Klingberg, Hagg tops among defensive prospects that competed in Sweden in 2013-14

By Chapin Landvogt

John Klingberg - Dallas Stars

Photo: Frolunda defenseman and Dallas Stars prospect John Klingberg has gotten a small taste of North American hockey the past couple of seasons, but will move to North America for the 2014-15 season (courtesy of Andrew Dieb/Icon SMI)

As the 2014 NHL Draft approaches, it is important to take note that the NHL is currently chock full of players hailing from Sweden. In particular, it would have been difficult to find many NHL rosters that lacked a Swede patrolling the blueline this past season.

Particularly over the past few years, a number of young Swedish defensemen have found themselves playing key roles for their respective teams, including no less than Alexander Edler (VAN), Niklas Kronwall (DET), Victor Hedman (TBL), Carl Gunnarsson (TOR), Jonas Brodin (MIN), Niklas Hjalmarsson (CHI), Tobias Enstrom (WPG), and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (PHX), amongst others. None, however, has had more of an impact on his team and the league in such a short period of time as has the Ottawa SenatorsErik Karlsson, who at the tender age of 23 was a Norris Trophy candidate after leading the league in scoring amongst defensemen by a 25-point margin in the 2011-12 season.

With this kind of success, NHL teams have been anything but shy in picking Swedish defensemen in recent years, many of whom already dot a number of AHL rosters, as well. But, with Sweden’s top-flight men’s league (SHL) and a second professional league widely considered the best in Europe (Allsvenskan), NHL teams haven’t been hesitant to let their young, Swedish talent be nurtured at home to take advantage of the coaching and ice time few other countries can afford. This past winter was no different as a number of young, drafted defensemen played key roles in one of Sweden’s top two leagues.

Here’s a look at the best of them, several of whom will be in a rink near you in North America next season.

1. John Klingberg – 6’1”, 176 lbs. – 2013-14 Season: Frolunda
Drafted in the fifth round (131st overall) in 2010 by the Dallas Stars

For the second year in a row, Klingberg ended his season with the Texas Stars of the AHL. That’s where he’ll begin it next season after having taken the SHL by storm this past season. The 21-year-old took on a leading role for a very young Frolunda club, collecting 11 goals, 28 points, and a +8 rating in 50 games, then added four assists in seven playoff games. This came on the heels of having gathered one goal and 13 points in 25 games the season before, having added another four points and a +9 in 13 playoff games.

Seen as a future offensive defenseman, Klingberg will be looking to bulk up in the years to come. This may be the most critical part of his development over the next few seasons, because what he’s proven as a pro in a short period of time has left little doubt to his upside. He is a very mobile defender who had no problems evading tried and true pro forecheckers and has shown a great ability to read plays in all three zones. Klingberg's stickhandling and puck-moving abilities are special. His hockey sense is evident and is made use of often. Still, decision-making will need to take its natural course towards improvement as he also adjusts to the North American game.

2. Robert Hagg – 6’2”, 207 lbs. – 2013-14: MODO
Drafted in the second round (41st overall) in 2013 by the Philadelphia Flyers

After being one of the top Swedish prospects available in the 2013 NHL Draft, Hagg went about having a season that might have disappointed a number of fans or pundits, but which was exactly the kind of season that should have been expected of him.

A good-sized defenseman expected to bring a two-way game throughout his career, he earned a job with MODO of the SHL right from the start and took a fairly regular shift, collecting one goal, six points and 47 penalty minutes over the course of a 50-game season. He also suited up for the club’s U20 team when time allowed, putting up two goals, eight points and a +4 rating in 10 games. As much as the SHL season proved to be a learning experience, often challenging Hagg to learn a lot about consistency on a game-in, game-out basis, he was able to continue to round out his defensive game and proved quite effective on the PK. Playing against men seemed to allow him to play a more solid, simple, heads-up game, something that didn’t allow the Flyers to hesitate bringing him over to the AHL right after his season in Sweden was over. With the Adirondack Phantoms of the AHL, he gathered a goal, four points and a +1 in 10 games in making a very impressive debut.

Not to be forgotten was Hagg's emotional WJC experience in Malmo, where Sweden missed out on a gold medal in an overtime loss to Finland. There he took a regular shift, contributing a goal and a +4 rating is assuming much of the heavy duty physical play for his country. This proved to be a confidence booster for him as the season proceeded into the second half. Hagg is expected to continue maturing in the AHL next season.

3. Erik Gustafsson – 6‘0“, 203 lbs. – 2013-14 Season: Frolunda
Drafted in the fourth round (93rd overall) in 2012 by the Edmonton Oilers

One doesn’t have to go far to find one of the next more impressive young defenseman this past season in Gustafsson. After a 2012-13 season that saw him take on a strong offensive role with eight goals and 24 points for Djurgarden in the Allsvenskan, he was added to the very young Frolunda club heading into this season and he didn’t disappoint.

