NHL Draft History

Patience is a virtue

There’s no place like home when developing Swedish prospects
Steve Kournianos  |  08/23/2017 |  Nashville, Tenn.  |  

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Swedes are no strangers to success in the NHL. Although the NHL draft in June marked the first time in 18 years that a pair of Swedish-trained forwards were selected within the top ten, a study of recent first round picks with ties to Sweden suggests against overlooking Europe’s deepest pool of quality players. Not only does Sweden account for the NHL’s largest number of non-North American players, but no nation outside of Canada and the U.S. can boast as many point producers. Ten of the Top-80 scorers during the regular season were native Swedes, and the numbers improved in the postseason, where the Top-20 in scoring nearly had as many Swedes (7) as Canadians (8).

Where can you find such production? For starters, try the draft, where Sweden consistently provides the NHL with a sizable chunk of its European talent (or 91 of the 266 Europeans who played last year, according to QuantHockey). Last June’s draft marked the first time in 18 years that two of the first 10 picks were Swedish forwards — Elias Pettersson to Vancouver at fifth overall and Lias Andersson to the New York Rangers at seven (pictured above). In fact, it was in 1999 when the Canucks gambled and won by trading up and drafting twins (and likely Hall of Famers) Daniel and Henik Sedin with the second and third overall picks, respectively. Both Daniel and Henrik returned to MoDo in Sweden for their post-draft season before debuting with the Canucks in 2000-01.

On the surface, neither Pettersson nor Andersson are ready to begin next season in the NHL. While the Canucks certainly need help injecting life into an offense that last season ranked 29th in both goals and power play efficiency, Pettersson and his 170-pound frame could stand to marinate a bit longer in Sweden. Andersson, although drafted two spots behind Pettersson, has different obstacles to overcome. For one, the Rangers are a playoff team who not only expect to contend this year, but boast one of the top attacks in the league. Although Andersson’s maturity and physical readiness were evident as a depth player for HV71 during their run to a Swedish Hockey League championship, his ability to produce with an expanded role against tougher matchups — something he’ll likely see more of in Sweden than in the NHL — is at this point tough to gauge.

We can debate the live long day on whether or not European leagues as Phase I of a prospect’s development is good or bad for him. Pressing needs at the NHL level can lead to rash decisions that eventually work out for all parties involved, and there isn’t enough data to definitely say it’s wrong to pencil an 18-year-old European into an NHL lineup. Conversely, there is absolutely no proof that staying in Europe from anywhere from one to four years post-draft is detrimental. Playing for a European club team seems to provide prospects with a gradual depth-chart progression as opposed to a seemingly pervasive North American tradition of plunging junior league star into the depths of a checking-role simply because “it’s not their time.” Throw culture shock into the mix, and you see why so many European kids like staying at home.

Nonetheless, using a first round pick on a Swedish skater, or a player trained in one of their elite leagues, is as close to a sure thing as you’ll find — excluding the 2017 draft, 30 of the 36 drafted in the Top-30 since 2005 are expected to start the 2017-18 season on an NHL roster. From a development standpoint, it’s usually a matter of when a Swede pans out in the NHL rather than if, as Swedish forwards and defenders are generally good at balancing finesse and mobility with physicality and defensive-zone responsibilities. What is up for debate is whether or not these players are better off honing their skills for a year or two in Sweden as opposed to making a permanent move to North America almost immediately after being drafted.

The table below list all Swedes taken in the first round of the NHL draft between 2005-2016. The last column represents how long it took each player to make their respective NHL debuts from the time they were drafted, as well as the month of the season in which it happened.

Draft+1: NHL Debut season following draft
Draft+2: NHL Debut two seasons following draft
Draft+3: NHL Debut three seasons following draft
ONR: Was on an NHL Opening Night roster
DNP: Never played in the NHL
*Opened season in NHL with nine-game minimum before returning to Sweden

