2014-15 SHL Preview, Part 2: Frolunda looks to build off of successful 2013-14 season

By Chapin Landvogt
Artturi Lehkonen - Frolunda Gothenburg

Photo: Frolunda Indians forward and Montreal Canadiens prospect Artturi Lehkonen has moved over to the SHL after playing the 2013-14 season in Finland’s Liiga (courtesy of Frolunda Gothenburg/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

 

In part 1 of the Hockey’s Future preview of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), the bottom six teams were previewed in the order predicted for the 2014-15 season. In part 2, we take a look at the top six teams competing in Sweden‘s top hockey league.

6. Lulea

Lulea has been one of the SHL’s most successful clubs in recent years. After having just barely missed a championship in two of the last three seasons, the club underwent a bit of personnel breakdown this summer, losing several of its key players, most notably stalwarts Linus Klasen, Niklas Olausson, Linus Omark, Johan Fransson, David Rautio, and Daniel Gunnarsson. Still, things just didn’t seem to be right with the club by the time last season concluded, so management has decided to set up the team differently to bring in some fresh air.

The goaltending situation does look a bit cloudy, however. The team has three very interesting goalies, but the future of one of its most recognizable faces, Mark Owuya, is a bit uncertain and it’s not clear how exactly he’d fit in once the contract situation could be settled. The team has brought in former Detroit Red Wings draft pick Daniel Larsson, who had a tough go of it with the demoted AIK Stockholm the past few seasons, but is very experienced and has had some strong seasons with HV71, Djurgarden, and Grand Rapids. He’ll be backed up by 21-year-old Joel Lassinatti, a once highly touted goaltender who served as Asploven’s starter last season in the Allsvenskan where he managed a .914 save percentage in 39 games. He’d likely end up in the Allsvenskan again if Owuya and the team reach an agreement.

The defensive corps is deep in numbers, but a bit short on proven experience. The 6’5”, 235-pound Per Nagander will be looked at as a tone-setter and the team is fully expecting 23-year-old Finn Kristian Nakyva to take over the offensive blueline duties. Both are coming over from Liiga. The smallish Andreas Hjelm will also be asked to pick up the offensive slack, particularly on the PP, but this is something he’s only achieved at the Allsvenskan level to date. Robin Jonsson and Jan Sandstrom will be the veterans assuming primarily defensive responsibilities.

Then there are the kids. Management is hoping that up-and-comers Markus Oskarsson (20), Marcus Fagerudd (21), both already SHL-tested, and talent Jens Hogbom (19), who is 6’2” and 190 pounds, will be able to sufficiently round out the defensive group and give it some extra bite. Also very interesting is Swiss 21-year-old Dean Kukan, an undrafted, 6’2” and 200-pound defender who had 12 points and a +8 rating in 54 games last season and has been playing internationally for Switzerland at all levels since the 2008-09 season. There are plenty of scouts who feel he’ll eventually find his way into the plans of an NHL team.

Up front, the loss of last year’s key producers is being evened out by additions such as well traveled Canadian Stephen Dixon, Finn Lennart Petrell, and valued role playing veteran Jonathan Granstrom. Some league pundits don’t expect this group to be able to replace the offense that went out the door. Instead, returning veterans such as Canadian brothers Chris and Cam Abbott (long-time institutions in Lulea), Niklas Fogstrom, the rejuvenated Per Ledin, and veteran role players Johan Forsberg and Karl Fabricius are being counted on to pick up their production if the team is to make any noise this year.

Also a reason the team didn’t bring in more help from the outside is that it feels its abundance of youth is ready to contribute at a much higher clip. First and foremost, the team feels it will get lots of offense from Carolina Hurricanes 2014 fourth round pick Lucas Wallmark, a gifted offensive weapon who was skipped over in his initial draft year. Having put a new-found interest in improving his skating and fitness this past summer, there are a number of SHL experts who feel he could easily triple the 10 points he collected last season.

He won’t be alone on the youth contribution front. Boston Bruins 2013 third round pick Peter Cehlarik and Columbus Blue Jackets 2012 6th round pick Daniel Zaar are two highly touted young players who management feels can make major contributions, with Zaar looking like a possible first-line player. Cehlarik is a native 6’2”, 200-pound Slovakian who has been part of the national program since the 2011-12 season.

The corps will be rounded off by three 21-year-olds who have each shown interesting potential moving forward, including Daniel Mannberg, Emil Sylvegard, and Lars Bryggman.

