If based on the sheer size of the league and the types of contracts that can be handed out, as well as what is clearly a generally outstanding level of ice hockey, most will tell you that the KHL is the best hockey league in Europe. Still, you’ll find many who’ll say there’s no better level of hockey combining pure, proven international competitiveness and the ability to integrate and foster young, excellent talent than in Sweden’s SHL.
The league continues to remain prominent in international comparisons while also playing its part in producing an almost endless stream of players who gain the attention of NHL franchises.
With the 2014-15 season now officially upon us, a plethora of both drafted and undrafted young talents are not only dotting a number of the league’s lineups, but also accelerating, and in some cases, leading the way. The incredible amount of talent drafted out of Sweden in recent years has been well-documented as there are more Swedes playing in the NHL than any other European nationality.
The SHL currently consists of 12 teams and has seen Skelleftea AIK – a real mouthful to pronounce – take the league championship two years running. Further reinforcing the strength of the league in an international context is the fact that eight of these twelve teams are playing in the Champions Hockey League, which pits many of Europe’s top teams against each other in a manner resembling soccer’s UEFA Champion’s League.
Here’s a look at what’s in store this season, what young players to keep tabs on, and where Hockey’s Future feels the respective teams will finish up.
SHL Preview Part 1: The Expected Bottom Six
Having retained its spot in the SHL with a formidable performance in the relegation round, Orebro is looking to take the next step towards being more competitive this season. A few minor changes have been made and the biggest was the addition of Slovakian goaltender Julius Hudacek. The 26-year-old has proven himself in the world of pro hockey, most notably having posted a 1.89 goals-against average and .930 save percentage for Frolunda in the 2012-13 season. With the exception of perhaps Linus Ullmark in MODO, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a goalie in the SHL who will have more responsibility for his team’s success than Hudacek will. A strong year in Sweden could see renewed interest in him from an NHL team looking to deepen its goaltending position.
In comparison with the other teams in the league, there are a lot of question marks on the overall effectiveness of this blueline. There’s a bit of defensive experience, but little in the way of a proven defenseman or set-up man. 30-year-old Marcus Weinstock is the key returning scorer on the blueline; he had 19 points last season. In Joonas Jalvanti and Jakub Krejcik, the team is bringing in two foreigners with the potential to assist Weinstock with the offensive duties while recognizable names Victor Ekbom (former PIT pick) and Johan Motin (former EDM pick) will help round off the rest of a very mediocre group.
Up front, the most important scorers will be recognizable North Americans Tim Wallace, Jared Aulin, Derek Ryan, and Brian Willsie. Each has proven his offensive abilities on the pro stage at various stations in Europe. Helping them will be last season’s key late pick-ups, Finns Marko Anttila and Ville Vittaluoma. Both made an immediate scoring impact and will be looked to for top six production. A number of former second league veterans will fill out the yeoman’s roles.
What the team doesn’t have, which most every contending club in the league has in spades, are young, up-and-coming players who are of interest to NHL teams. Expected to play at some point in the season is 18-year-old Czech talent Lukas Vopelka, who also enjoyed a top-nine role for the silver-medalist Czech club in last spring’s U18 World Championship. Aside from Lukas, the system is simply lacking in players of this pedigree and even he is scheduled to spend most of the season playing for the club’s junior program.
Should he have the type of year some in Sweden feel he can, 25-year-old SHL rookie winger Daniel Viksten could find himself in the spotlight of some NHL teams’ interest in grabbing a late bloomer. The 6’1”, 182-pound forward likes to drive hard to the net and also lay in with his heavy shot with every opportunity. He just may be one of the league’s biggest surprises after five straight seasons of good production in the Allsvenskan.
After several years in the Allsvenskan, one of Sweden’s most recognizable and popular clubs finally got itself promoted last spring. This is of great importance to the SHL because the league’s other Stockholm-based team, AIK, was demoted in the process. The loss of Stockholm as a league site would have been a less than desirable situation.
Now the team has decided to spend its initial returning season putting a great deal of faith in its youth. The blueline will include no less than Linus Arnesson (Boston Bruins 2013 second rounder), Robin Norell (Chicago Blackhawks 2013 fourth rounder), and Andreas Englund (Ottawa Senators 2014 second rounder). Each is highly touted with good size and has shown that his skill set is best placed on display when playing against older, more capable players. In fact, the way Norell developed last season in particular has given many the feeling that he’ll flourish like never before now that he’s gotten to the SHL. Arnesson contributes a very solid and smart defensive game while Englund combines physical power with a good outlet pass.
