Vrana, Holmstrom the top NHL-drafted forwards in the SHL in 2014-15

By Chapin Landvogt
Jakub Vrana - Linkoping HC - Champions Hockey League

Photo: Linkoping HC forward and Washington Capitals prospect Jakub Vrana produced 12 goals and 24 points for the SHL club in the 2014-15 season (courtesy of Sparta Prague/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

 

 

The 2014-15 season is now a thing of the past and a boatload of drafted Swedes just finished off a full season of hockey, primarily with SHL clubs. The list of topflight talent dotting the Swedish hockey landscape is quite impressive and might have even been more so if William Nylander (TOR) and Swiss-born Kevin Fiala (NSH) had actually completed the season in the SHL.

For both, the 2015 World Junior Championship ended their European sojourn and each continued their season playing for their NHL organization’s respective AHL clubs. Nylander’s year for MODO in the SHL was so impressive that he finished fifth in team scoring despite having only played 21 games (12 assists, 20 points). After a 10 point WJC appearance, he suited up for 37 AHL games and chipped in 14 goals and 32 points along with a +8. He then added three assists in five playoff games. Despite a smaller frame, the pure skills and wherewithal Nylander had continually shown on the junior level were put on full display at the pro level.

For the slight of frame Fiala, the season was almost identical to Nylander’s. After 14 points in 20 games for HV71 and a five point WJC outing, Fiala headed to Milwaukee to add 11 goals and 20 points in 33 games before adding three points for Switzerland at the IIHF World Championship. For these two players, it was a season of incredible development and headway. It is felt both will be competing for NHL jobs next fall.

1. Jakub Vrana, RW, Linkoping (SHL)

Jakub Vrana, the 13th overall selection by the Washington Capitals in 2014, had a season to remember, excelling in the Swedish SHL where he was promptly placed in a top-six forward role after returning from the Capitals’ NHL camp. For Linkoping, the Czech-born Vrana had 12 goals and 24 points to go along with a +3 rating in 44 games. This was then backed by four goals and five points in 11 playoff games. Most importantly, he looked anything but out of place lining up with senior players who were busy leading the league in scoring. His dynamic play and bevy of moves continued to wow crowds, but it looks like it’s only the tip of the iceberg. On numerous occasions, Vrana set up teammates in an incredible fashion and didn’t see his wonderful passes turned into points. A number of shots that hit the post or last second saves by goalies who he had clearly deked out also kept his numbers to a limit.

After three points in a so-so WJC performance by the Czech Republic and the conclusion of the SHL season, the Capitals brought him over to finish off the season in the AHL. And that he did – with a bang! Five assists in just three regular season contests were then followed by two goals and six points in 10 playoff games. As with the aforementioned Nylander and Fiala, it’s felt that Washington is looking to see Vrana make the show as soon as next fall.

2. Axel Holmstrom, RW, Skelleftea (SHL)

This season’s SHL Rookie of the Year was truly one of the most pleasant surprises in the European ice hockey landscape. Making the Detroit Red Wings, who drafted him in the seventh round of last summer’s draft, once again look like THE draft gurus of the hockey world, Axel Holmstrom began the season on fire with five points in his first three games. Coming back to earth after that, the 6’1”, 200-pound forward continued to learn on the job and became one of Skelleftea’s strongest players in a season where the team was desperate for its youth to step up to the plate in a big way. His ability to do this was put on full display in the SHL playoffs when he led the entire league in scoring with 18 points in 15 games, despite losing out to Vaxjo four games to two in the final.

In total, Holmstrom went from being a home-grown prospect to a playoff power play go-to guy who finished the year with 17 goals and 38 points in 59 games to go along with a +10 rating. Along the way, he put up seven points in seven WJC games on a line with Nylander. With a bit more to learn about life as a pro, it is felt that the Red Wings will allow him to spend another season with the championship caliber Skelleftea club before testing his mettle on North American soil.

3. Andreas Johnson, RW, Frolunda (SHL)

The ascendance of the smaller Andreas Johnson continues to be one of the SHL’s top stories. After a freshman season that saw the 15-goal scorer named Rookie of the Year, Johnson topped things off in a big way this season, showing no signs of a sophomore slump and leading Frolunda in a variety of ways. The little train that could, the 5’10” winger almost always finds himself in the right place and can score from around the goal or with a laser of a shot from the outside.

Playing on the team’s top line, he finished the season with 24 goals and 39 points – after having 24 points the season before – in 63 games. He was also one of the deadliest players in the Champions Hockey League (CHL), putting up a whopping 11 goals and 14 assists with a +12 rating in 12 games. At this juncture, all he’s done is give the Toronto Maple Leafs, who took him in the seventh round of the 2013 draft, every reason to offer him a contract, and it appears they’ve done just that. We’ll now have to see if he finds himself in the AHL or SHL next season.

4. Mattias Janmark, C, Frolunda (SHL)

With Holmstrom’s success giving the Red Wings an unexpected surprise on the prospect front, the team was able to trade Mattias Janmark to the Dallas Stars, a player who despite a somewhat bland style of play and lack of flash has done nothing but continue to produce the past two SHL seasons.

Going from the downtrodden AIK Stockholm team that went to battle in the Allsvenskan this winter, Janmark saw his importance take on new dimensions as a second wave scorer for the prospect-laden Frolunda Indians. All he did was pick up where he left off the season before. When all was said and done for this final four SHL contender chock full of NHL prospects, Janmark had collected 17 goals and 43 points in 68 games, adding another six points in 12 CHL contests where his team lost the championship to in-league rival Lulea. Playing with tons of moxie and an incredible nose for the net and where his teammates will be around it, Janmark ended the season suiting up for one playoff game with the Texas Stars. He’s expected to suit up for Frolunda again next season on loan from Dallas.

5. Max Gortz, RW, Frolunda (SHL)

It’s surely becoming a very apparent trend, but yet another NHL-drafted Frolunda forward had a huge year, namely Max Gortz who was a sixth round draft pick of the Nashville Predators in the 2012 draft. For a young Frolunda team looking for someone to take on scoring responsibility, Gortz was very ready for the challenge. He ended the season with 17 goals and 32 points to go along with a +7 rating in 65 games, having also had a big impact on the club’s title aspirations in the CHL, where he chipped in six goals and 15 points in 12 games.

Hard to stop and very strong on the puck, Gortz flourished as a player who could be dangerous all over the place and find his teammates in prime scoring situations. A jumpy skater, this was a year of blossoming for the 6’2”, 200-pound winger who is just the type of kid we’re getting used to seeing the Predators take in the middle rounds of the draft. He’ll be in North America next season to face the next challenge in his career.

6. Daniel Zaar, RW, Lulea (SHL)

Having gone to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Draft, Daniel Zaar has been turning into a complete player with all sorts of intangibles. Known at first mostly for his hard and accurate shot, he’s been rounding out his game nicely for Lulea this past season and enjoyed a good amount of developmental success. At the end of the day, Zaar really started to bloom as a player who makes the most of his teammates and finished the season with 11 goals and 31 points in 64 games for Lulea, a team that disappointed a bit in the SHL but ended up with a CHL title. And Zaar led the way to that title, collecting seven goals and 14 points in 13 contests.

Convinced of his capabilities and upside, Zaar has been signed and will be reporting to Lake Erie of the AHL next season, looking to prove he’ll one day be NHL material.

7. Adrian Kempe, RW, MODO (SHL)

A 2014 first round pick of the Los Angeles Kings, winger Adrian Kempe started off strong this past season and teamed up with Nylander to form an effective kid line. Unfortunately, his good scoring pace dropped a bit once Nylander remained in North America. Nonetheless, Kempe continued to show the feisty, take-no-prisoners play that the Kings were happy to add to the program and began solidifying himself as a go-to player on a poor MODO club.

Becoming rangier by the month, he battled through the season as one of MODO’s better players, often taking on a bit more responsibility than he likely should have at this stage. He ultimately scored six goals and 20 points in 54 games while ‘only’ posting a -4 rating. Once the SHL season was over, he joined the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, for whom he is still playing in the Calder Cup Finals. There, he has seven points in 15 playoff games.

8. Lucas Wallmark, C, Lulea (SHL)

Winger Lucas Wallmark picked up the pace a bit more this season and became a valuable top-nine forward for Lulea, although his overall skating proficiency continues to be a big concern when it comes to his possibilities in North America. Long talked about as a truly talented puck magician who knows not only how to create space, but also make great use of it, Wallmark played a central role in Lulea’s success this season while also chipping in six points in seven games for Sweden at the WJC. His face-off skills continue to be far above average while his tendency to set up teammates more than score goals on his own accord is becoming his trademark.

Lucas collected 18 assists and 23 points in 59 games while adding another six assists and 11 points in 13 CHL contests, playing a big part in Lulea’s championship title. With another year to take a wait-and-see approach, the Carolina Hurricanes‘ 2014 fourth rounder will be expected to take on a much bigger role for Lulea next season.

9. Peter Cehlarik, LW, Lulea (SHL)

Peter Cehlarik didn’t necessarily see the offensive explosion he likely would have hoped for this year, but as a player and prospect, he did see his star rise. A big bodied winger, he’s become a player opponents just don’t like to face and has definitely proven that he’s at least a quality SHL player moving forward. Having taken him in the third round of the 2013 draft, the Boston Bruins are certainly hoping he’ll be more than that.

A smart player who positions himself well and is strong at protecting the puck in the offensive zone, Cehlarik ended the year with seven goals and 21 points in 54 games, also chipping in two goals and five points in winning the CHL title. Much of this was done while assuming more of a checking line role. The tall Slovak also gained a bronze medal at the WJC, playing top six minutes and tapping in two goals and three points in the seven contests. He’ll return to Lulea next season, where he’s expected to take the next step in his career in a scoring capacity.

10. Victor Olofsson, RW, MODO (SHL)

It was quite a surprise for many when Victor Olofsson was drafted in the seventh round of the 2014 draft by the Buffalo Sabres, but it really shouldn’t have been. A medium-sized player with a lot of smarts, the slick winger with a deadly wrist shot had put up 36 goals and 62 points in 49 U20 games while seeing a bit of time in 11 SHL contests.

This season, he already garnered a regular shift and looked very strong at times for one of the SHL’s most disappointing teams. All in all, Olofsson put up 10 goals and 18 points in 39 contests, showing there is more to look forward to in the near future. Along the way, he scored two goals in eight Allsvenskan games for Timra and had another 12 points in 11 U20 league games for MODO’s junior program.

Honorable mentions

Olofsson and Kempe’s teammate, Gustav Possler, came back from an injury that pretty much ruined his 2013-14 season, one he had started off as completely on fire. The Buffalo Sabres 2013 fifth round pick also had some trouble getting the motor running at times this season, but eventually settled into a role that saw him end the season on a high note. When all was said and done, he had nine goals and 23 points in 51 games along with a +4 rating.

It was an impressive season for Oskar Lindblom, a Philadelphia Flyers 2014 fifth rounder, who was able to put his 6’1”, 190-pound frame to good use as a complementary winger. Earning his way to more and more ice time as the season went by, Lindblom put up nine goals and 17 points in 44 SHL contests. He will be looked to for even more offense next season.

Another year that felt like one step forward and two steps back was experienced by Arizona Coyotes 2014 third rounder Anton Karlsson, who just couldn’t find a permanent spot to play, a situation also inspired by a few injuries along the way. Spending time with both Skelleftea and Frolunda’s U20 teams, he managed 17 goals and 39 points in 40 total games, but only scraped together two assists in 15 SHL contests. Next season will be very important in his development. His brother Erik Karlsson, a Carolina Hurricanes’ fourth rounder in 2012, spent the whole season in the SHL with Frolunda, but was little more than a utility player, collecting only three points and a -8 rating in 60 games. He is nonetheless scheduled to join the Charlotte Checkers for the 2015-16 season.

The Dallas Stars’ 2011 fourth rounder Emil Molin had an up and down year. Collecting just three assists in 21 games with Brynas, things finally picked up for the better when he suited up for Rogle in the Allsvenskan, where a new lease on life led to the type of ice time and production many felt he would have in the tank, getting five goals and 21 points in 35 total games, including nine points in 14 playoff games, contributing considerably to Rogle making its way back to the SHL.

Each of Christoffer Ehn (DET), Pierre Engvall (TOR) and Kevin Elgestal (WSH) spent the majority of the season in Sweden’s top U20 circuit, all of whom proved to be impact players. Particularly the 6’4”, 200-pound Engvall was impressive, gathering 51 points in 38 before seeing time in two contests for Frolunda and 10 with Oskarhamn of the Allsvenskan. Teammate Ehn put up 36 points in 40 U20 games before seeing time with the same pro teams, managing however to suit up for 10 of Frolunda’s playoff contests.

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