SHL Prospects Notebook, November, 2014: Class of 2014 playing well in early going

By Chapin Landvogt
Kevin Fiala - HV71 Jonkoping

Photo: HV71 forward and Nashville Predators prospect Kevin Fiala has scored at a nearly point-per-game pace so far in the 2014-15 SHL season (courtesy of HV71 Jonkoping/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

 

The 2014-15 SHL season is well underway and Sweden‘s hockey scene remains the most exciting in the European sphere for NHL fans. Serving as the European country that’s produced the most non-North American prospects over the past four drafts, the leagues are chock full of current and future NHL prospects.

Here’s a look at the league standings, top scorers and a number of juicy tidbits about how both drafted and non-drafted prospects are doing.

SHL Standings surprises

Just before the season began, there was hardly an SHL pundit out there who felt that Djurgarden and Orebro would finish anywhere in the league standings other than in one of the last three spots. After 23 games, thus a bit more than a third of the season, they are currently ranked fifth and seventh respectively amongst the league’s 12 teams, with only one point separating them. This said, they’ve each technically lost just under a half of their games played.

When some teams positively surprise, there are likely one or two teams that are doing just the opposite. This is without a doubt the case for Farjestad, traditionally one of the league’s best clubs and one many felt would make a good run at the league championship after losing in the finals last spring. That may still happen, but the team has only managed to win six of its 23 games to date and three of those were in extra time. With that, the team is ranked 10th, followed closely by a MODO club that clearly entered the season feeling it would be closer to a playoff spot than a relegation round spot. Fortunately for both, they still have time and plenty of talent to improve things.

Top scorers

Of the league’s top seven scorers, not one of them is a Swede. Six of them are North Americans and five of them played NCAA hockey. The other, Derek Ryan, played CIS hockey. Former St. Louis Blues first round pick Jeff Taffe leads the league in scoring with 26 points in 22 games. He’s followed closely by fellow North Americans and linemates Jacob Micflikier and Broc Little, who have 21 and 20 points respectively.

2014 First rounders

Nary has a league outside of North America consisted of this many teams with players who are currently NHL-drafted youngsters under 21 years of age. Especially exciting is the play of the SHL’s recent 2014 first round NHL Draft picks.

Toronto Maple Leafs‘ first rounder William Nylander, taken seventh overall, missed roughly the first quarter of the season, but leads the league in points per game with five goals and 14 points in just 13 contests. He plays on MODO’s first power play unit and has been getting a whopping 19:40 of playing time per game since returning, also posting a +3 along the way.

Almost as impressive are the numbers being put up by Nashville Predators‘ Swiss prospect, Kevin Fiala, who has four goals and 13 points in 14 games since returning from Nashville’s camp. His skill has been more than evident playing for an HV71 club that has thrived since he joined them, currently sitting at third in the standings.

Taken between Nylander and Fiala was Washington Capitals‘ nifty Czech winger, Jakub Vrana, who has gotten a regular shift despite Linkoping’s veteran-laden squad. Not given the offensive responsibility asked of his first round colleagues, he has still collected five goals and 10 points in 16 SHL contests. In addition, he’s provided the league with several of its biggest highlights this season on plays that unfortunately didn’t end up being more than close calls. All indications are that the points will eventually come.

Not to be forgotten is Nylander’s linemate Adrian Kempe, taken 29th overall by the Los Angeles Kings. Questioned to a degree about just how much offensive upside he’d have after modest junior numbers and only 10 points in 46 SHL games last season, Kempe has already surpassed that output in 23 games this season. A rough and tumble winger, he also has 18 penalty minutes and a -1 rating.

Question marks no longer there

There was little fanfare when the Buffalo Sabres drafted MODO winger Victor Olofsson in the seventh round this past summer. While his 62 points in 49 U20 league games and 11 pointless SHL contests were somewhat impressive, the 5’10”, 175-pound winger hadn’t represented Sweden internationally at any major tournaments and was a prospect viewed to be a bit off the beaten path. At the moment, he’s looking to be a very interesting pick and already has eight goals and 14 points in 23 games. Many didn’t feel he’d even make the SHL roster at this point, but the quick winger with a dangerous wrist shot hasn’t cared about what any pundits have to say.

Winning with NHL Draftees

Currently first and second in the league are none other than Frolunda and Skelleftea, the latter of which is the reigning SHL champion two years running. After seeing a number of veterans and prospects move on for better contracts or NHL chances, Skelleftea found itself bringing only but a few experienced veterans and instead placing its faith once again in primarily its own junior ranks. The reward has been 44 points in 23 games and a second place ranking in the standings.

Playing big roles thus far are Detroit Red Wings 2014 seventh rounder Axel Holmstrom and Pittsburgh Penguins 2012 third rounder Oskar Sundqvist. Holmstrom has immediately and somewhat surprisingly jumped into the line-up and put up three goals and nine points as well as a +3 in 22 games. Many in the scene were surprised that he lasted until the seventh round of the draft after 11 points in seven U18 World Championship games and a top flight U20 league performance. At 6’0” and 200 pounds, size was never an issue, either.