A defender expected to grow into an offensive defenseman over time, Gustafsson has a strong, quick release and looks to get pucks to the net. This helped him in collecting 18 regular season assists (20 points in total). With a propensity to log minutes, he was able to see his role grow to a level that was greater than expected coming into the season. Much of this was thanks to his added attention to duties in his zone and a readiness to play physically, showing an all-round aspect to his game.

With another year on his contract with Frolunda, where Gustafsson's role next season will surely increase with the loss of so many young players such as Klingberg, there’s little reason to think he’ll be in North America next season. It is uncertain at this point if Edmonton will offer him a contract to retain his rights.

4. Ludwig Bystrom – 6’0”, 194 lbs. – 2013-14 Season: Farjestad
Drafted in the second round (43rd overall) in 2012 by the Dallas Stars

Somewhat surprisingly left off this past winter’s WJC club, the bulky Dallas Stars' prospect is coming off a very productive year. After having finished his second season of pro action in 2012-13, where Bystrom collected three goals and six points in 30 games for hometown MODO, he signed a contract with Farjestad and saw his game and responsibility take flight. There, the smooth-skating puck-mover was slowly but surely worked into a role that saw him gain special teams play in addition to his full-strength duties. Obviously possessing some solid offensive instincts, he quietly put up three goals, 11 points, 24 penalty minutes and a +10 rating in 51 league games. Things tailed off in the playoffs, where he was held pointless and had a -3 rating in 10 games.

Solid in all three zones, but lacking the flash and dash that some other Swedish defensemen tend to be living off of nowadays, Bystrom’s SHL season was so solid that the Stars decided to bring him over to hang around with their AHL affiliate and get a feel for life in North America this spring. His in-game intelligence and the ability he’s shown to develop on-the-run could be his fast track to North America next season, although it would be hard to argue with the thought that another season of SHL play could see him in an increased offensive role for a Farjestad team that is used to contending.

5. Mikael Wikstrand – 6’1”, 183 lbs. – 2013-14: Frolunda – Mora
Drafted in the seventh round (196th overall) in 2012 by the Ottawa Senators

For some people, Wikstrand is coming off one of the most impressive years of any drafted prospect playing in Sweden. In the 2012-13 season, Wikstrand spent the whole season playing for Mora of the Allsvenskan where he notched 11 goals and 25 points in 45 games while also sporting a +9 rating, quite a feat for a player who hadn’t yet turned 20. This was topped off with a silver medal outing at the WJC in Ufa, where he contributed four assists and a +4 rating in six games. That season made it all the more fascinating that he didn’t jump straight to the SHL for the 2013-14 season as most of his direct peers did.

Staying true to Mora, Wikstrand brought his mobile two-way play to the team for 27 games before his path did eventually see him move up to the SHL, where his talent dictated he belongs even at this early stage. In those 27 games in Mora, he picked up where he left off, posting four goals, 20 points and a +5 rating. His season became all that much more exciting once he arrived with a bevy of youngsters in Frolunda and with former Mora teammate Tom Nilsson. There, Wikstrand's simple game in which he shows plenty of smarts was given the proper challenge and he added four goals, 11 points and +1 rating in just 19 games before contributing another goal and two points in seven playoff games.

Showing himself to be quite the astute, all-around player, Wikstrand's very positive output this past winter was more than enough to convince the Senators to sign the former seventh rounder to an entry-level contract this spring. Whether he’ll be in the AHL or back in Sweden next season is yet undetermined, but he has been fast-tracking himself into serious consideration for an NHL job within the near future.

6. Daniel Gunnarsson – 6‘4“, 205 lbs. – 2013-14 Season: Lulea
Drafted in the fifth round (128th overall) in 2012 by the Minnesota Wild, now an UFA

Playing for one of the SHL’s powerhouse programs in recent years, Gunnarsson is coming off of another solid season. In 50 regular season games, the rearguard scored three goals and 11 points, coming in at -3 before adding another goal and three points in five playoff games. For most defensemen his age, that’d be seen as quite a fine SHL season, but it came on the heels of a year in which his team almost won the championship and he was able to score six goals, 17 points and be a +10 player before adding five points to the hefty playoff run. As such, this season was a slight step back, but nothing untypical for a player his age and on a team that didn’t live up to expectations.

A tall boy who has room for even more weight, Gunnarsson has unexpectedly good mobility and displays a strong understanding of the game. More impressive in his young career has been his shot from the point and some of the goals he’s been able to score along the way. A player who keeps things fairly simple, the Wild will not be offering him a contract to at least retain his rights, so it willl be interesting to see if another club will swoop in to grab a player who is far from being at the end of his development.

