The Pittsburgh Penguins rarely drafted out of Europe under former general manager Ray Shero. Nor did they draft many forwards with size. So when Shero and company selected a big-bodied, little known Swedish center named Oskar Sundqvist in the third round of the 2012 NHL Draft, there was naturally some intrigue.
Two years later and Sundqvist remains an intriguing prospect. He recently finished his first full season of SHL hockey, playing mostly in the bottom six, and was a key contributor in Skelleftea’s SHL championship playoff run. He was also recently signed to a NHL entry-level contract.
“I had a few ups and downs in the season,” Sundqvist said. “But the longer the season went, it felt like I was getting better and better every day.”
Although he spent the majority of the season as a bottom six forward, Sundqvist was given more responsibility as the year progressed. He saw a lot of time on the penalty kill in particular, where his long reach and 6’3 frame were useful in breaking up passing lanes.
He also developed a knack for blocking shots.
“You block shots against guys who shoot really hard,” he said, laughing. “It’s no problem. It hurts a little. You give a boost to the team when you do that, and that feels great.”
It would not be the only way Sundqvist would help his team. In the SHL semi-final playoff series against Linkoping, Skelleftea head coach Hans Wallson put Sundqvist on a line with captain Jimmy Ericcson and veteran Eric Forsell. The trio stayed together for the remainder of the playoffs. In those nine games Sundqvist managed four goals and one assist, including a shorthanded tally.
“In the playoffs it was really a boost for me, a feeling like I’m at max. I was playing first line with the captain and another great player,” Sundqvist said, with a giant smile. “Not many 20-year-old guys who can do that in the finals, even in Sweden, so that’s a really memorable thing for me and I will always remember the season.”
Penguins assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald, who was part of the management team who picked Sundqvist in 2012, cautions that while the big Swede made great strides in his development, the Penguins organization has no intent on rushing him.
“He’s always been considered a project because of when we drafted him and where we drafted him from. He was playing midget hockey,” Fitzgerald said.
“He’s got size, he’s got some grit, he’s got real good hockey sense, he’s versatile, and he’s just maturing as a player. What his development path looks like, it’s still unknown,” Fitzgerald added. “Does he stick around over here, or does he go back to Skelleftea, which is a great organization. They’re going to have to defend their title.”
Sundqvist remains undecided as to where he is going to play in 2014-15, though he is eying a potential regular scoring role with Skelleftea.
“There are a lot of guys who Skelleftea is losing now. I’m probably going to get an even bigger role this year if I stay in Skelleftea,” Sundqvist said. “But I haven’t decided anything yet. I will have to wait and see what Pittsburgh says too.”
When he does eventually come to North America, Sundqvist is willing to do whatever it takes to play in the NHL, even if that includes spending time at the minor league level.
“That’s no problem for me. We have to see, my age and stuff like that, how I’m feeling to move so far away,” Sundqvist said. “Maybe I have to wait one year or something like that. We will see.”
“With him, it’s day by day,” Fitzgerald said. “Get to the rookie tournament, see how that goes, main camp, and then, quite honestly, these players will dictate where they should be and what is best for their development by their play.”
“It’s different,” Fitzgerald added. “He’s a European. He’s on contract over there as well, but our contract takes precedent over that one. But we want to work with [Skelleftea] as well and do what’s best for the kid.”
The Penguins have at least one very good reason to let Sundqvist play in the SHL for another year. The organization is welcoming six new players to their minor league system on a full-time basis in 2014-15, so ice time among forwards will be at a premium.
Regardless of where Sundqvist plays the 2014-15 season, he realizes that even though he signed an NHL contract, he has a lot of work to do before he can play with the best hockey players in the world.
“It was like a dream come true. But in the same way it was like a half dream. The next dream is to play in the NHL. So I still have something to work for.”
Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter via @IanAltenbaugh