Sundqvist joined the team late after sticking for the entire Penguins camp and putting in some nice preseason performances at the NHL level. He has now returned to take a regular shift and picked up his pace over last season. With four goals, seven points, and a +6 rating in 14 games, he’s been a real shot in the team’s arm since returning.  The two of them are joined by overage defensive draft pick Anton Lindholm, who continues to be an important contributor in the 12 contests he’s played. After a big playoff showing last spring, he went to the Colorado Avalanche 144th overall this past summer.

Also worth noting is that former New York Islanders third rounder Kirill Kabanov, whose rights the Islanders released just this past summer, is second on the team in scoring with six goals and 19 points in 23 games, averaging over 15 minutes of play per night. Observers say this isn’t a fluke, either, as he’s clearly made a commitment to being a better and more consistent pro player while not losing an ounce of his youthful enthusiasm and confidence.

Still, Skelleftea is currently topped by the Frolunda Indians, who sport the league’s youngest roster with an average age of just under 24 years.  The team is brimming with U21 players who have already been drafted and are currently major contributors.

It starts with Toronto Maple Leafs 2013 seventh rounder Andreas Johnson, who was the SHL Rookie of the Year last season and has already popped in 10 goals, 15 points and a +9 in 23 games while also leading the entire Champions Hockey League (CHL) in scoring with 21 points in just seven contests.

He’s closely followed by Detroit Red Wings 2013 third rounder Mattias Janmark, who has five goals, 13 points and a +6 rating centering the team’s second line. He joined Frolunda this summer, coming over from AIK after a surprisingly strong 34-point rookie performance.

Right behind him in team scoring is defenseman Erik Gustafsson, drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the fourth round of the 2012 NHL Draft. After establishing himself with 20 points last season, the defender now has 13 points in the first 23 games and is killing it in CHL play, where he’s scored five goals and has 14 points in eight contests. There’s little doubt he’ll be heading to North America next season.

Montreal Canadiens‘ 2013 second rounder Artturi Lehkonen has looked right at home in the SHL. The 2014 WJC winner was a major topic in Finnish ice hockey circles when he chose to join the Frolunda program on what looks like Montreal’s recommendation. Considered one of Finland’s top five NHL prospects at the moment, Lehkonen is playing top-nine minutes and has four goals and 11 points in 23 games. He’s also added six points in seven CHL contests.

Another very exciting contributor has been Max Gortz, a 6’2”, roughly 200-pound winger, who the Nashville Predators took in the sixth round of the 2012 draft. He’s got 12 points and a +11 in 22 games and has scored some real beauties in CHL play, where he has five goals and 11 points in eight games. What is interesting is how brawny the 21-year-old plays while finding incredible ways to get himself open for dangerous opportunities and in protecting the puck.

Getting over 20 minutes of ice time per game is Ottawa Senators‘ 2012 seventh rounder Mikael Wikstrand. Despite only seven points in 18 games, the offensively oriented 6’2”, 196-pounder has contributed four points in three CHL contests and has seen his defensive game take an impressive upwards curve. The trust his coach places in him is more than evident as, whenever the game is on the line, he is on the ice.

NHL-Drafted defensemen: the good and bad

Not having the type of season he’d hoped for is Dallas Stars‘ 2012 second rounder Ludwig Bystrom, who has seemed to lose his mojo for a struggling Farjestad team and has even been loaned out to Timra of the Allsvenskan. After 11 points last season, it was felt he would step up this year and take on a prominent offensive role from the blueline.

Arizona Coyotes‘ 2014 sixth rounder David Westlund has, on the other hand, surprised a bit in getting some regular playing time for Brynas. The imposing 6’3”, 203-pound defensive defenseman has one point and a -6 in 21 games, but he’s clearly just breaking in and learning the ropes at the pro level. Exactly the same, right down to the statistics, can be said about Boston Bruins‘ 2014 seventh rounder Emil Johansson, who is playing for the considerably better HV71.

Washington Capitals’ 2012 second rounder Christian Djoos was expected to garner top-four minutes after having recently impressed the Capitals and he’s done just that, gathering seven points in 18 games. At just over 160 pounds, it is felt that his clearly present talent will need to be complemented by a weight gain in order for him to take the next step.

In addition to the aforementioned, NHL Draft picks Gustav Forsling (VAN), Carl Dahlstrom (CHI), Robin Norell (CHI), Andreas Englund (OTT), Linus Arnesson (BOS) and Adam Ollas Mattsson (CGY) are all seeing some significant minutes for their respective SHL teams, although only Forsling currently has a plus rating at +6. Interestingly, his teammate Dahlstrom has a -11. The other four defenders are all part of the upstart Djurgarden club, which currently features the youngest defense in the SHL.

Interestingly, the league features more than a dozen other U21 defensemen who are undrafted, but who take a regular shift for their team. Skelleftea’s Sebastian Aho, MODO’s Albin Runesson, and HV71 youngsters, the half American Linus Pilut as well as 225-pounder Axel Eidstedt, top that list.

Undrafted young defenseman on the rise

One name that cannot be left out of this piece is that of Linus Hulstrom. Just 21 and coming in at an average 5’11” and 180 pounds, the undrafted defenseman moved from Linkoping to Leksand after the first five games of the season. The move has been nothing short of brilliant as, since he’s started suiting up for the blue and white, he’s seemingly gained a new life and fresh perspective, having popped in five goals, 14 points, and a +3 rating in just 16 games.

Top prospect delivering

When it comes to next summer’s draft, the Swede everyone is talking about has been, is and remains Oliver Kylington. After already absolving almost a full SHL season as a 16 year old, the currently 17-year-old Kylington has been getting over 11-and-a-half minutes of ice time per game and has five points in 17 contests. A virtual lock for the World Junior Championship team, there’s little doubt that Oliver will be a Top 10 pick in this summer’s incredibly strong draft and that in other years, he’d likely have been seen as a sure-fire Top 3 pick.

Lulea players worth smiling about

Few SHL teams lost as much firepower this past summer as Lulea did. The regular powerhouse in recent years is currently under .500 in the SHL and is finding itself ranked eighth, but it has been on a tear in CHL play and has suffered no lack of scoring. Very much responsible for the continued offensive success of the team are the Boston Bruins’ 2013 third rounder Peter Cehlarik, Columbus Blue Jackets‘ 2012 sixth rounder Daniel Zaar, and Carolina Hurricanes‘ 2014 fourth rounder Lucas Wallmark.

The Slovakian winger Cehlarik has three points in seven CHL contests and has recently started to get hot in SHL play, having chipped in three goals and 11 points. Zaar is just a bit ahead of Cehlarik with three goals and 13 points in 23 games and an impressive six goals and 12 points in 8 CHL games. A bit in between the two scoring-wise, Wallmark started things off hot and has since leveled off a bit, but still has three goals and 10 points in 23 games, adding another five goals and 11 points in eight CHL contests. It’s impressive in light of the fact that the former WJC star only had 10 points in 42 games last season.

Eye on the NHL Draft Future

One of the players to be watched heading into the next draft is surely Fredrik Forsberg, who is Filip Forsberg’s (NSH) younger brother. He too has seen some SHL time with a disappointing Leksand team this season, but has spent most of his time playing for the organization’s junior team where he’s playing at a point-per-game pace on the strength of eight goals and 18 points. He’s managed to get into six games with the SHL club. Only 17 at the moment, his strong shot and clearly above-average on-ice hockey sense have him on the NHL prospect map, but no one should mistake him for his older brother just yet, who is also his best friend and mentor.

Two names all NHL Draft fans will want to start denoting are those of Brynas winger Jens Looke and Frolunda defenseman Jacob Larsson, both currently 17. Looke has come seemingly out of nowhere to take a semi-regular shift for the SHL club, having played 21 games in which he’s scored two goals and six points. For Larsson, who is already 6’2” and 190 pounds, he’s seen time in three SHL games and three CHL games; some feel that if it weren’t for the incredible depth the team has at defense, he would have long since been a regular. For both, the most impressive thing is how mature and confident they have been able to play right off the bat, and their ability to adjust to one of Europe’s top leagues has scouts licking their chops about their future possibilities.

In juniors, the top scorer comes from Djurgarden’s U20 program and he’s got 32 points and a +9 rating in 24 games. His name is Daniel Bernhardt and he already checks in at 6’2” and 190 pounds. His point total is equaled by linemate Jacob Eriksson (19), and exceeded by Bernhardt’s other linemate, Lukas Lofquist (18), who has 30 points, making it the league’s most effective offensive unit.

Down the line

There’s no doubt that William Nylander has created some hype for a number of good reasons – and he’s been able to keep backing it up. However, he’s one of six children and the next Nylander in line is Alexander Nylander. Currently only 16, he’s not only scoring at over an outstanding point per game pace with 22 points in 21 games in Sweden’s U20 league, which usually only features players aged 18-20, he also participated at the recent World U17 Hockey Challenge in Canada, where he gathered seven points in six games. Unless he’s contemplating the NCAA route at some point in the future, it should surprise no one if he winds up getting his first pro experience in Sweden’s Allsvenskan for a struggling AIK club.

Closing word

In addition to more on surprising SHL performances from youngsters in the next edition, trust us when we say you’ll want to take note of this name: Filip Ahl (last name pronounced ‘all’). NHL scouts clearly have already done so. He’s 6’4”. He’s 215 pounds. He’s tearing apart Sweden’s U20 league with 25 points in 19 games while also finding himself in the penalty box more than just about anybody. And he’s only 17. More in the future; count on it!

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin