Sweden once again proved to be the hottest European commodity at the NHL Draft. This is a trend that began in 2011, when Sweden saw an outstanding and record-setting 28 players taken, eight more than the year before. In 2012, another 22 were selected. In 2013, that number increased slightly, seeing another 25 Swedes taken. Then it 2014, it became 31, 28 of whom were Swedish-born.
Nonetheless, as Sweden’s junior year saw the country bow out of the World Junior Championship (WJC) with a fourth place finish after an upset loss to Slovakia for the bronze medal, and then a lackluster and surprisingly inefficient U18 team only registering one victory over Germany before being taken out handily by Canada in the first playoff round, it is no surprise that the number of Swedes taken this summer dropped to 20, of whom four spent the season in North America. All in all, 17 Sweden-based players, including one Slovakian playing in Lulea, were selected at the 2015 NHL Draft.
This year’s group, in one of the strongest draft years in recent memory, contributed three late first rounders to the draft events. The fisrt was Joel Eriksson Ek, a sturdy 6’2”, 180-pound forward who is expected to one day provide size and grit up the middle for the Minnesota Wild, who selected him 20th overall. This placed him smack-dab in the middle of the Hockey’ Future draft position prognosis, as we felt he would be taken between spots 13-27. Already in possession of 37 games of SHL experience for Farjestad, it is felt that the boy in a man’s body will be a more integral part of the SHL club in the upcoming season. A strong five-goal, six-point effort in five U18 games proved the icing on the cake in convincing NHL scouts of his prospects moving forward. Eriksson Ek was ranked fourth among Europeans by NHL Central Scouting (CSS) heading into the draft.
Seven picks later, the Anaheim Ducks continued their trend of taking Swedish defensemen in the first round, picking Frolunda defender Jacob Larsson 27th overall. The left-shooting, 6’2” all-arounder was ranked third among Europeans by CSS heading into the draft, and brings a good skill set and mobility to the table. Considered a solid player with the ability to make an impact in all three zones, Larsson is another prototypical player who will feed the pipeline of a team currently in Stanley Cup contending mode. With Hampus Lindholm having proven to be a savvy pick in 2012, Anaheim can now allow the similarly designed Larsson a good amount of time to evolve as a player and one day make his own mark. As things stand now, his 20-game SHL debut last season has him in a prime spot for a top-six role heading into next season. Hockey’s Future had felt Larsson would be taken between spots 29-44.
It didn’t take long until defenseman Gabriel Carlsson, ranked second overall among Europeans by CSS, heard his name called by the Columbus Blue Jackets at #29, a team that had already added Zach Werenski with the eighth overall pick and feels Carlsson is just the right man to one day provide that smart, solid presence as a defensively oriented defender, perhaps even in allowing a more offensively oriented partner plenty of room to move and strut his stuff. At 6’4” and 185 pounds, there’s a big frame to add a lot of weight to in the years to come. For the time being, Carlsson is scheduled to take on a regular role for Linkoping this season after his seven-game regular season debut led to semi-regular shifts in all 10 of the team’s playoff games. We at Hockey’s Future had felt Carlsson’s lack of an offensive game could see his stock drop a bit, having him pegged for the second round between spots 38-55.
With that, the three highest ranked Swedish prospects, as well as 2-4 overall in Europe heading into the draft, were part of an NHL franchise before Day One of the draft came to a conclusion.
The next Swedish-based Swede to be drafted was once again taken by the Columbus Blue Jackets, and it was a bit of a surprise. An HF honorable mention heading into the draft, 6’3” and 205-pound center Kevin Stenlund, a veteran of 17 SHL games, was taken 58th overall. The rangy, two-way center hasn’t produced more than one point at the senior level, but was a top junior player this season scoring at a point-per-game pace over 36 U20 games. Taking on a slender fourth-line role for HV71 when injuries hit, Stenlund was extremely competent and dependable. Not ranked in the top 10 amongst Swedish prospects by Hockey’s Future, Stenlund was ranked 21st overall among Europeans by CSS. It is felt he’ll split next season between HV71’s men’s and U20 league teams, and should receive consideration for the 2016 WJC squad.
Two picks later, the Calgary Flames selected defenseman Oliver Kylington 60th overall. With that, the draft witnessed what might have been the biggest drop by any player heading into the event to that point. Having been ranked first among Europeans by CSS at the midterm point, Kylington saw his stock drop fast and he finished ranked sixth among Europeans by CSS when all was said and done. Very possibly the most talented all-around Swede in the 2015 draft, at least as far as his physical attributes are concerned, Kylington has all the skating skills and stick work ability scouts would like to see in an up-and-coming defenseman. However, his constant desire to make the most complicated decisions only to wind up with minimal results combined with a winter that saw more downs than ups has given the scouting community its doubts about his long-term possibilities as a pro. Now, Calgary will be happy to round up his game and see if his plethora of tools can get him not only back on track, but make him an impact player at the NHL level.
Having known that a drop was likely for a player who headed into the season seen as a sure-fire top 10 pick, Hockey’s Future felt Kylington would be taken somewhere between spots 22-45. When all is said and done, Calgary may have itself the steal of the draft.
The third round featured four Swedish picks, beginning with tricky forward Robin Kovacs, taken by the New York Rangers 62nd overall. Ranked seventh amongst Swedes by Hockey’s Future and eighth amongst Europeans by CSS, Kovacs led his Allsvenskan team in scoring this past season, and, although somewhat underweight, is considered an offensive weapon with a ton of skill still working its way up to the surface. A lack of international exposure had him pegged for the middle rounds of this draft, but there are those who feel he compares favorably with some of the other, smaller skilled forwards who were taken among the first 40 picks, lending credence to the belief that he may be among the most underrated forwards in this draft. Drafted also by North Bay of the OHL, it would be a huge hit to AIK if he were to head to North America now, but a move that seems to have paid off in spades for Washington’s Andre Burakovsky, who went the exact same path out of the Allsvenskan, where he hadn’t had nearly the impact Kovacs did. Hockey’s Future felt Kovacs would be taken between spots 75-115.
With the 70th pick, the Philadelphia Flyers strengthened their goaltending depth by selecting left-catching Felix Sandstrom, who measures in at 6’2” and 191 pounds. He was one of two goalies the team took in the third round, as they also grabbed Slovakian-born NAHL backstop Matej Tomek 90th overall. Ranked third by CSS among European goalies and fifth among Swedish prospects by Hockey’s Future, Sandstrom is coming off a bit of an up-and-down year. Seemingly a fan of the butterfly technique and obviously well-schooled in a technical sense, Sandstrom tends to make initial saves and then cover the lower portion of the net entirely while relying on his glove and stick hand to ward off higher shots. With two very solid SHL showings under his belt, it is felt he’ll split next season between Brynas’ U20 and SHL teams, hopefully avoiding the injury problems that may have held him back a bit this past season.
Philadelphia has long been known to be weak in the goaltending prospect department and did very well in shoring up that position during the 2015 draft. Showing that NHL teams have indeed been valuing these Swedish players despite a lackluster year internationally at the junior level, HF expected Sandstrom to be taken somewhere between spots 80-115, which underestimated just how popular he may be.
Just 13 picks later, the Arizona Coyotes grabbed the next Swede off the Hockey’s Future list, having seen Jens Looke as the sixth-best Swedish prospect right after Sandstrom. CSS had him ranked 10th among European skaters. Of average size at six foot and 180 pounds, it was a big year for Looke, having come out of nowhere to take a regular shift in the SHL. Hard-working and active in all three zones, Looke is a complete player for his age that just doesn’t seem to stand out in any one capacity. A strong WJC showing was then followed up by zero points to conclude the SHL season and an injury at the U18 concluded his overall season on a down note, but there’s no telling how much he could have assisted in preventing Sweden’s lackluster fate in Switzerland.
There’s a lot to like about Looke’s hustle and strong learning curve and there’s really no telling what could come of him offensively as he matures. He certainly can handle the puck and move at good speeds with it on his stick and, despite only six points in the SHL, he’s already become a player coaches can depend on defensively. Hockey’s Future had predicted Looke would be taken between spots 40-65, so we feel Arizona did very well for themselves grabbing him late in the third round.
Just about concluding the third round was the selection of Lukas Vejdemo at 87th overall by the Montreal Canadiens. Whether he could have been had later in the draft or not plays no role at this point, as he went ahead of the Swedes that Hockey’s Future had ranked 8th-10th. What is important is that Vejdemo was a dominating junior player who had to overcome a prior death in the family and injuries this past season, which kept him from perhaps having solidified himself as one of the top players coming out of Sweden. He is believed to be turning pro this season and taking a regular shift in the Allsvenskan if he doesn’t earn a spot with Djurgarden from the get-go. Important is that some pundits in Sweden felt that, if not Kovacs, then Vejdemo could be the biggest surprise coming out of this draft as his offensive potential seems limitless at this point as he’s shown few weaknesses in his game when he’s been on the ice. Had he not been with the junior champion from Djurgarden, he’d likely have already spent this past season playing pro in the Allsvenskan, much like Kovacs did.