2015-16 SHL Preview, Pt. 3: Frolunda, Skelleftea should battle for league supremacy

By Chapin Landvogt

Axel Holmstrom - Skelleftea AIK - Champions Hockey League

Photo: Skelleftea forward and Detroit Red Wings prospect Axel Holmstrom (R) took his game to another level in 2014-15, and should be a key cog for his team in the 2015-16 SHL season (courtesy of Skelleftea AIK/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

 

3. Lulea

They took the CHL championship almost unexpectedly last season, but had a hard go of it in the SHL after two straight final appearances – and losses. Just making the pre-playoffs, they did well for themselves, but they found themselves heading out on vacation while the quarterfinals were taking place.

Then this summer, a huge sponsor kind of just landed in their laps and the team went on a bit of shopping spree. Many are skeptical about what exactly the new team will be capable of. Nonetheless, last season’s team didn’t lack a work ethic, just the offensive firepower to decide close games. Now they have that. With three solid goalies and a defense that shows a nice mix of old and young, the forward corps is looking to be deadly enough to defend the CHL title and make a strong push for the SHL title.

What’s good

The team from a small northern town has some money and has invested wisely without closing the door on a number of young talents, many of whom look to land in the NHL at some juncture. Coach Jokim Fagervall can also lean on several established heart-and-soul Luleaners who the fans identify with and stand behind. Speaking of which, the team is THE main attraction in town and enjoys one of the most loyal fan followings in the country.

What isn’t

Everything is looking fine and balanced, but the goaltending has to hold strong and that is no guarantee. Joel Lassinatti has to put in a repeat performance. Prospect Filip Gustavsson will be breathing down his neck. The other top teams seem to be a tad bit better at each position on paper.

Biggest impact player

Jacob Micflikier. He came, he saw, he conquered. 54 points in 65 games and a +23 were the numbers for Linkoping on the league’s most dangerous line. He is now here to spearhead the offensive attack and he has been a scorer since he arrived in Europe, much as he was in the AHL.

Names you’ll recognize

G Daniel Larsson, D Craig Schira, D Ilari Melart, D Brendan Mikkelson, D Jonathan Sigalet, F Toni Rajala, F Jacob Micflikier, F Bill Sweatt, F jacob Lagace, F Johan Harju, F Anton Hedman, F Lennart Petrell

Current NHL draft picks

D Pontus Sjalin (MIN), who will be rewarded with a season of pro play – whether with Lulea or on loan to Asploven – after a very good U20 season for the six-footer.

D Christian Jaros (OTT) is a bruising 6’3”, 200 pounder who was entrusted with ice time and responsibility after a bronze medal at the WJC for Slovakia. That should continue this season.

F Peter Cehlarik (BOS), like Jaros, is a bronze medal winner at the WJC and a player who has spent a number of years in the Lulea organization. He is coming off his best season to date with 21 points and is hoping to turn this season into the long-awaited coming out party – something that should have him in North America next winter.

Best Swede who never had an NHL shot

Defenseman Jan Sandstrom, 37, has had a long and often successful SHL career. Once drafted by the Anaheim Ducks, he never played a season in North America, but has instead been a top-four defenseman for many SHL seasons.

Best player who was never drafted

Defenseman Per Savilahti Nagander, 30, who is 6’5” and 231 pounds, established himself in the Finnish Liiga as an offensive defenseman before taking on a more defensive role for his native Lulea last season.

Older players you may still see in the NHL one day

Craig Shira, 27, had a solid WHL career and headed to Europe after three decent AHL seasons. He has arrived big-time the past two seasons in Finland, maturing into a defenseman who may garner another look from the NHL.

Bill Sweatt, 26, is a former Chicago Blackhawks draft pick and two-time WJC member for Team USA. Blessed with incredible speed, Sweatt is one of the SHL’s most exciting and successful forwards. He posted 45 points last season.

Toni Rajala, 24, is still just a little tyke, but one of the most entertaining and agile players in Europe. From Finland and once an Edmonton Oilers draft pick, his seasons in the WHL, ECHL, and AHL were all very productive. More than a few would like to see what this dazzler could do in the NHL. He is expected to contend for the scoring title this season.

Joel Lassinatti, 22, has long been highly touted and is now the de facto starter although Daniel Larsson has the much better resume. Expect him to put up some decent stats this season, as well.

Emil Sylvegard, 22, was never drafted, but played marginal seasons in the QMJHL and then WHL before heading back to the Allsvenskan. He’ll look to follow up on a successful rookie year in the SHL and is still growing into his 6’2”, 216-pound frame.