Name Pos Team Draft League NAT Round Pick NHL Debut Post-Draft
Alexander Nylander F BUF 2016 OHL SWE 1 8 Draft+1 (April)
Joel Eriksson-Ek F MIN 2015 SHL SWE 1 20 Draft+2 (March)
Gabriel Carlsson D CBJ 2015 SHL SWE 1 29 Draft+2 (April)
Jacob Larsson D ANA 2015 SHL SWE 1 27 Draft+2 (October)
William Nylander F TOR 2014 SHL SWE 1 8 Draft+2 (March)
Kevin Fiala F NSH 2014 SHL SUI 1 11 Draft+1 (March)
Jakub Vrana F WSH 2014 SHL CZE 1 13 Draft+3 (December)
David Pastrnak F BOS 2014 SHL CZE 1 25 Draft+1 (November)
Adrian Kempe F LAK 2014 SHL SWE 1 29 Draft+3 (February)
Elias Lindholm F CAR 2013 SHL SWE 1 5 Draft+1 (ONR)
Alex Wennberg F CBJ 2013 SHL SWE 1 14 Draft+2 (ONR)
Andre Burakovsky F WSH 2013 Allsvenskan SWE 1 23 Draft+2 (ONR)
Hampus Lindholm D ANA 2012 Allsvenskan SWE 1 6 Draft+2 (ONR)
Filip Forsberg F NSH 2012 Allsvenskan SWE 1 11 Draft+1 (April)
Henrik Samuelsson F ARI 2012 SHL/WHL SWE 1 27 Draft+3 (February)
Adam Larsson D NJD 2011 SHL SWE 1 4 Draft+1 (ONR)
Mika Zibanejad* F OTT 2011 SHL SWE 1 6 Draft+1 (ONR)
Jonas Brodin D MIN 2011 SHL SWE 1 10 Draft+1 (January)
Oscar Klefbom D EDM 2011 SHL SWE 1 19 Draft+3 (March)
Rickard Rakell F ANA 2011 OHL SWE 1 30 Draft+3 (ONR)
Victor Hedman D TBL 2009 SHL SWE 1 2 Draft+1 (ONR)
Oliver-Ekman Larsson D ARI 2009 Allsvenskan SWE 1 6 Draft+2 (ONR)
MPS F EDM 2009 SHL SWE 1 10 Draft+2 (ONR)
David Rundblad D OTT 2009 SHL SWE 1 17 Draft+3 (October)
Jacob Josefson F NJD 2009 SHL SWE 1 20 Draft+2 (October)
Tim Erixon D CGY 2009 SHL SWE 1 23 Draft+3 (ONR)
Marcus Johansson F WSH 2009 SHL SWE 1 24 Draft+2 (ONR)
Erik Karlsson D OTT 2008 SHL SWE 1 15 Draft+2 (ONR)
Anton Gustaffson F WSH 2008 Superelit SWE 1 21 DNP
Lars Eller F STL 2007 Superelit DEN 1 13 Draft+2 (November)
Mikael Backlund F CGY 2007 Allsvenskan SWE 1 24 Draft+2 (January)
Nicklas Backstrom F WSH 2006 SHL SWE 1 4 Draft+2 (ONR)
Dennis Persson D BUF 2006 SHL SWE 1 24 DNP
Patrik Berglund F STL 2006 Allsvenskan SWE 1 25 Draft+3 (ONR)
Anze Kopitar F LAK 2005 SHL SWE 1 11 Draft+2 (ONR)
Nicklas Bergfors F NJD 2005 SHL SWE 1 23 Draft+3 (ONR)

As you can see, notable Swedish prospects rarely make the most immediate of jumps to the NHL. Although there are exceptions of European-trained players who took a direct route from the draft stage to Opening Night, only four of the 36 first-round Swedes can make that claim, albeit a solid list. Victor Hedman (2009), Mika Zibanejad (2011), Adam Larsson (2011) and Elias Lindholm (2013) all dressed on Opening Night for their respective teams, with Zibanejad returning to Sweden after nine games to prevent his contract from counting against Ottawa’s cap. Of course, there is no way to prove that one method is better than the other, as the low “bust rate” of Swedish first rounders makes any decision regarding a Swedish prospect’s development track shielded from raucous criticism.

When it comes to forwards, Sweden hasn’t developed many generational talents who came into a given year as a future NHL star. Mats Sundin, who in 1989 became the first Swede to go first overall, is certainly one of them. Peter Forsberg — sixth overall by Philadelphia in 1991 — followed right behind him. Add the Sedins in 1999 and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom (fourth overall in 2006) to the surprisingly short list of pre-draft hyped attackers either in the Hall of Fame (Sundin, Forsberg) or certainly on the way there. These five players share several things in common, including playing in Sweden for at least one season after getting drafted.

Additionally, things shouldn’t begin and end with how bell-ringing Swedish prospects have developed since 2005. When it comes to drafting most of Europe’s top prospects — some who in a short period of time became NHL royalty — rushing them to North America seems to be far riskier than letting them began their development as NHL property on their own turf.

The top two picks in the 2004 NHL draft — Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Evgeny Malkin — each spent at least one full season in Russia’s elite league before making their respective NHL debuts. Granted, Ovechkin had no choice, as the NHL cancelled the 2004-05 season, whereas Malkin stayed in Russia when the NHL returned in 2005-06. Neither Russia’s Pavel Datsyuk in 1998 nor Sweden’s Henrik Zetterberg in 1999 was a first round pick, and Detroit waited patiently as both spent multiple post-draft seasons in Europe before crossing over to North America and embarking on all-star careers. Two of the NHL’s top Russian-born point producers — Vladimir Tarasenko of St. Louis and Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov — waited close to four years until they debuted. Both were first round picks in 2010. Finland’s Mikael Granlund, the 10th pick in 2009, spent two full season in the elite Liiga before Minnesota lured him to North America. He was tied for 20th in scoring last season. In fact, of the 13 Europeans who finished last season among the league’s Top-30 scorers, only two — Boston’s David Pastrnak and Winnipeg’s Patrick Laine — played in the NHL the season that immediately followed their respective draft year.

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