SHL Prospects Notebook, June, 2015: A new champion, NHL Draft prospects, and more in this 2014-15 wrap-up

By Chapin Landvogt
Axel Holmstrom - Skelleftea AIK

Photo: Skelleftea AIK forward and Detroit Red Wings prospect Axel Holmstrom had a breakout season in the SHL in 2014-15 and was a driving force in Skelleftea’s run to the SHL finals (courtesy of Skelleftea AIK/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

 

 

The 2014-15 season in Sweden wrapped up a good month ago and was quickly followed by an exciting World Championship tournament that featured a Swedish team with a number of SHL, NLA, and KHL-based players – one that couldn’t get further than the quarterfinals, however.

SHL Champion Vaxjo Lakers

The SHL final featured the Vaxjo Lakers against the reigning champs, Skelleftea AIK, who were seeking their third straight league championship. Despite finishing first in the league and being able to throw out a fairly healthy club come playoff time, the natural championship hat trick just wasn’t meant to be. The Lakers, who have called the SHL their home for four seasons now, took their first-ever SHL title, something a number of hockey pundits in Sweden saw coming in their season predictions.

Still, the 4-2 championship victory was something that might not have been possible without a few late season additions, namely those of former San Jose Sharks second rounder Josh Hennessey, who contributed eight points and a +12 rating in 18 playoff games, as well as former Los Angeles Kings first rounder Jeff Tambellini, who actually led the champs in playoff scoring with five goals and 13 points in 18 games. These contributions, along with a resurgent Rhett Rakhshani, who put up eight playoff goals in 18 games after only having scored six in 51 regular seasons, went a long way in getting the team over the top.

From a prospects standpoint, the highlight of the playoffs was without a doubt the ascension of Detroit Red Wings prospect Axel Holmstrom, who led all playoff scorers with 11 assists and 18 points in 15 games. First taken in the seventh round of last summer’s draft, Holmstrom was lining up with William Nylander at the U18 tournament in Finland just last spring. Now he was leading a championship-caliber Skelleftea team all the way to the doorstep of victory in a league featuring a plethora of former NHL players, former highly drafted prospects, and a boatload of current and future national team members. All in all, the 6’1”, 200-pound forward had 17 goals and 38 points in 59 SHL games and sported a +10 rating. This was in conjunction with a goal and seven points in seven WJC games for his nation. His strides in development along with his winner’s mentality and an ability to play in all situations, including being part of the team’s first-line power play, has many in Sweden wondering just how long he’ll remain in the SHL.

Still signed with Skelleftea, it’s uncertain what a Red Wings program that has an affinity for übermature players has in mind for next season, but after one calendar year, Holmstrom can very well be seen as the biggest steal of the 2014 NHL Draft.

SHL finished, then AHL bound

It is becoming more and more common to see young NHL prospects from Europe finish their years with a cup of coffee in the AHL, seeing what North American pro hockey is like while giving the staff a chance to see what progress their prospect has made throughout the winter. This was no different for many NHL draftees who spent the winter in the SHL.

For Djurgarden rearguards Robin Norell (CHI) and Linus Arnesson (BOS), a successful mission in the SHL was followed up by some time for their NHL clubs. Arnesson, who is expected to make the full-time jump this summer, played 11 games for the Providence Bruins, quickly collecting a goal and four points with a +3 rating, impressive considering that the minute-muncher had just five assists in 41 SHL contests. Norell saw action in three playoff games for the Rockford IceHogs and is expected to spend next season taking on a bigger role for Djurgarden.

After playing an incredibly important role for Brynas in the playoffs was Washington Capitals draft pick Christian Djoos, whose regular season saw him rack up five goals, 17 points, and a -10 rating. In this stage however, he put in a whopping 25:37 of ice time a night, serving as a vital member of the team’s power play unit. He then headed to the Hershey Bears where he collected an assist in one regular season game, and also met up with future Capitals teammate Jakub Vrana.

After putting up 16 goals and 29 points in 55 SHL contests, the highly touted Vrana headed overseas to Hershey where he made an immediate impact, gathering five assists in three games. He also contributed two goals and six points in 10 playoff contests. This pro season has many thinking he may be able to crack the Capitals’ line-up as soon as next fall, much like Andre Burakovsky did this season.