5. Farjestad

Farjestad is yet another SHL club that enjoyed a good amount of success a few years back and almost continuously finds itself amongst the top eight clubs in the league. The team surprisingly found itself in the SHL final last season, ultimately losing to Skelleftea. This season’s team should also be quite competitive and will be suiting up one of the most fascinating players in the league, 17-year-old Oliver Kylington. Already last season as a 16 year old, the 6’0, 180-pound defenseman put up two goals and eight points in 44 total games with the big club. This year, he’s not only expected to take the next step, but also contend for a top five spot in the 2015 NHL Draft.

Kylington is not the only thing to get excited about this season, however. The team discovered last season that 23-year-old Frederik Pettersson Wentzel is not only ready to be a starter, but is also ready to excel, as his combined .923 save percentage in 52 total games attests. The goalie is looking to hopefully establish himself as the league’s best, but he’ll be getting help in the form of former standout Toronto Maple Leafs‘ prospect Justin Pogge, who likely joined the team hoping for more than just a back-up role.

The blueline is led by tough-as-nails Norwegian defender Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, who once skated for the Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers. The always feisty defenseman is also the team’s captain. He’s expected to be assisted a good bit by newcomers Shawn Lalonde and Minnesota Wild 2012 fifth rounder Daniel Gunnarsson, who had a tougher time of things last season in Lulea after a 2012-13 season where he really arrived on the scene both offensively and defensively. Both are hoping to take a further step in their careers.

23-year-old Danish national Jesper B. Jensen is looking to make a name for himself after a strong Allsvenskan season with Rogle; a breakthrough year could gain the serious attention of NHL scouts. Another 23-year-old who factors in is Niklas Arell, who spent last season with the team and weighs in at 6’2” and 225 pounds.

Should he not make the Dallas Stars, the team is also hoping to welcome Ludwig Bystrom back into the fold. A 2012 second rounder had 11 points and a +10 for the team last year and would likely contend for a top-four role this season, as well.

The new big names up front are well-traveled internationals Jakub Klepis and Luciano Aquino. Klepis is a former first round pick of the Ottawa Senators and is coming in after a tough season in the KHL for LEV Praha. Aquino has played in primarily lower European leagues, but has done an incredible amount of scoring when there. Both are a bit of a homerun swing, but are being counted on for a good 50-60 points between them.

Returning to the fold up front are two key offensive contributors, namely Milan Gudas and Joakim Hillding. Both were big surprises in the scoring department last season and will be looked at to continue their rate of production.

Around them are a plethora of low-scoring, veteran forwards who know what it takes to win such as Rickard Wallin, Joakim Nygard, Marius Holtet, Martin Roymark, Linus Persson, Per Aslund, and Anton Hedman. They build the core of the forward ranks and bring all sorts of experience to the table.

The team has also added 22-year-old Joachim Rohdin, who has three whole seasons of SHL play under his belt and may just be ready to explode in an offensive capacity. 20-year-old Christoffer Forsberg will also be looked to as a player ready to take another step offensively after gaining six points in 38 games for the club last season.

In Victor Ejdsell, the team is hoping to incorporate a 19-year-old power forward who weighs in at 6’5” and 214 pounds.

4. Skelleftea

Two championships in a row is something any franchise can be proud of. Of course, for a league like the SHL, a winner of this capacity garners heavy attention from both the NHL and KHL, much less more financially powerful teams in Sweden and Switzerland. In general, few teams can adequately compensate for the loss of talent the champs experienced this summer, but this is a franchise that gets going when the going gets tough – and it has the homegrown depth to keep on trucking.

Entering the season, the goalie tandem of Erik Hanses and Markus Svensson is considered risky at best, especially since Svensson is coming from a team that got demoted and Hanses has only spent time as an Allsvenskan starter. Neither should be counted out in light of the players they’re surrounded by.

The team features some solid veteran defensive defensemen in newcomer Martin Sevc and returnees Erik Andersson, Fredrik Lindgren, Tim Heed, and Niclas Burstrom, who is expected to pick up a good bit of the power play quarterback slack this season. But the story for this club is its highly impressive youth. Anaheim Ducks 2014 second rounder Marcus Pettersson is a 6’4” defender for whom the sky is the limit. He’s still learning the position, which he first started playing when he was 16, but has the reach and on ice hockey sense that has NHL teams drooling. He’ll be joined by 19 year old Anton Lindholm, who was taken by the Colorado Avalanche in the fifth round this past summer. He came out of nowhere to assume a regular shift in 14 playoff games last season.