Most predominantly, the trio of Daniel Fernholm, Markus Nordlund, and Alexander Deilert will provide the team with a veteran defensive aspect, and each of them has had his fair share of career peaks and valleys to date.
The forward crew has a potpourri of players who have solid SHL experience or have been above-average producers at the Allsvenskan level. The most notable name is that of Mikael Samuelsson who, at the age of 37, will be counted on to lead on and off the ice. He should get help from veterans Joakim Eriksson, Sebastian Lauritzen and Michael Holmqvist, although the latter two are a few years removed from their more productive days.
Several players that fans in North America will want to keep an eye on are Marcus Sorensen, Markus Ljungh, David Rundqvist, and Erik Nystrom. All four are young and promising and although only the 22-year-old Sorensen was ever drafted, it’s felt that a breakthrough offensive season at the SHL level by any of them could be his respective ticket to a UFA contract with an NHL team.
The team will also rely heavily on its starting goaltender, veteran Mikael Tellqvist. One of the most experienced goalies in the league, he’ll be asked to not only log heavy minutes, but also mentor the organization’s other goalies. The likely number two is Lithuanian Mantas Armalis, an exotic player who arrived on the scene with Allsvenskan club Mora last season and put up a 2.20 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. At 6’4” and 200 pounds, a number of scouts have taken notice and will be watching to see if he’s got what it takes to be a starter at the SHL level.
The club’s system is also ripe with talent. The U20 team will be starting with NHL Draft picks Linus Soderstrom (goalie taken in the fourth round of the 2014 draft by the New York Islanders) and defenseman Wilhelm Westlund (Colorado Avalanche 2013 seventh rounder) and Adam Ollas Mattsson (Calgary Flames 2014 sixth rounder). All three will likely see time in the SHL at some point this season.
One of Sweden’s most traditionally recognized clubs, Leksand is playing its second season in a row in the SHL after having gained promotion during the 2012-13 season. It enters this year with a heavy loss in defenseman Patrik Hersley, who scored a whopping 24 goals last season, 13 of which came on the power play. He’ll now be trying his luck with Novosibirsk in the KHL. The team also lost Montreal Canadiens 2013 second rounder Jacob de la Rose, who’ll try his luck at the team’s NHL camp but is expected to spend the season with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL.
Having had the expected rocky start to its new SHL existence, the team was able to stabilize itself along the way last season and has spent this past summer making some impressive additions. Notably added to the defense are former Toronto Maple Leaf Jonas Frogren and offensive defenseman Brian Connelly. Both will be expected to take on leadership roles for the blueline crew which includes offensively-oriented American Kevin Kapstad and late bloomer Simon Erlandsson, a 20-year-old player who has shown good defensive instincts and an ability to play within his abilities. He’s a solid 6’1” and 200 pounds.
On the forward side, the team added smallish American brothers Jack and Chris Connolly, who naturally have no relation to Brian Connelly. Both were NCAA scoring stars for their respective programs and have been building on their careers in Europe. Established Finnish scorers Tomi Sallinen, Toni Kahkonen, and Veli-Matti Savinainen have also been added and will join Eric Himelfarb, Fabian Brunnstrom and captain Johan Ryno in building the cornerstones of the offense. Most particularly Ryno serves as the team’s offensive heart and motor. The former Detroit Red Wings property has started to mature into the type of dominating offensive player he was once envisioned to be. He’s being seen as a possible 50-point player this season and his 6’5”, 215-pound frame is something defensemen around the SHL are having a very difficult time hindering. At 28, it’s felt a strong season could lead to a direct jump into the NHL for Ryno.
Fortunately, the team has retained last season’s SHL MVP in goaltender Oscar Alsenfelt. The 27-year-old garnered a number of points for the team along the way to posting a .924 save percentage. He’ll be leaned on no less this season. Another strong year could see him elsewhere for the 2015-16 season.
One exciting player on the prospect front is Filip Forsberg’s younger brother, Fredrik. Only 17, the right-shooting winger has already suited up for the big team and is giving management a tough decision, as he was scheduled to play with the club’s junior teams. Obviously, his bloodlines and current level of maturity have begun raising eyebrows in the scouting community.
One of the league’s most competitive teams just a few seasons ago, many of its top young players who contributed to its success, such as Elias Lindholm, Jakob Silfverberg and Calle Jarnkrok, have now found their way to North America and the team just hasn’t been able to replace them.
The team has lost some of its best veterans this past summer, most notably American defenseman Ryan Gunderson, and is now going a bit of a new route that some feel may backfire, but which will be giving the youth a chance.
The defensive crew will be headed by Swedish veterans Niclas Andersen and Simon Bertilsson, both former NHL draft picks, but the opportunity to pick up the offensive slack will be given to Washington Capitals 2012 seventh rounder Christian Djoos. The slighter framed defenseman had a breakthrough season last year, also having played a pivotal role for the silver medalist WJC club. He’ll be given a boatload of responsibility this season. Arizona Coyotes 2014 sixth rounder David Westlund has also cracked the roster and the team will be looking for him to involve his 6’3”, 210-pound frame with every opportunity. Young Norwegian Mattias Norstebo is another player to watch. At 5’10” and 175 pounds, he’s been skipped over in two drafts, but continues to develop into a very skilled, two-way player who generally wants to be a difference maker.
The forward ranks feature only a few proven scorers, primarily Greg Scott, Bill Sweatt, Jonas Nordqvist, Jesper Ollas, and Anton Rodin, who is 23 and just now coming into his own. The team has decided to put a number of its marbles into three 22 year olds who they hope will take the same step Rodin did last season, namely Norwegian Sondre Olden, and the twins Ponthus and Pathrik Vesterholm. Olden is an extremely talented and tall former Maple Leafs draft pick that finally broke through last season in Norway, finishing as the fifth overall scorer with 58 points in 43 games. At the same time, the Vesterholm brothers also enjoyed a breakthrough in the Allsvenskan, leading the way for surprise upstart BIK Karlskoga combining for 88 points and +23 rating in 113 games.
Philadelphia Flyers 2014 fifth rounder Oscar Lindblom has also been inserted into the lineup after a nice four-game debut last season and six points in seven U18 WC contests. A winger with a simple, complementary game, he’ll be given every opportunity to assume a top-nine role on the team.
Also getting playing time will be 21-year-old defensive forward Alexander Lindgren and 19-year-old Adam Brodecki, a smaller forward who has been representing Sweden every year internationally since the 2010-11 season. Neither has been drafted by an NHL team.
In goal, the team is sticking with Austrian Bernhard Starkbaum, who was decent last season, but hardly a clear-cut number one at the SHL level. His back-up will be none other than Buffalo Sabres 2014 third rounder Jonas Johansson, a former U18 WC starter who’ll likely see 15-22 starts after having looked very solid in four appearances last season. Nonetheless, this duo is quite the risk in comparison to just about every other team in the league.
The club run by Peter Forsberg has had a rough time of things in recent years and is once again heading into this season looking to be anything but a lock for the playoffs. Proven depth is looking like the team’s Achilles heel and losing top defensemen Kyle Cumiskey and Richie Regehr doesn’t look like it will help things. Their roles will now be assumed by Travis Roche and Markus Kauppinen, two solid defensemen who nonetheless are coming in knowing they’re stepping in for 50 points worth of blueline production.
Up front the club is taking a bit of a new direction after losing Jeff Tambellini, T.J. Hensick, Kirill Kabanov, Mario Kempe, and Kristian Forsberg. That was some proven talent that surrounded key returnees Per-Age Skroder, Mattias Ritola, Simon Onerud, and Sammy Pahlsson, who will have even more weight on their shoulders this season. They’ll be helped by additions of relative new pro Kyle Flanagan as well as recent Montreal Canadiens’ draft pick Joonas Nattinen, who will have some big shoes to fill. Neither has anything close to the proven track record of players such as Tambellini and Hensick. Also coming in is 22-year-old Janos Hari, arguably the biggest offensive talent to ever come out of Hungary. After a huge scoring career as a junior in Sweden, Hari put up 19 points for Helsinki IFK last season and he’s being looked to as a possible 40+ point player this year. An coming out of this sort could see him in North America the season thereafter.