The Dallas Stars made a trade with Detroit to pick up Frolunda’s second-leading scorer, Mattias Janmark, who had 43 points in 68 SHL games to go along with a +9 rating. Once his long season, which included an appearance in the Champions Hockey League finals as well as a semifinal appearance in the SHL playoffs, was over, he concluded things with one playoff game for the Texas Stars. At the moment, it is assumed that Dallas will continue to loan him to Frolunda for the upcoming season.

Farjestad’s Ludwig Bystrom, another Dallas Stars pick and signee, is coming off a decent season for a disappointing club, racking up five points and a +4 in 31 games, but then skated in 12 games for the Texas Stars, adding three assists and a +3 rating. An all-arounder in nature, it looks like his stay in North America will continue next fall.

Not much went well for MODO this past season, which featured several NHL draftees who took a regular shift, but Los Angeles 2014 first rounder Adrian Kempe had six goals and 18 points in 54 games and eight WJC points in six games before finishing off the season with the Manchester Monarchs. There, he got his feet wet in three regular season games before chipping in four goals and five points in 12 playoff games. It’s very possible the Kings will look to keep him in North America next season.

Success has a price in European hockey, where teams find themselves having to remodel the faces of their teams on an almost summerly basis, and that might happen for Skelleftea as well. Pittsburgh Penguins third rounder Oskar Sundqvist had a big year, putting up 24 points in 56 games for the team’s checking line. He then got into one playoff game for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, where he’s expected to play next season. He was one of the last cuts from Pittsburgh’s NHL camp last fall.

Of course, both Nylander and Kevin Fiala played big roles for their respective SHL clubs before heading to North America for the remainder of the season after the 2015 World Junior Championship. Both enjoyed impressive scoring success at the AHL level, with Nylander having put up slightly better stats in both the SHL and AHL.

Wait and see approach

As mentioned along the way this winter, several defensemen who have yet to turn 25 had very strong SHL seasons. The most impressive was SHL Defenseman of the Year Tim Heed, who stepped up to the plate big time for Skelleftea, a team who needed a blueliner to take on the offensive responsibility. With 10 goals and 37 points in 50 regular season games and another nine assists and 11 points in 15 playoff games, this former Anaheim Ducks prospect took the bull by the horns in a big way. Also of note was his total of 10 penalty minutes on the season to go with a +14 rating. Still signed with Skelleftea, there is a belief that NHL teams are interested.

Incredible improvement was seen this season in 21-year-old Swiss defender Dean Kukan. A long-time member of Swiss national teams at just about every level, the 6’2”, 200-pound rearguard put up three goals and 13 points in the regular season, then logged over 18 minutes of ice time in the playoffs, where he had two assists and a +3 rating in nine games. Unfortunately for him and Switzerland, injuries limited him to just three World Championship contests. But Kukan, who was undrafted, will be playing in North America in 2015-16 as he has been signed by the Columbus Blue Jackets.

After that, two other overage stalwarts may be on their way to North America in the near future. The 22-year-old Linus Hultstrom played for Leksand and, despite many heroics, including 13 goals and 37 points in 55 games, couldn’t guide the team away from relegation. He’s officially signed up with Djurgarden for next season. More interesting is perhaps the situation with Erik Gustafsson, a former fourth round pick of the Edmonton Oilers. After five goals and 32 points in 67 games with Frolunda, he headed to Rockford to take a look at AHL action. At the moment, it’s uncertain if he’ll be signed by an NHL team, but no SHL club has officially signed the 23-year-old to this point.

Another youngster who is actually eligible for the NHL Draft for his third and last go of it is Brynas forward Adam Brodecki. After 20 points in 54 games and a WJC appearance that included two more points, there’s no telling if a team will take a chance on him now, but many suspect that he’ll likely be a free agent target for an NHL franchise should he go undrafted.

SHL and Allsvenskan players heading into the NHL Draft

A number of Swedes are once again expected to be drafted this summer and many of them spent time in the SHL or Allsvenskan. Topping the list is Oliver Kylington, who despite having had a topsy turvy year in which he saw both SHL time with Farjestad and Allsvenskan time with AIK Stockholm, is still considered Sweden’s top prospect in this summer’s draft, and a likely late first rounder. Blessed with incredible skating and athletic ability, Kylington has shown that he has a flair for the dramatic and loves to get involved on the offensive side of things. Still, like a wild stallion in need of training, his bevy of talent still needs some heavy fostering, something also seen at the U18 where his talents could do little to right Sweden’s ship.

