2011 prospects: Kitchener captain Gabriel Landeskog relishes increased responsib

By Jason Menard

One would think being a Swedish-born player in the OHL, performing during his draft-eligible year where he’s on the radar as an early first-round selection would be pressure enough. But the Kitchener Rangers’ Gabriel Landeskog has the added pressure of being the first European-born captain in a long line of highly regarded leaders for the storied franchise.

“It’s a huge honor to be named in a group of past captains like Mike Richards, Derek Roy, and obviously last year Dan Kelly, who taught me a lot about leadership,” Landeskog said. “It’s obviously a tremendous honor to be named with that group of people.”

For a little added context — and pressure — let’s not forget to add Bill Barber (Philadelphia’s first-round selection, seventh overall, in 1972 who finished with 473 goals; 991 NHL points*), Don Maloney (621 points and 916 PIMs*), and Brian Bellows (second-overall selection by Minnesota in 1982; one-time 55-goal scorer who retired with 536 goals and 1,144 points*) to that list?

It’s a daunting task on its own, but coupled with the pressure of his draft year — and the fact that Landeskog won’t turn 18 until November 23rd — it almost seems too much to bear. However, the stats sheets and your eyes tell you otherwise: Landeskog is currently seventh overall in OHL scoring with 27 points in 18 games (second overall in goals with 15), teaming with Jason Akenson, Ryan Murphy, and Tobias Rieder to power the Rangers to a 12-5 record; and the 6’1, 205-pound forward plays bigger than his listed size and looks like a man amongst boys on the ice.

The Rangers’ head coach and general manager, Steve Spott, said the team didn’t make this decision lightly, adding it’s a testament to the caliber of player Landeskog is on and off the ice that led them to the decision.

“We were aware of [the pressure],” Spott explained. “I wouldn’t have done that to him if I didn’t think he could handle it. As you get to know Gabriel you find that he’s a very, very mature kid. He can sit down and talk politics with you, he can sit down and talk about anything at a mature level because he’s just a special kid that way. He’s beyond his years in his maturity, so for me he can handle the pressure.

“This is a very difficult city in which to play, but he understands the pressure that comes from playing in Kitchener. He’s a special kid and he can handle it.”

Landeskog was far more modest in his description of how he became captain. He preferred to defer to a pair of players who aren’t on the roster, but whom he feels would likely have worn the ‘C’ in his stead.

Jeff Skinner and Jeremy Morin were both nominated for the captaincy too and we weren’t really sure what was going on with those two. When Jeremy [Chicago Blackhawks] got stuck in the AHL and Jeff stayed in Carolina, the coaches called me in and gave me the ‘C’ on my jersey,” he said. “Obviously that was a huge honor, but I’m not going to change anything. I’m still the same Gabriel. As a player, I’m just going to go out and work hard every night — that’s all you can do. Coming into my draft year, I’m just trying to step my game up and have fun with it.”

While he acknowledges that little letter does add a little more weight to his shoulder, he said he doesn’t see it as a detriment to his progression this year.

“Yeah, obviously. Having the ‘C’ on your jersey, I think that’s a little added pressure, but I wouldn’t say pressure is a negative thing,” Landeskog said. “It is what you make it — as long as you have fun with it and you don’t put too much pressure on yourself. I know what I’m capable of and I’m still going to be the same guy, so I’m not going to worry about anything else.”

In Spott’s mind, being named the Kitchener captain is but the first in a long line of accolades that will be coming to the player. “He’s an NHL captain. I’ve said it,” Spott explained. “He’s our captain at a young age, he’s a vocal guy, he’s so physically powerful at 17 and 18 that he’s a guy that’s going to be a great Tomas Holmstrom-type and I believe he’s going to be a Stanley Cup champion one day the way he plays the game. He’s just a great 200-foot player.”

It’s not the first time that the Stockholm-born Landeskog has faced responsibilities and expectations seemingly beyond his station in the game. Prior to joining the Rangers, Landeskog was a part of the Djurgardens under-20 club program, eventually playing in a handful of games with the Swedish Elite League squad — a 15 year old playing amongst men.

“First of all, when I played my games over there, it was a great experience for me, not only to play against players that I grew up watching, but also playing against men,” he said. “It’s a huge difference, they’re a lot stronger.”

He made the decision to join the OHL last year because, despite playing in one of the world’s better leagues, he felt his path to the NHL would be furthered by his participation in arguably the world’s top developmental league. As a rookie last season, Landeskog scored 24 goals and added 22 assists in 61 games. He boosted his production to over a point-per-game in the playoffs, with 23 points (including eight goals) in 20 games.

“Coming over here, it’s not a step down — the hockey’s a lot faster here and there are a lot of skilled players at this level,” Landeskog explained. “Saying that, this is the best junior hockey league to play in the whole world and I’m just happy that I’m here.”

And it’s not the first time Landeskog’s been compared to Holmstrom. Holmstrom and fellow Red Wings’ forward Jonathan Franzen are the two names most frequently referenced when projecting Landeskog’s future — and they are comparisons that the young forward embraces.

“It’s a comparison that I’m really proud of and it’s a real compliment. I’ve never met those guys, but they’re both Stanley Cup winners and so obviously they do stuff that are really positive and they have a lot in their games that you want to embrace and take after,” he said. “Obviously, I’ve watched the Detroit Red Wings a lot and with [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Niklas] Lidstrom, and those kind of players — they have that skill level, but at the same time they are that kind of hard-working players that I want to be.

“They show up every night. Holmstrom, being that type of guy who gets in front of the net on the power play, I want to have that kind of role on the power play.”

Spott said he agrees with the comparisons — and for reasons beyond those players’ respective passports.