What MODO has, however, is a team that particularly the Buffalo Sabres will be having a vested interest in following. Any success the team enjoys this season will surely be linked directly to 2012 sixth rounder Linus Ullmark’s nightly performance. The 21-year-old stood on his head last season in becoming the SHL’s top goaltender, putting up a 2.08 goals-against average and .931 save percentage. Now the club and its fans are fully expecting that trend to continue, but it certainly isn’t commonplace for a goaltender of Linus’ age to be able to put in a repeat performance of that magnitude.
Also skating for the team are Sabres’ 2014 seventh rounder Victor Olofsson, who wasn’t necessarily expected to make the team at this stage, and 2013 fifth rounder Gustav Possler. The latter really arrived on the scene last season, putting up 15 points in 22 games after a red-hot start to the season. Unfortunately, a torn ACL ruined the party and prevented him from what was likely a top-six role for the national team at the WJC. Back and healthy, many across Sweden – and surely in the Sabres’ organization – are extremely excited to see if the former junior scoring star can pick up where he left off.
In addition, the team is also ready to give young Adrian Kempe, taken 29th overall by the Los Angeles Kings in this past summer’s draft, as much responsibility as he can handle. Many feel 30+ points is a realistic goal for Kempe this season, with a WJC appearance seemingly in the cards come December.
A 17-year-old defenseman named Jesper Lindgren is another name to keep your eye on as many feel he’ll see time with the men’s team at some point while honing his very offensively-oriented skills for the club’s junior teams.
A championship caliber team for the better part of the past five years, HV71 hit a wall last season, at times serving as one of the league’s bottom feeders. Still, there was too much talent on the roster and of course, a few late season additions to help the team get out of the basement. Coming into this season, they’re looking like a club that could finish anywhere from 4th to 10th.
The team is entering the season with a solid goaltending tandem which will feature North America-experienced Swedes Erik Ersberg and Gustav Wesslau, both of whom can win a game on their own. They could end up splitting the goaltending duties right down the middle.
On the blueline, veterans David Petrasek, Chris Campoli, Kristofer Berglund, and Mattias Karlsson will be asked to log big minutes while guiding a plethora of younger players. This youth movement will include Boston Bruins’ 2014 seventh rounder Emil Johansson, who has somewhat surprisingly made the team out of camp and hasn’t seemed out of place. Also included is former Nashville Predators pick Simon Karlsson and undrafted 19-year-old Axel Eidstedt, who measures in at 6’2” and 225 pounds. They’ll likely be joined at some point by Lawrence Pilut, a very talented yet smaller half-American who went undrafted this past summer despite having played 22 games and gathering four assists in the SHL last season. Overall, the group is considered one of the more average defensive corps in the league.
As somewhat bland as the blueline is, the forward ranks boast a number of interesting faces. The team has brought in two Swedes who have spent a number of years playing and scoring in North America and abroad, namely Mattias Tedenby and Calle Ridderwall. Both will be expected to join proven veterans Riley Holzapfel, Bjorn Melin, Marcus Nilsson, Patrik Carlsson, Andreas Jamtin, and Erik Christensen, who is expected to be the team’s offensive stalwart. Interestingly, he’ll likely be assuming that mantle while skating with the team’s most interesting young forwards. On the one side will be undrafted 23-year-old captain Ted Brithen, who is felt to be on the map for a number of NHL teams. On the other will be Nashville Predators 2014 first rounder Kevin Fiala, who arrived on the scene like a bomb last season and proceeded to chip in six points and a +5 rating in eight playoff games – as a 17-year-old. It is widely felt that the smaller yet dynamic Fiala is already geared to produce like a first liner despite only having turned 18 this past July.
After that, the team has primarily decided to go with a full-on youth movement. This starts with 20-year-old defensive specialist Filip Sandberg, a 5’9” center who has gone undrafted to date despite representing Sweden internationally every year since the 2009-10 season. He’s joined by young ‘veterans’ Erik Andersson (20), Johan Johnsson (21), Adam Bengtsson (21) and Sebastian Strandberg (22), all of whom have at least 22 SHL contests under their belts. They’ll now be joined by 20-year-old Christoffer Thorngren, thus clearly displaying the club’s philosophy on incorporating the youth.
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