More promising is Sweden’s second highest ranked pick, the 6’2”, 183-pound Joel Eriksson Ek, who turned 18 in January and played his way into the Farjestad lineup and ended up putting up six points in 37 games. He saw time in three playoff games and then put up five goals and six points for Sweden at the U18 World Championship. Some feel he’ll be a first rounder this summer and will likely see his ice time pick up dramatically next winter, as he’s a kid who simply has all the tools and is only seasoning and experience away from being a big-time player.

Each of goaltender Felix Sandstrom, defensemen Gabriel Carlsson, Lucas Carlsson, Jacob Larsson, and Jesper Lindgren, and forwards Linus Olund, Sebastian Olsson, Filip Ahl and Jens Looke not only played at the U18 WC, but also got in valuable developmental time at the SHL level, with Looke having spent most of the season there. Each showed weaknesses at the U18, but particularly Sandstrom, the Carlssons, and Larsson managed to show glimpses of their considerable talent, not only at the U18, but more importantly for the senior teams during the season, and are felt to be top 60 talents for this summer’s draft.

Overage defenseman Sebastian Aho is coming off his first full season of SHL play and also put up four points for Sweden’s WJC club. Despite a humble 5’10”, 175-pound frame, many are astounded that one of Sweden’s most talented defensive prospects wasn’t taken last summer. This season should have erased the doubts many teams might have had about him, as his top 20 ranking amongst European skaters further indicates.

The Allsvenskan played host to draft-eligible Robin Kovacs, a 6’0”, 170-pound forward who put up 19 goals and 35 points in 62 games. A skill player for sure, he’s not been on everyone’s radar, but is seen amongst Europe’s top 10 skaters and could be one of the biggest talents in the draft over time. It’s felt he’ll be in the SHL next season if his path doesn’t take him to North America first. Another player with Allsvenskan experience was U18 defenseman Alexander Younan, who will now join the Frolunda organization in search of the same career step that so many other young defensemen have taken in recent years. Don’t be surprised to hear his name called later in this summer’s draft.

Also of note is the WJC bronze medal-winning Christian Jaros, who suited up for 25 contests with Lulea and another six with Allsvenskan team Asploven this past season. At 6’3” and 205 pounds, you can bet that this top 40-ranked defenseman is a guy several teams will be hoping to grab later in the draft. As with the above-mentioned Kukan, Lulea would have no problem if this contracted player again goes unrecognized by the NHL’s scouting community.

2016 draft crop already SHL-proven

He spent more or less the whole season with Farjestad as a 17 year old and then captained Sweden’s disappointing U18 entry, putting up five points in five games. Now Rasmus Asplund will be working hard this summer to assume more responsibility and have a draft year to remember next season. His club in Karlstad fully expects him to come into camp in August ready to assume a top 10 forward position. The hockey world also fully expects him to be a top nine forward for Sweden’s WJC entry.

Giving him competition as Sweden’s top ranked 2016 prospect is MODO’s Carl Grundstrom, who just had five points in five U18 tournament games after having played 24 SHL contests, where he registered two goals and five points. Already six feet and 190 pounds, the prototypical center is being looked at to break out next season at the SHL level and perhaps cement his status as a top 20 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.

The 2015-16 season

In Sweden, they happily refer to the summer transactions and team building signings of the various GMs as the ‘silly season’, taking the words right out of the English language. This phase of the year is currently in full swing. The league is losing Leksand, but will be enhanced by the additions of Malmo, Rogle, and newcomer Karlskrona, giving the SHL a very new look. Hardly a club has less than 14 players signed and ready to go for next season already at this juncture.

The teams are dealing with a number of losses as many players will be making their way overseas, perhaps such as Brynas’ Anton Blidh (drafted and just signed by the Boston Bruins), Lulea’s Daniel Zaar (drafted and signed by the Columbus Blue Jackets), and Frolunda’s Max Gortz (drafted and signed by the Nashville Predators), all of whom could be loaned back to their Swedish clubs next fall. This number will likely grow depending on draft events, but many of the players expected to go in this summer’s draft are already prospects for an SHL team and are either being planned as a normal member of the team or expected to be loaned out to an Allsvenskan club.

More on all that in the next edition of the SHL Prospects Notebook.

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin