Throughout their history, the Buffalo Sabres have had four Europeans tend the net with mixed success. None of them were Swedish.
That could change though as Jhonas Enroth has been making great strides since being selected by the Sabres in the 2006 draft.
The current Team Sweden goaltender at the World Junior Championships was drafted in the 2nd round, 46th overall and currently has other scouts scratching their heads on why they overlooked him.
Enroth was the No. 1 ranked European goaltender by the ISS going into the draft yet there were worries about his lack of size. With the trend going towards "bigger is better" when it comes to goaltenders, Enroth’s 5’10 is well below average. The 19-year-old himself is quick to counter the question of if he feels his size is a problem.
"Ah well, you know Vesa Toskala, Martin Gerber, Manny Legace etc. etc. I could go on for quite some time, but they are all small as well and made a decent NHL career," Enroth said.
Where his size might be a reason for concern, his agility makes up for it. His technique has received a lot of praise in Sweden, not just from the Team Sweden U20 head coach Par Marts who has described him as being "a technically perfect goalie." Other goalie coaches in the Swedish league have labeled Enroth as playing "the best butterfly style in the country."
Enroth has worked on fast reflexes and good lateral movement. "I trained on that from an early age as they are goalie essentials," he said.
With Sweden lacking true NHL goaltending talent, the arrival of Henrik Lundqvist has put the country back on the map.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Lundqvist is one of the goalies who has been one of Enroth’s role models as he climbed up the Swedish junior leagues. "[Lundqvist] and Martin Gerber were the goalies I watched a lot," Enroth admitted.
The past 12 months have been a hectic year for Enroth. Yet they were well worth it. First he was part of the Swedish U20-squad that finished fourth on home ice last season before leading his team Södertälje to the top league, Elitserien. In 24 games, he posted impressive numbers for an 18-year-old with a save percentage of 93,7% and a GAA of 1.61. In the ensuing playoff series, he kept up his stellar play which locked his spot as starter on the team playing in the Elitserien this season.
Despite playing on one of the bottom teams in the league, Enroth continues to post solid numbers (2.26 GAA and .925% save percentage) which has caused Swedish media to name him the best goalie prospect from Sweden since Lundqvist. Furthermore Enroth has been nominated as one of the four candidates for Rookie of the Year in Sweden.
Enroth is enjoying the cloud he currently seems to be living on. "The past 12 months have been fun," he smiled. Although he won’t get carried away by all the raving reviews, they surely have not hurt his confidence either. "It’s a big honor to be nominated for the Rookie of the Year but the season is still long," he knows. "I guess I deserved it though."
Being one of the leading goaltenders in the Swedish Elitserien at the age of 19, Enroth’s future is very much likely across the pond where the Sabres’ goaltending pipeline is not as strong as it once used to be. With Ryan Miller in net there is no immediate need, but there’s opportunity behind him.
If it were up to him, Enroth would make the switch to North America next season. "I want to play there next year but of course am dependant on what Buffalo wants. I talked to them last year but felt it was better to stay home for another year."
The numbers bear out that decision. Now Enroth feels the time is right to come over and learn the game on smaller ice.
Enroth: "I won’t mind playing in the AHL to refine my game. I realize I have a good chance to make it to the NHL given Buffalo’s goaltending depth at the moment, but it is not easy to get into the NHL. After all you need to be better than good to make it there."
The goalie is aware of what aspect he needs to work on most – his stickhandling. The World Juniors is an excellent place to start that improvement. Enroth is given the main job between the pipes for Team Sweden and was victorious in the tournament’s opener against Slovakia (4-3 win).
"I started a bit nervous but getting the victory was so sweet," Enroth admitted.
Coming into this tournament as the fourth-ranked team, Sweden is looking for a medal this year. "We aim high, of course our goal is the gold medal," Enroth said.
From being the little kid that played for Huddinge IK to competing with the world’s best in his age category, a lot has changed in the life of Enroth the past three years. Back then the youngster played hockey with his brothers Tommy (playing at the top U20-level) and Mattias (playing at the top U18-level).
"We played hockey every day," Enroth remembered. "It would be fun to play with my brothers in one team at one point but right now that’s not on my mind."
Hockey on frozen lakes or in the basement, Enroth has always been competitive.
"Who usually won when my brothers were firing shots at me? What do you think? The goalie of course," Enroth laughed as he headed into the locker room.
The Sabres might have hit a jackpot with their 2006 selection. If Enroth is able to take his game to North America he could very well be the first Swede ever to tend the net for Buffalo. Until then, Enroth will try to win Sweden a medal at the World Juniors in the Czech Republic and save his club team’s spot in the Elitserien. And perhaps he will let his brothers win for once before leaving Sweden for a permanent stay across the pond.