Niklas Kronwall was drafted in the 1st round (29th overall) by Detroit in 2000 after being passed over in the 1999 draft. Kronwall was considered a stretch when he was drafted (he was the 26th ranked Euro by CSB), but Detroit management was confident in his abilities. Kronwall was very, very small when drafted (about 5’10, 160 lbs) and has not a significant amount since. Kronwall was praised for his offensive abilities and his high skill level, however many questioned whether he could cut it in the NHL because of his size. Many Wings supporters began believing that Kronwall was a shoe-in to make the NHL one day, regardless of his apparent size limitations. Since being drafted, Kronwall has grown about an inch and a half and has put on about 15 to 20 lbs (depending on whose scouting report you read). This is still quite small by NHL standards.
Kronwall began his playing career with Djugardens’ J-20 team and followed his first year there up by playing with Huddinge in the Allsvenskan league. Kronwall has established himself as a regular on one of the SEL’s top teams, Djugardens. He has played in 116 games over three seasons and compiled 7 goals and 20 assists in that time. He has yet to have the breakout season that I hoped to see following his draft year. Despite this fact, I have read reports that project his upside to be as high as a top-2 defensemen who can quarterback a power play.
Well, I don’t view Kronwall in the same light that many others do. Kronwall’s skill level is undeniable; his offensive abilities are very impressive. He has even started to play a more chippy style. While the SEL is a very fine league (I’d say probably second best along with the RSL & AHL), the ice size is larger and the play much less physical. While I don’t believe size can make-up for a lack of skill, I also don’t believe that skill can always make up for a lack of size (particularly on defense). Small defenders are generally not successful at the NHL level; yes there are exceptions like Kasparitis and Morris, but they are exceptions, not the rule. Many smaller defenders that do make it to the NHL, often do as fringe players and are rarely impact players. My expectation of Kronwall is that he will make it to the NHL, but will be more of a top-6 defensemen who gets time on the power play. I also won’t be shocked if he never makes it as an NHL regular. He is definitely not the second coming of fellow Swede and all-world defender Nicklas Lidstrom that some would have you believe.
Kronwall has also had injury problems throughout his career. This is another aspect that worries me. If he has been injury prone in the SEL, then I only imagine it would be worse in the more physical NHL. Kronwall also played halfback on many occasions and this, by my estimation, will not help his development as much on the defensive side of the puck. This is the area that needs more attention as his offensive skill is widely known.
Kronwall needs several more years in Sweden in my opinion. He needs to continue to add muscle and work on his defensive game. I know many Wings fans are anxious to see Niklas make the jump over the pond, but I just do not feel he is near being ready. While it would be somewhat beneficial to have him come over and play in the AHL to become more accustomed to the North American style of play, it seems highly unlikely. If recent Detroit signees Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are any indication, Kronwall will play in the NHL or head back to Sweden (both Datsyuk & Zetterberg have provisions in their contracts that allow them to return home if they do not make the NHL club). I would like to see Kronwall around the 195 to 200 lb range. With his lower center of gravity and with that added strength, I believe he would be able to make a better adjustment to the NHL and not be easily muscled off the puck. Kronwall will continue his development in the SEL over the next season or two (in a recent visit to Detroit with fellow Swede, Henrik Zetterberg, Kronwall stated in a radio interview that he hoped to “be here” in two or three years), but is expected to attend a Wings minicamp this summer. I know my opinion won’t be very popular with Wings fans, and I hope Kronwall proves me wrong, but at this point, I just do not believe this is the defensemen Wings management thought they were drafting.