7. Tom Nilsson – 6’0”, 183 lbs. – 2013-14 Season: Mora and Frolunda
Drafted in the fourth round (100th overall) in 2011 by the Toronto Maple Leafs

Your almost classic stay-at-home defenseman, Nilsson’s calling card in his draft year had much to do with his physical presence and style of play. He has remained true to this in his pro career to date. His 2012-13 season was one in which he played a huge role for both the WJC club (two assists and a +3 rating in six games) as well as his pro Allsvenskan club Mora, where he nonetheless only collected four points and a -11 rating. This came on the heels of having an outstanding post-draft year in which he put up 10 points and a +10 rating in 44 games.

This past fall, Nilsson joined a number of other top prospects in playing his first full season in the SHL for the Frolunda Indians. The strong-skating defenseman proved up to the challenge and collected two goals, four points and 22 penalty minutes in 50 regular season games, having also joined the national team for 11 international games.

His snarly, take-no-prisoners style earned Nilsson an entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs in March of 2013, so fans should expect to see him over in North America playing for the Toronto Marlies next fall.

8. Christian Djoos – 6’0”, 159 lbs. – 2013-14 Season: Brynas
Drafted in the seventh round (195th overall) in 2012 by the Washington Capitals

Son to former short-term NHL defenseman Par Djoos, the lightweight Christian has proven to be a sound defenseman with smarts and a good understanding of the game. Not yet 20, Djoos has gathered a boatload of experience to date and just concluded his second full SHL season, having collected one goal, 13 points, and a +5 rating in 47 games. He then added a goal and three points in five playoff games. In light of the solid season he was having, he made the WJC squad, for which he contributed two goals, three points, and a +3 rating to the silver medal effort.

Many felt his lack of weight and height may prevent him from being a serious candidate for a future role in the NHL, but this is an opinion not necessarily shared by the Washington Capitals, who signed him to an entry-level deal this past May. Despite having two full seasons of SHL play behind him, he may very well be loaned to Brynas for a third year rather than head to North America to take on an AHL engagement.

9. Linus Arnesson – 6’2”, 192 lbs. – 2013-14 Season: Djurgarden
Drafted in the second round (60th overall) in 2013 by the Boston Bruins

The well-built Arnesson has quietly but effectively increased his value and ability to play since having been drafted last summer. Usually thought of as a player who’ll be a purely defensive defensemen, Arnesson has shown himself to be very mobile and a strong skater in all directions. This is making some think that his already solid defensive game could one day be accompanied by a surprisingly effective offensive game.

This past season, the smart defender with a knack for making safe, clever plays had quite a season for himself, playing a key defensive role in helping Allsvenskan club Djurgarden make its way back into the SHL. Playing against men on a nightly basis, Arnesson scored a goal and six points while also maintaining a +2 rating and taking on 36 penalty minutes, seeing himself in a top-five role throughout the season. With a defensive mind and a competitiveness that few in his age group seem to be able to match, Arnesson found himself on the silver medal-winning WJC squad ahead of several other players who had been thought of as shoe-ins heading into the season. He put up two assists along the way.

As much as Djurgarden would love to continue to keep Arnesson in its line-up heading into its new SHL season, he just signed an entry-level contract with the Bruins making it highly likely that the team is interested in having him join the Providence Bruins as soon as next fall.

10. Robin Norell – 5’11”, 192 lbs. – 2013-14 Season:  Djurgarden
Drafted in the fourth round (111th overall) in 2013 by the Chicago Blackhawks

A good-sized defenseman looking to continue his solid growth over the next few years, Norell is coming off a season spent primarily with Djurgarden of the Allsvenskan. Despite some injury problems along the way, Norell surprisingly made the WJC squad and contributed a goal and +3 rating to the silver medal effort. Professionally, he suited up for 22 games and managed to collect five assists and a +10 rating, before playing a solid role in helping Djurgarden advance back into the SHL, logging an assist in 10 games.

With a good bit of development yet to go, all indications are that Norell will continue playing for Djurgarden in the SHL next season. Whether he’ll be able to get the type of ice time there that would be best for his personal situation is another question, especially after he missed so much time this past winter. Those chances will increase, however, if Linus Arnesson sticks in the AHL.

Honorable mention

Simon Fernholm – 6’5”, 198 lbs. – 2013-14 Season: Frolunda Jr.
Drafted in the sixth round (164th overall) by the Nashville Predators, went unsigned at signing deadline

A tall youngster in a big body ripe for more weight in the years to come, Fernholm was expected to take a big step this season. Unfortunately, his year was derailed a bit and he was held to just 16 junior contests for the Frolunda Indians U20 squad, where he nonetheless gathered three goals, nine points, and a +8 rating. The season before saw him put up 10 points and a whopping +30 rating in 41 games for the same U20 squad. With that, the organization felt it necessary to give him a look with the big boys and he proceeded to get an assist and +1 rating in five SEL games. He is expected to head into next season nice and ready from a health standpoint. He’s scheduled to play with Troja-Ljungby in Division I, but it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if he ends the season playing in a more competitive location, perhaps even on an SHL club.

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin