Bruins: Scandanavians “R” Us
The 2000 NHL entry draft saw the Boston Bruins select a Swedish-born player with their top pick for the first time in franchise history. They didn’t stop there. Using a second first-rounder acquired from the Colorado Avalanche, they drafted another Swedish player. The selections of Lars Jonsson and Martin Samuelsson were merely the tip of the iceberg, as the Bruins took a total of nine Europeans of twelve skaters drafted. Of those nine, five hailed from the countries of Finland and Sweden. Boston’s strategy marks a new direction for the team, as it clearly demonstrates an attempt to stock the organization with skill players rather than the traditional method of going after North American character types with less finesse.
For Boston, the Euro invasion didn’t really begin in earnest until the 1992 draft, when Boston chose a multitude of Russian players, beginning with its first-ever draft pick from the former Soviet Union, Dmitri Kvartalnov. Since that year, the Bruins have chosen a total of 34 Europeans. By contrast, between 1983 and 1991, covering the same amount of draft years, the total count of European players selected by Boston numbers just seven. The full integration of skaters across the Atlantic into the NHL has dictated a necessity for teams to capitalize on that premier talent, or be swept aside in the standings. The Bruins seem to have taken an active interest in recruiting players from Europe, but in particular those competing in the Swedish and Finnish Elite and Junior Leagues.
Former Bruins draft picks such as Michael Thelven, Mats Thelin and Tommy Lehmann were some of the first Swedish players to come over to Boston, but of those, none were overly successful. Thelven was the best of the trio, but injuries limited his career to just 207 appearances over five years. The Bruins later acquired Finnish sniper Petri Skriko for the stretch drive in 1991, only to trade him for the NHL’s travelin’ man, Brent Ashton early in 1991-92. Overall, European presence on Bruins teams of the past was very limited. But that trend is changing, especially with the impact performances of Per-Johan Axelsson and Russian pocket rocket Sergei Samsonov.
From 1995-2000, the Bruins have taken 23 Europeans out of a total of 58 players chosen. Out of the 23, 13 of them hail from Finland and Sweden. Current regulars Axelsson and Mikko Eloranta are two late-round finds who have played solid two-way hockey for the Bruins. A few years back, the team even traded for Anders Myrvold, a Norweigian-born defenseman who appeared briefly for Boston during the 1996-97 season before disappearing from the radarscope. The key player in the Ray Bourque trade last spring, might turn out to be Samuel Pahlsson, a rugged pivot from MoDo of the Swedish Elite League. Swede Mattias Timander played parts of the past three seasons on the Bruins blueline before being lost to expansion. And now, the Bruins have brought in a Swedish veteran to help fill the void, 33-year old Peter Popovic.
Why the change? For one thing, Bruins management has taken notice of the success of their chief Euro scout, Sven-Ake Svensson, a former player in the SEL during the 1970s. Svensson, largely responsible for the discovery of Axelsson and Eloranta, was the driving force behind the selections of Jonsson, Samuelsson and long-term project, 6-5 winger Andreas Lindstrom from Lulea, Sweden. By all accounts, the team will continue to look for players from Europe in coming draft years given the recent positives.
Boston’s decision to go with skill players is long overdue. In this 30-team league, the best teams are ones that build through the draft and what better example to follow than that of the New Jersey Devils, who have made some risky picks only to see them flourish and help that franchise to its two Stanley Cups in 1995 and 2000. The jury will be out for awhile yet on Boston’s foray into Scandanvia for four of their first eight picks this year, but if the talent levels of kids like Jonsson and Samuelsson can translate into success in the NHL, the Bruins will have finally gotten with the program.
Welcome to the 21st century.