“I think [those comparisons] are fair because those guys are champions and I think Gabriel plays the same type of game that those two big guys do, where they go to the front of the net — a blue-collar game, and those are the type of players that win in the playoffs,” Spott added. “You can have a bunch of smaller, skill guys if you want, but you need those Landeskogs, those Holmstrens, and those Franzens if you’re going to win Stanley Cups and I think he’s in that lineup of guys.”

There are a few other, less-flattering, adjectives that have been tossed at Swedish players over the years by those seemingly educated with an inner tube and a banana. However, Landeskog points to the aforementioned duo, along with a few others, to explain how he feels the stereotypes are getting dispelled.

“You’ve heard about chicken Swedes and all that sort of stuff, and that Swedes are only fast and skilled, and they’re all soft,” Landeskog said. “Obviously, with a couple of players like Peter Forsberg, Borje Salming, and Mats Sundin, they’ve all shown that we’re tough too — and I grew up with a dad who was a former hockey player who taught me that hitting and being gritty is not always a bad thing.

“It’s just another element of your game that can separate you from others and that’s what I’m trying to do — I’m trying to be an all-around player — being gritty, being in your face, and also having that skill level, I think will be a good thing in the future.”

Gabriel’s father Tony played a number of years professionally in Sweden, both in the Swedish Elite League and the second division — most notably with the Hammarby organization. Tony played 59 games on the blue line in the SEL, accumulating 20 points and 66 penalty minutes; in Division 1 play he racked up 59 points in 176 career games, along with 176 minutes in the penalty box. Gabriel credits his father for playing a key role in his development to date.

“He’s been really big for me. He’s not only been their for me after games and tournaments, but he’s also been there teaching me about life outside of hockey: how you take success and how you handle that kind of stuff and handle yourself off the ice to get to that next level,” Landeskog said. “As a player, he was a tough defenseman and I think that taught me a lot about that defensive type of game. You can’t only be playing that one side of the ice — you have to play on both sides of the rink.”

Spott is even more effusive in his praise for Landeskog’s father. “I think Tony Landeskog has been a wonderful role model for him, both on and off the ice,” Spott explained. “He takes a lot of pride in his son both on and off the ice. He’s as much concerned about Gabriel’s academics as he is with his hockey, so that tells you a lot about his father.

“There are a number of fathers out there who could tell you how many goals their son has, but they couldn’t tell you what he has on his science exam — Tony could tell you.”

While Spott refers to Landeskog as “a lock” to make Sweden’s World Junior roster this year, the humble Swede is more speculative about his participation and what it could mean to his development and exposure. He participated on Team Sweden’s under-18 squad scoring four goals and adding 24 minutes in penalties in six games.

“It’s just a window for yourself to prove to yourself and others what you’re like against international competition,” Landeskog explained. “It started at a young age for me. I was fortunate to play first when I was 16 for Team Sweden, and that was just a huge honor. Then going up and playing against Team Canada last summer and Russia, it’s just a great experience and you learn a lot.

“You come out in the world and see different types of players. It’s just a great experience and measurement for yourself.”

He’s also wary of being too hyperbolic in his assessment of his own game. Despite the expectations of being his OHL team’s captain, he doesn’t feel that he’s going to change the way he plays in response to the honor.

“Nothing drastically really,” he said. “I just try to bring my game and my personality to this team and, you know, my type of game is just being a hard worker out there and leading that way, and having some skill on the side of that.”

He has the same muted enthusiasm for his own game, suggesting there are a number of things he needs to improve during this draft-eligible year, while committing to a team-first focus.

“I still have to work on my game away from the puck,” he said. “I do have a lot of offense in me, but I’ve got a lot more to show and I still have room for that in my game. My main focus is being a steady, two-way player and being a team guy out there.”

His coach added that while Landeskog may not be blessed with those otherworldly offensive gifts that players like former OHL stars such as Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Patrick Kane, and Sam Gagner may have possessed, his willingness to play the style of game that — dare we say it — is not normally associated with Europeans will help raise his stature in the eyes of NHL scouts and general managers.

“The biggest thing is, is he a natural goal scorer? And he’s not a natural goal scorer,” Spott said. “I think the biggest thing for Gabriel is that he’s going to have to score dirty goals, goals that in the blue paint, in and around the crease area, and that’s the type of goals he’s going to have to continue to score.

“I think that’s the only area of concern when it comes to the NHL scouts — he’s not a [Carolina Hurricanes’ prospect and former Ranger] Jeff Skinner or [current Ranger and fellow 2011 draft-eligible, first-round-projected prospect] Ryan Murphy when it comes to that natural offense. He has to work for it, but he’s willing to do that.”

Landeskog’s mastery of English is impressive; one has to strain to hear even the slightest hint of an accent and it’s only when a phrase in English escapes him that you remember that he’s not North-American born. But despite his quote-unquote Canadian style of play and comfort with the style of hockey played on this side of the Atlantic, he does admit that he faced some challenges last year with the move.

“It’s basically the same. Obviously at first the first couple of months were tough and you really didn’t know what to expect coming in,” Landeskog explained. “I started high school here. It was obviously a bit different, but change can be a good thing and you learn a lot. Other than that, there wasn’t too much that I missed or found especially strange.

“It was just a great experience for me. Moving away from family and friends has just made me a stronger person.”

Despite being a player that’s made a career out of defying stereotypes, in addition to missing family and friends, there is one oh-so-Swedish comfort from home for which Landeskog admits to having a yearning.

“Swedish meatballs, I would say,” Landeskog said, his face betraying just the slightest laugh. “They’re special for sure.

“Even though you can buy them here at the store, there’s nothing like my mom’s Swedish meatballs.”

* statistics include both NHL regular season and playoff totals