. In 24 games, he has amassed 17 points. Last year, he had ten points in 41 games. Along with that, his ice-time has increased dramatically. After averaging 12.43 per game last year, Lundkvist is up to 20.29 this season.
"The points have given me more self-confidence," Nils Lundkvist says. "I've been trusted with a lot of time on the power play and a lot of offensive zone starts. It feels like we're spending a lot more time in the offensive zone than in the defensive zone when me and my partner is out there, creating a lot of chances and getting involved offensively. I get a lot more chances personally as well. I've already taken more shots (45) this far, than I did during last year (35)."
Nils Lundkvist's strong season makes him a key player for the Swedes at the World Juniors that starts December 26th in the Czech Republic. A team that also includes another Rangers draft pick in center Karl Henriksson. When introducing the team at a press conference earlier this month, head coach Tomas Montén described Lundkvist as one of the most improved players in the Swedish league.
"I hope I can contribute the same way I do back here," Lundkvist says of his role on the Swedish team. "I see myself as a defensemen who can play at both ends of the rink. I want to be dependable defensively but also contribute offensively."
Just like at last year's World Juniors in Vancouver and Victoria, he'll be paired with Philadelphia Flyers prospect Adam Ginning. The two of them have been playing together at the international junior level for several years.
"He's very strong defensively and very loyal," Nils Lundkvist says of Ginning. "I think it's our dissimilarities that makes us a good pairing. I like to follow the rush and he likes to take defensive responsibilities. It sounds kind of old school and cliché, but that's the way it feels."
Sweden might not be mentioned as one of the main teams to compete for gold this time, but Lundkvist thinks his team will be able to offer the opponents a tough match-up.
"We have an interesting team. Our backend is really good and I think we have players up front who can make a difference as well," he says. "The key if our team is going to compete for medals is that we need to do this together. We don't have any one player that will take us to the next level. We will have to work together to be tough to play against and win games by outworking our opponents."
While Nils Lundkvist has been busy focusing on his club team as well as the Swedish national junior team, he is often in contact with the New York Rangers. Mostly through European development coach Tuomo Ruutu and Director of Player Development Jed Ortmeyer.
"We talk quite a lot. Tuomo was here in Luleå to see me and I talk to Jed every month. They give me great feedback," Lundkvist says.
With the way things are going right now, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Nils Lundkvist in North America as soon as next season.
"It's obviously something I dream about, to play in the NHL for the New York Rangers. If it's next year or the year after that, we'll see. It's a goal I'm trying to achieve, but I'm not in a hurry. I just want to make sure I'm ready."
Nils Lundkvist seems to be well on his way.