Undrafted is 19 year old Arvid Lundberg who had a +18 in 55 total games last season and is scheduled for a regular shift this year. Also cracking the line-up is 18 year old Sebastian Aho who, despite only being 5’10” and 175 pounds, played in 34 games last season, impressing management across the board with his hockey sense and ability to read plays. He wasn’t drafted this past summer, which was something hockey pundits across Sweden could only shake their head about.

And if you should notice 6’4”, 200-pound defenseman Andreas Soderberg, a Chicago Blackhawks 2014 fifth rounder, making either the big team or the WJC squad, it should come as no surprise as the talented all-around defender is felt to be ready for a big step in his development.

Amazingly, all but Heed, Sevc, and Andersson have come up through Skelleftea’s own junior system.

Up front, the team is going through a bit of a rebuild. Veteran internationals Patrik Zackrisson, Mikko Lehtonen, and Daniel Widing have been brought in as have been rather uncharacteristic curiosities in former New York Islanders prospect Kirill Kabanov and first-year pro Andrew Calof. They’ll be looking to help out captain Erik Forssell, who experts feel will likely double his 25-point production of last season. Particularly Kabanov should bring some excitement to the table as he was a bundle of joy and production for MODO last season after coming over from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the middle of the season.

The forward ranks will again feature many homegrown youngsters and young players brought in from abroad such as Adam Pettersson (22), Martin Lundberg (24), and John Norman (23). Interesting is 22-year-old addition and original Skelleftea youngster Par Lindholm. He broke out in a scoring capacity for Karlskrona of the Allsvenskan last season and management feels he’ll contribute greatly to this year’s offense.

Prospects abound up front as well. Arizona Coyotes 2014 third rounder Anton Karlsson has come over from Frolunda and will likely have a regular lower line role in the cards. Pittsburgh Penguins 2012 third rounder Oskar Sundqvist put up 22 points last season and will be given an even bigger role for his 6’3”, 207-pound frame.

Anaheim Ducks 2013 second rounder Nick Sorensen has finished his career with the Quebec Remparts and will look to be an even more integral part of this year’s WJC entry after gaining silver with the national program last winter. Detroit Red Wings 2014 seventh rounder Axel Holmstrom, who chipped in three goals and 11 points in seven U18 World Championship contests this past spring, is on the team and currently assuming a top-six role. Of all the forward prospects Skelleftea is icing, he may very well be the most promising regardless of his draft position.

Despite the huge loss in firepower this past offseason, Skelleftea should still be among the league’s top four teams, and achieving that with yet another influx in what seems like an endless supply line of top-flight talent.

3. Vaxjo

The Vaxjo Lakers have become a hot commodity in the SHL and have gone about investing a lot into putting together a team that will compete for the championship this year. Seeing goaltending as a key to any gold medal run, the team signed proven champion Cristopher Nilstorp, who is coming fresh off a Calder Cup victory for the Texas Stars. He had also won the championship with Farjestad in the 2011-12 season. He’ll be backed up by Stefan Steen, a relatively inexperienced goalie who impressively put up a 1.27 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in seven games for champion Skelleftea last season.

The blueline features a plethora of SHL-proven defenseman with a whole lot of experience. North Americans Cory Murphy, one of the top scoring defensemen in the SHL last season, and Noah Welch will lead the way. Very strong performances are also expected from internationally experienced Teemu Laakso, Sebastian Erixon, and Ville Varakas. As a top five, they build perhaps the most well-rounded group of experienced impact defensemen an SHL team can feature this season.

The forward ranks are looking very promising when it comes to firepower. Few teams in the league feature as much top-nine scoring prowess as the Lakers. Much is expected of proven producers Rhett Rakhshani, Tomi Kallio, Jani Lajunen, Patrik Lundh, and Robert Rosen, who is two seasons removed from having led the league in scoring. They’ll now be joined by recent NHL forward Nick Johnson and the small but extremely talented Tuomas Kiiskinen, who is coming in from Donbass of the KHL. Both are expected to take on big scoring roles. The rest of the ranks consist of players who opponents simply hate to play against, most notably Liam Reddox, Erik Josefsson, Alexander Johansson, and David Aslin.

