By Jonathan Rawson
As the Nashville Predators opened the 2013 edition of the annual prospect development camp, the salient trend toward Scandinavian players was easily noticed. By inviting 11 prospects of Scandinavian origin, the Predators have more than doubled the number of Scandinavian development camp invitees since 2009. Although it is one less than last year’s 12 invitees, it is still indicative of the Predators’, and largely the NHL’s, move toward Swedish and Finnish talent.
The move toward Scandinavian talent in the NHL has been a gradual but foreseeable trend. In the 1969 NHL Entry Draft, the St. Louis Blues selected the NHL’s first Scandinavian player, Finnish left wing Tommi Salmelainen. In the 1976 NHL Entry Draft, Swede Bjorn Johansson was selected fifth overall by the California Seals, becoming the first Scandinavian selected in the first round. Beginning in the 1980s, the NHL began to see a steady influx of Scandinavian players immerge in the league’s talent pool. Of the 126 selections in the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, only five were Scandinavian, all Swedish (4 percent). However, by the 1988 NHL Entry Draft, 21 of the 252 selections (8.3 percent) were of Scandinavian origin, including the number one overall pick, Swedish center Mats Sundin. The 1999 draft saw a stark increase when 42 of the 271 picks (15.5 percent) including the second and third overall picks, Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, were taken by the Vancouver Canucks. The Scandinavian presence in the draft reached its current pinnacle when 41 out of 210 (19.5 percent) picks were selected in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. The 2013 NHL Entry Draft saw 38 of the 211 picks (18 percent) taken from Scandinavia.
The Scandinavian talent influx began to really flex its muscle in the 2000s and was displayed most evidently by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service pre-draft rankings. In that time, the Scouting Service’s rankings began placing Scandinavians in spots that were once dominated by Russian prospects, which the Predators have not selected since 2004. Between 2001-2003 only five out of the 30 top ranked European skaters and three of nine goalies hailed from Scandinavian countries. In the past three seasons, 2011-2013, 24 out of the 30 top ranked European skaters and six of nine top goalies boasted Scandinavian roots. These players included several current Predators prospects: Swedish forwards Filip Forsberg (No. 1 skater in 2012) and Pontus Aberg (No. 6 skater in 2012), Finnish center Miikka Salomaki (No. 7 skater in 2011), Swedish goalie Magnus Hellberg (No. 2 goalie in 2011), and Finnish goalie Juuse Saros (No. 1 goalie in 2013).
The Predators have surpassed the trends of current draft patterns by using 11 of their 27 picks (40.7 percent) in the 2011, 2012, and 2013 NHL Entry Drafts to select Scandinavian talent. Many factors have led to these selections, but Nashville Predators Chief Amateur Scout Jeff Kealty sights the blossoming, systematic increase in Scandinavian talent both in quality and quantity, most specifically from Sweden.
“They’ve really done a great job over the past 10 years or so, even down to the lower levels, really developed their skill, puck-possession game and skating,” Kealty said. “We’re seeing it now coming through not only with their national teams, but with the depth of players and talent they have. Our scout there, Lucas Bergman, has done a terrific job identifying players, not just the high-end players, but all the way through the draft.”
The Predators have taken full advantage of the widespread Scandinavian talent throughout the draft. In the 16 drafts that the team has participated in, Nashville has selected 31 Scandinavian prospects. Of those 31 picks, 24 have been selected in the fourth round or later, including eight of their 11 Scandinavian selections from 2011-2013. A couple of late round selections that have immensely benefitted the team include current forward Patric Hornqvist (seventh round, No. 230 overall in 2005) and goaltender Pekka Rinne (eighth round, No. 258 overall in 2004).
The Swedish development system has been specifically recognized for the rapid increase in upper-tier talent output. Between 1997 and 2002, the Swedish Junior National Team experienced unprecedented disappointment by finishing fourth twice and fifth or worse four other times. In an effort to turn over a new leaf, Sweden Ice Hockey Association’s director of youth development initiated a Commission of Inquiry on junior hockey. The summit gathered 120 junior coaches, club executives and scouts from across Sweden and reached out to some of Sweden’s most storied and respected NHL players. It was an unnerving discovery, but the country recognized that a change in coaching, education and attitude was needed across the board, beginning at the earliest fundamental level. A complete change was needed in order to modernize their development.
“They have really focused on the skill development aspect of it from a younger age,” Kealty said. “They have put more emphasis on that when players are first coming through. You see the progression with the development as they get older and to the point where we’re watching them and scouting them.”
“Here, it’s more on your own if you want to work on your skill,” said Ludwig Karlsson, a native of Sweden who is currently plying his trade at Northeastern University and attended development camp as an invitee. “Back home, we have practices where we just work on skills. You go to camps here to work on that, back home you work that with the team.”
A major part of the Sweden Ice Hockey Association’s development program is that from May-November of each year, the Association invites 2,000 players ages 14-18 to one of 45 player-development camps. The goal is to invite 800 of the best 14-year-olds back the following year and ultimately trim the list down to 30 by the time the players are ready to compete for the World Junior Championship team. This system has worked thus far and has seen the Swedes medal in five out of the last six IIHF World Junior Championships, including a gold medal-winning club in 2012 which Forsberg was a part of.
“The Swedes have been playing much better last year and over the past 10 years,” Forsberg said. “The juniors are much better and a lot of better players are showing out for themselves.”
In October 2011, the NHL announced that it had signed a television rights deal with Modern Times Group to broadcast every regular season and playoff game live on television, broadband and mobile to all of Scandinavia. Kealty thinks that the increased exposure will bode well for the Predators as they continue to seek Scandinavian talent.
“In many of the countries in Europe the ultimate goal is to play in the NHL,” Kealty said. “They’re aware of it, the games are on TV. With technology and the internet and everything, they’re very aware of what’s going on here. So ultimately that’s their goal. As far as the culture, they’re very well adjusted. They speak English there and when they come over here to our camps you see they fit right in.”
In addition to being more aptly prepared for life in the NHL physically, Swedish players are at a natural advantage coming from a similar culture that, in most cases, teaches English.
“It was easier than I thought,” goaltending prospect Magnus Hellberg recalled on the transition. “It’s almost the same as Sweden. I can speak the language pretty well, I think. Some guys might have it harder, but for me, it was pretty easy.”
“It’s just the weather,” 2012 sixth-round pick Max Gortz said. “It’s so hot here. At six in the morning here, it’s like the hottest it gets in Sweden.”
Though it is hard to prognosticate the continuation of development, the Predators feel as though they have tapped into a fruitful talent pipeline that is certain to reap benefits in the not too distant future. With five Scandinavian players on the current roster and sixteen currently listed on the prospect roster, the Predators seem to have found their prospective niche and are confident in the seed they have sewn.
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