Marcus Oskarsson, 21, is a 6’2” defenseman who plays a lot bigger. He is seen playing time in each of the past three seasons and many feel this year will be the year he turns into a valuable regular who will open the eyes of the NHL scouting community.

Scouts are watching closely

Goalie Filip Gustavsson was, until the gold medal game against Canada, the talk of the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. Thoroughly sound for his age, the good-sized goalie is one of the top three, if not the top-ranked, European goalies for the upcoming NHL Draft. SHL time is not a given, but somehow likely.

Forward Christopher Mastomaki wasn’t drafted this past summer, but the 6’3”, 193-pound center will look to spend this season changing that. Still 18 until December, he’s made the team out of camp after a strong U20 junior year for Vasteras last season.

Prognosis

The team features a balanced attack, a rangy defense and three goalies that could get a lot done at any point this season. Until proven otherwise, Lulea still doesn’t look to have what it takes to beat Frolunda and Skelleftea, but we see this team as the league’s third-best, despite strong Vaxjo and Farjestad lineups.

2. Skelleftea

Hands down, this has become the flagship organization in the SHL. They’ve been to the finals five years running, having won two times in a row before bowing out to Vaxjo last spring. The team is from a town of roughly 20,000 people and not only continues to find a way to produce winners and put together one of Europe’s top teams, but also top talents that are continually drafted by NHL teams.

Year for year, the club feels the effects of its success, often watching its best players go to higher bidders in the NHL, KHL, and NLA, much less to other contenders in the SHL. Nonetheless, the club continues to bring in its homegrown products while finding a way to add just what it needs to get to the finals on a year-to-year basis. It’s a feat fairly uncommon in the world of sports, where such a thing is rarely possible from anything other than rich, big city clubs, especially in soccer. Now the team will show its will for revenge and replace seven regulars in looking to gobble up a CHL and SHL title. Both are very much in reach.

What’s good

The team has continuity like few others. Last year’s core is intact and few teams have as many Swedish impact players in their lineup. Leader Jimmie Ericsson is back after a one-year hiatus in the KHL and comes back to reclaim the captaincy and perhaps another World Championship appearance. Axel Holmstrom was THE discovery in the SHL last season and, despite his contract with Detroit, appears ready to spend this last season in Sweden. Goalie Markus Svensson is one of the nation’s best. Adding Jimmie Ericsson and Mattias Ritola improves the team considerably.

What isn’t

Not much. Everything is working well and moving on all cylinders for now. If anything, this SHL looks very evened out and teams are well-built to at least survive. This will make Skelleftea’s job more difficult.

Biggest impact player

Markus Svensson. Over the past two seasons, not a goalie in the league has been able to put up the solid numbers he has in the playoffs. Almost unbeatable at playoff time, Svensson has boasted goals-against averages of 1.84, 1.38, and 1.87 the past three playoff seasons (total of 32 games).

Names you’ll recognize

D Alexander Urbom, F Mattias Ritola, F Andrew Calof, F Terry Broadhurst, F Janne Pesonen

Current NHL draft picks

Defenseman Marcus Pettersson (ANA) is 6’4”, but lacks weight. Considerably. The former forward will be asked to step into SHL play this season. He will be learning on the job.

Defenseman Anton Lindholm (COL) enters his second full SHL season, and should continue to build on his development from last season. A defensive defenseman by trade, he is still living a bit off his showing in the 2014 playoffs.

Forward Axel Holmstrom (DET), a former NHL seventh rounder, led the entire SHL in playoff scoring last season with 18 points in 15 games. Felt to be a future NHL player, this will be a big test for him to repeat last season’s success. A top-six forward with size and a good understanding of the game.

Best Swede who never had an NHL shot

Forward Patrik Zackrisson was once drafted by the San Jose Sharks, but never made it over to North America. He has been a scorer in Europe for years and was one of Skelleftea’s top players last season with 48 points.

Best player who was never drafted

Forward Jimmie Ericsson has been a big-time player in the SHL and carved out a fine scoring career. Now 35, the 6’2”, 212-pounder is the team’s captain and one of the league’s most high profile leaders.

Older players you may still see in the NHL one day

Niclas Burstrom, 24, is already entering his sixth SHL season and has suited up for a World Championship for Sweden. He’s a smaller defenseman, but very feisty and is solid in all three zones. Burstrom had 23 points last season.

Tim Heed, 24, was the SHL Defenseman of the Year last season. A former Anaheim Ducks pick, Heed is a right-handed shot who pretty much serves as the SHL’s Kris Letang, possessing a deadly shot and top power play qualities. He went from five points in the 2013-14 season to 48 last season.