From a youth standpoint, it’ll be interesting to see what steps 20-year-old winger Malte Stromwall can take. He spent the whole year with Vaxjo last season after two seasons with the Tri-City Americans of the WHL. Another 20-year-old winger looking to make his mark is 6’3”, 205-pound winger Gustav Rydahl, who is coming over from Frolunda. The team is also excited about better incorporating 19-year-old Mikael Johansson who suited up for 27 games already last season and weighs in at 6’3” and 216 pounds. A big year from any of these players could put them on the NHL map very quickly.

Unlike a number of the other contenders, the team only features one NHL-drafted prospect in Hampus Melen, a young center taken by the Detroit Red Wings in the seventh round of the 2013 draft. Nonetheless, the veteran-laden team with gobs of depth likely won’t have space for the lanky 6’3”, 160-pound forward this season.

2. Linkoping

This Linkoping team has had a number of spectacular scorers over the course of time, but the club is entering the season ready to be shooting from all angles – and teams are worried about what might come of it.

The forward line featuring Chad Kolarik, Mattias Sjogren, and Broc Little looks like it could be the highest scoring line in the league. The harmony, skill, and chemistry is there for great things. Management also added some big-time scorers in Canadian Jacob Mcflikier, American Jeff Taffe, and small but dynamic Dane, Nichlas Hardt. These six forwards alone could very well produce more offense than several other SHL teams in total.

Veteran contributors Oscar Sundh, Johannes Salmonsson, Jonas Almtorp, Kent McDonell, and Sebastian Karlsson bring a great deal of league experience to the table and are each good for some timely goals or great defensive plays when needed.

Should he not make the Washington Capitals out of camp, 2014 first rounder Jakub Vrana may be ready to finally explode on the scene in the pro ranks. The 18-year-old was instrumental in leading the Czech Republic to its first-ever silver medal at the 2014 U18 WC and has 43 games of SHL play under his belt. Guarded safely from too much offensive responsibility, he could become a secret weapon of sorts on a lower line.

Speedy 6’1” right winger Henrik Tornqvist has been part of the national program for three years running and although he went undrafted this past summer, will be expected to assume a regular third- or fourth-line role for the team, perhaps boosting his stock as an overage option next summer.

Goaltending also appears to be in very good hands. David Rautio is coming in from Lulea and brings all sorts of success with him, even if he was never the go-to guy when the playoffs swung around. He’ll be joined by Ottawa Senators 2013 third rounder Marcus Hogberg, who came out of nowhere last season to play 11 playoff games and post a 2.95 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. Either could end up being the starter as the season progresses.

If the team has a chink in its armor, it can likely be found on the blueline. Captain Magnus Johansson is 41 but continues to be one of the league’s top offensive defenders, and that’s not expected to change this winter. Jonas Junland provides international presence and skill while former Vancouver Canucks prospect Daniel Rahimi likes to keep things simple and punish opposing forwards. Mark Matheson remains with the club, but hasn’t come close to adding the all-around game the club had initially expected.

With this in mind, the club is expecting big things from two youngsters, namely Vancouver Canucks 2014 fifth rounder Gustav Forsling, a smaller mainstay on the U18 national team, and Chicago Blackhawks 2013 second rounder Carl Dahlstrom, who weighs in at 6’4” and 212 pounds. Both have some nice upside, but will be learning by doing against some very experienced forwards.

21-year-old Linus Hultstrom is an offensively oriented defender who already has three years of pro experience, while fellow 21-year-old Anton Karlsson is looking to make a name for himself.

1. Frolunda

The league’s biggest and most pleasant surprise last season, only an unexpected ouster at the hands of Linkoping could end the dream march to a possible championship. What made the success so pleasant was that coach Roger Ronnberg has been able to come in from the U20 national team, bring many of his former pupils with him, then compete on a nightly basis despite a line-up filled with inexperience.

While the price of this success is seeing youngsters such as Alexander Wennberg (Columbus), John Klingberg (Dallas), Tom Nilsson (Toronto), and Sebastian Collberg (New York Islanders) look to take the next step in North America, Frolunda continue to be seen as the gold medal favorite despite a line-up chock full of young and inexperienced, but hungry, talents.