Andrew Calof, 24, had a fairly impressive career for Princeton University, but seemed like quite the risky acquisition last season. Nonetheless, he took on a first-line role and put up 20 goals, 46 points, and a +20 rating. Hard to think that another season like that wouldn’t earn him a shot at NHL play.

Par Lindholm, 23, is a mid-sized forward who put up 16 goals and 31 points in his rookie SHL season last year. Before that, he broke out in the Allsvenskan with 46 points. He will wear an ‘A’ on his jersey this season.

Arvid Lundberg, 21, took on a smaller role last season, but is entering his third SHL season and, at 6’1” and 192 pounds, features good size to go with some cautious snarl.

Scouts are watching closely

Defenseman Sebastian Aho, who will be 20 come the next draft, is about the size of Torey Krug and has yet to be drafted in two goes at it. This is something that has many scouts and journalists scratching their heads. Mobile and very confident, he’s entering his third SHL season and is doing so as a regular top-six defenseman for a championship-caliber team. Last season, he chipped in two goals, 13 points, and a +13 rating.

This will be a big, big year for 17-year-old defenseman Hugo Danielsson, who is 6’3” and 183 pounds. After a full season with the U20 club last in 2014-15, he Danielsson is looking to take on a bigger role and perhaps earn himself a spot on the country’s U18 entry next spring.

Center Linus Lindstrom is a scrawny beanpole of a center that looked pretty impressive manning the second line for Sweden at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. Play at the SHL level is unlikely, but he already shows acute defensive awareness on the ice.

Anton Ohman, 19, had two assists and a +2 rating in nine SHL games last season, a cup of coffee he earned by putting up 46 points in 39 U20 league games. Ohman is just 5’10” and170 pounds.

Prognosis

The championship goes through Skelleftea. It’s been that way for five seasons now and the team is looking even stronger on paper this season than it did last season. We at Hockey’s Future are tipping on this team being a sure-fire semi-finalist and wouldn’t be surprised in the least if the black and gold win their third title in four years.

1. Frolunda

The team that just keeps competing amongst the best in the SHL despite featuring a plethora of young, often previously drafted players just missed out on championships on two fronts last season. In the Champions Hockey League final, Frolunda lost against league competitor Lulea only to then bow out in the SHL playoffs in the semifinal, having to watch Skelleftea and Vaxjo – both of whom made valuable additions right before the transfer freeze – go for gold.

Still, the team is returning a number of its best players while adding a few more very interesting youngsters to the fold. In addition, the Indians continue to have one of the finest junior programs in the country and continue to boast several top NHL prospects.

For Coach Roger Ronnberg, there is little doubt that his recipe for success will ultimately bear fruits, but time may be running out on this group as many of the key youngsters are scheduled to head to North America in the near future. Maximizing their efforts now for the league and CHL championships is a challenge Ronnberg welcomes.

What’s good

The team has lost a few important players, but continues to feature a majority of last year’s lineup which means that continuity is present. As usual, Frolunda’s success continues to come from strong youngsters, and this year will be no exception. Henrik Lundqvist’s twin brother and former Dallas Star Joel leads the way for the tight-knit group, and several additions look like they may even have Frolunda better on paper than it was last season.

What isn’t

Can this team get over the hump when it matters most? That hasn’t been the case the past two seasons, and many feel that the abundance of youth is one of the main reasons. The experience and hunger necessary to win still needs to be discovered – then proven. If the preseason is any indication, this is the year Frolunda plans on doing just that. Then again, no less than Mattias Janmark could land in North America by October if he impresses at the Dallas Stars’ NHL camp.

Biggest impact player

Andreas Johnson. The Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick is not the biggest player in the world, but he followed up a season of 15 goals with 22 and it is felt he can take that even higher this season. First, though, he will have to get used to having Spencer Abbott as his center after two years of Mathis Olimb.

Names you’ll recognize

Johan Gustafsson, Henrik Tommernes, Oliver Lauridsen, Spencer Abbott, Ryan Lasch, Joel Lundqvist, Robin Figren, Johan Sundstrom, Sebastian Stalberg

Current NHL properties

F Andreas Johnson (TOR) is already a top SHL producer and likely in his last SHL season.

F Mattias Janmark (DAL) has had two fantastic SHL seasons in a row and is attending Dallas’ camp. Janmark will play for Frolunda if he doesn’t make the Stars lineup, but he has one more season in Sweden at the most.

F Artturi Lehkonen (MTL) had lots of ups and downs last season, but played best in the spring. Pundits are certainly expecting upwards of 25 points from this solid two-way player.

F Johan Sundstrom (NYI) was qualified by the Islanders and is returning to Sweden after a poor third AHL season. Still very promising, he is pegged as a topsix, if not top-three, forward this season.

F Anton Karlsson (ARZ) was once highly touted, but has done little as a pro. Bound for the Allsvenskan?

D Jacob Larsson (ANA) was just drafted and is very well-rounded. Larsson is number 8 or 9 on the defensive totem pole heading into the season.

F Christoffer Ehn (DET) is a good-sized youngster that has been great at the junior level, but will suit up in the Allsvenskan and make a bid for the WJC squad.

F John Dahlstrom (CHI), while expected to spend this season leading the U20 team in an offensive capacity, will likely kick things off with the SHL club. Gothenburg is big on him.

D John Nyberg (DAL), already 6’3″ and 200 pounds, spent 17 games manning the blueline for Frolunda last season. It is the Allsvenskan for now in order to take on more of an all-around role with important minutes, but he could clearly fill in at any time.

F Pierre Engvall (TOR) is a Frolunda-raised prospect who is already 6’4” and 198 pounds. After a fairly dominating season in juniors, he’s moved on to Mora of the Allsvenskan, but an SHL future has a good chance of happening later in the season should his play earn it.

F Kevin Elgestal (WSH) is a 6’1” forward who has only played juniors to date, but is expected to lead the U20 team and hopefully work his way into the SHL lineup at some point. A loan out to an Allsvenskan club is very possible.

Best Swede who never had an NHL shot

Forward Patrik Carlsson was never drafted, but has established himself as a regular SHL player who has been able to take on any role, be it that of a scorer or checker.

Best player who was never drafted

Elias Falth is a small defender in his mid-30’s who first cracked the SHL roughly five seasons ago. He has been a rock and top-three defender ever since.

Older players you may still see in the NHL one day

Forward Spencer Abbott, 27, was an NCAA and then AHL scorer with some impressive numbers despite his small frame. He is testing the waters in Europe, but fully hoping that a few seasons here could earn him another contract with an NHL club.

Former Vancouver Canucks prospect Henrik Tommernes, 25, is returning to Sweden after parts of two seasons in the AHL and then Finland, where he ironed out a role as a power play blueliner. He will now get exactly that role for Frolunda and is expected to be a go-to guy in a big-time capacity for at least two seasons.

Mats Rosseli Olsen, 24, is a Norwegian forward who has slowly but surely established himself as a valuable lower-line winger for Frolunda, but his skill set says he could take on a much bigger role if ever required of him.

Defenseman Oscar Fantenberg, 23, is a 6-foot, 201-pound defenseman who has been proving that he can play some pretty good hockey in all three zones. Not always consistent, he is still establishing himself as a sound defenseman and may be an NHL option within the next four seasons.

Defenseman Oliver Bohm, 23, is 6’3” and 216 pounds and has been an adequate depth defenseman for several seasons. He has gotten a lot of ice time and experience under his belt for a kid his age.

Johan Sundstrom, 22, is still New York Islanders’ property and, after a season to forget for a really unorganized Bridgeport Sound Tigers team, he is back in Sweden to get his career on track. Only two seasons ago, he looked like a very promising two-way forward in waiting.

Defenseman Lukas Bengtsson, 21, has been one of the top-scoring defensemen in the Allsvenskan the past two seasons. He joined Frolunda for the playoffs last season and chipped in four points in nine games. Only 5’11” and 172 pounds, his skill is not in question, so a few seasons of successful play at the SHL level will have to open eyes internationally.

Scouts are watching closely

Draft-eligible Linus Weissbach is of a smaller frame, but can skate extremely well and is very strong on the puck. He hasn’t looked out of place internationally and stuck out at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. It is a big winter for him.

He will first be eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft, but Finn Kristian Vesalainen is making the move to Gothenburg and will play for the team’s U18 and U20 programs. At 16, he already has a man’s body and is still getting bigger. There’s reason to believe that a strong showing will lead to an SHL debut this season.

Prognosis

We strongly feel this is the year Frolunda pushes its way through when the going gets rough. There is a desire to win, there is experience, there is a ton of talent and there is the knowledge that many of these kids are off to North America next season one way or the other. What may just put the team over the top are not just the possible additions next spring, something that almost every champion makes along the way, but also the large number of previously drafted kids they can call in or up from the Allsvenskan.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin

 

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