Two 27 year olds will split time manning the nets, much like they did last season. Lars Johansson ultimately got a bit more playing time in the playoffs while Linus Fernstrom saw a bit more action in the regular season. Few teams use their two goalies in the manner Frolunda does. If either gets hurt, San Jose Sharks 2013 fourth rounder Fredrik Bergvik could get a shot and may be looking at a spot on the WJC team this winter. Florida Panthers 2014 seventh rounder Hugo Fagerblom will man the nets for the club’s under 20 team, using all 6’6” and 207 pounds of his body to give opposing forwards as little net to see as possible.

The blueline will continue to feature a plethora of youngsters expected to make an impact. The most ballyhooed is currently Ottawa Senators 2012 seventh round pick Mikael Wikstrand, who has been strong against Allsvenskan competition but really made his mark with five goals and 13 points in 26 SHL games last season. He’s expected to pick up where he left off this fall. He’ll be joined in an offensive capacity by 22-year-old ‘veteran’ Erik Gustafsson, a 2012 fourth round pick of the Edmonton Oilers who put up 20 points last season.

Undrafted 22-year-old Oscar Fantenberg, who has enjoyed two seasons of regular ice time with HV71, has joined the fray, where he’ll take a regular shift. Also undrafted is one-time prospect Emil Djuse, who hopes to solidify his role at the SHL level after collecting five assists and a +6 rating in 18 games last season. Neither will necessarily get the role planned for Oliver Bohm, another undrafted 22-year-old who weighs in at 6’3” and 216 pounds and took a regular shift last season.

These youngsters will of course have some veteran assistance in the form of Chris Persson, Elias Falth, and former NHL player Christian Backman. Dallas Stars 2014 sixth rounder John Nyberg also looks to figure into the equation should any veteran be injured. At 6’3” and 194 pounds, he doesn’t have to shy away from anyone.

Things get really interesting when you take a look at the forward ranks. Captain Joel Lundqvist, twin brother to Henrik Lundqvist, continues to be the heart and soul of the team. He’s joined by Niklas Lasu and Anton Axelsson in the leadership department while veterans Robin Figren, Mathias Olimb, and Magnus Kahnberg account for a good bit of the scoring creativity.

After that, the youth will be served. Toronto Maple Leafs 2013 seventh rounder Andreas Johnson was the league’s best rookie last season while the Detroit Red Wings’ Mathias Janmark comes over from AIK fresh off of a 19-goal season. Nashville Predators 2012 sixth rounder Max Gortz is 6’2”, 196 pounds and looks to be ready to break through in an offensive capacity this season, likely ready to line up with the aforementioned Olimb.

A major coup on the prospect front was this past summer’s signing of Finn Artturi Lehkonen, a Montreal Canadiens 2013 second rounder and WJC gold medalist. He’s already put up 57 points in 106 SM-Liiga games and is ready to assume a top nine role right off the bat. His move over to Sweden has raised a few eyebrows, but there‘s no doubt he’ll now be facing a new level of competition. A 30-point season from him is not unthinkable.

Two more NHL draftees figure into the core top 12. Carolina Hurricanes 2012 fourth rounder Erik Karlsson will be counted on to take a regular shift after having been a top-nine forward for the WJC squad in Malmö. Boston Bruins 2013 sixth rounder Anton Blidh will look to take a more regular shift after getting eight points in 30 SHL contests last season.

23 year old Norwegian Mats Rosseli Olsen is coming off a decent sophomore season (15 points) in the SHL while Sebastian Stalberg, brother to Nashville Predator Viktor Stalberg, looks to begin his SHL career after several seasons of bouncing around the AHL and ECHL. He could also be loaned to an Allsvenskan club.

Last but not least is Pontus Widerstrom, an undrafted 6’3”, 200-pound forward who can play on any side and has some truly untapped potential.

On the prospect front, it looks like Washington Capitals 2014 seventh rounder Kevin Elgestal and Toronto Maple Leafs 2014 seventh rounder Pierre Engvall, who is a hulking, 6’4” and 200 pounds, will have to wait their turn to get a shot at the big club. The same is the case for Detroit Red Wings 2014 fourth rounder Christoffer Ehn, who’s a also a tall, 6’3” player who will start off with the club’s U20 team, but could be called up at any time. Both have the physical prerequisites to help out at any time.

With an endless supply of youth to go with a good handful of heart-and-soul players, the Indians look primed to make a considerable run at the championship this season. Maybe no club in all of Europe can make that claim like Frolunda can.

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin