Frölunda Five aim to make NHL Draft an Indian summer
Bill Meltzer | NHL.com correspondent
Jun 13, 2007, 10:37 AM EDT
Frölunda J20 center Lars Eller is ranked 3rd among European skaters in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft by Central Scouting. Some have likened his skills to Swedish NHL stars Henrik Zetterberg or Peter Forsberg.
The Frölunda Indians of Gothenburg, Sweden are one of the proudest hockey franchises in Europe. Although its professional team stumbled this year in Elitserien (the Swedish Elite League), the club reached at least the semifinals in each of five previous seasons and won a pair of championships. Meanwhile, the organization’s highest-level junior team won the 2007Under-20 SuperElit championship and boasts an array of the top prospects in Europe for both the 2007 and 2008 NHL Entry Drafts.
This year, a quintet of players from the junior championship team – Lars Eller, Simon Hjalmarsson, Joakim Andersson, goaltender Joel Gistedt and defenseman Jens Hellgren – expect to be selected in the draft. All but Hellgren are likely to go on the first day of the draft. In fact, Eller, Hjalmarsson and Andersson are all potential first round or early second-round picks.
The “Frölunda Five” will continue a tradition that has seen NHL teams draft 25 Frölunda players since 1997 alone. On two previous occasions, Frölunda has had four of its players selected in a single draft year.
According to an NHL Western Conference scout, there’s even a possibility that a sixth player from the J20 team – likely one among unranked 20-year-old center Isaac Haag, small 20-year-old offensive defenseman Jonathan Svensson or unranked 19-year-old defenseman Simon Eliasson – could get picked late in the draft. Patrik Zackrisson, ranked 71st among European skaters in Central Scouting’s final rankings, is also a product of the Frölunda junior system. However, because he now plays for Rögle BK in Allsvenskan (Sweden’s highest minor league), he would be recorded as a Rögle pick if he’s selected.
The Frölunda Indians are used to having their players selected in the NHL Entry Draft. To date, there have been 37 players drafted from the Gothenburg club. That ranks second to Djurgården among Swedish teams. The total will likely grow to 42 this year, with forwards Lars Eller, Simon Hjalmarsson, Joakim Andersson, goaltender Joel Gistedt and defenseman Jens Hellgren all expected to be selected at various points in the draft.
Ottawa Senators captain Alfredsson and retired defenseman Calle Johansson are the Frölunda standard bearers. Rising star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers is rapidly gaining similar stature. The program also produced long-time NHL checking forward Mikael Andersson and numerous players who have had successful European and international hockey careers. Of course, there have also been duds mixed in, whose careers never took off on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.
A handful of the players drafted from Frölunda were “overage” players with years of experience playing in Sweden; examples include Jonas Johnson, a veteran Elitserien offensive standout drafted in 2002 by the St. Louis Blues when he was 32 years of age. Defenseman Ronnie Sundin was 26 when the Rangers took a flier on him.
But the vast majority of the 37 draftees have been of the traditional variety – players drafted while junior-aged or in their early 20s. Interestingly, there have also been two sets of twin brothers (the Lundqvists and the Wikners) drafted and three pairs of brothers overall, including Mikael and Niklas Andersson.
Here is a year-by-year history of the 37 players drafted to date. The numbers after the player’s name indicate the draft round and overall selection number.
1984 -- Mikael Andersson RW (1/18, Buffalo), Stefan Larsson (D 7/133, Detroit)
2004 -- Richard Demen-Willaume D (5/154, Colorado), Fred Wikner LW (6/182, Calgary), Anton Axelsson LW (6/192, Detroit), John Wikner RW (9/284, Ottawa)
2005 -- Morten Madsen C (4/122, Minnesota), Fredrik Pettersson LW (5/157 Edmonton), Kirill Starkov C (6/189, Columbus)
2006 -- Robin Figren RW (3/70, New York Islanders), Jonas Ahnelöv D (3/88, Phoenix), Viktor Stahlberg LW (6/161, Toronto)
If all five ranked prospects are selected in the 2007 Entry Draft, Frölunda will outpace every other hockey program in the world in terms of representation at this year’s draft. Meanwhile, Frölunda could have as many as three additional players selected in the first or second round of the 2008 NHL draft: forwards Mikkel Bødker and Anton Gustafsson and defenseman Philip Larsen.
“I think it is remarkable and a testament to the Frölunda program, both on the development front and scouting, to have that many players rated high for the draft. Last time I remember seeing something similar was when Modo Hockey in Sweden and Russian teams like Dynamo or Yaroslavl came up with a great age group,” said St. Louis Blues assistant general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen.
Much of the credit for Frölunda’s success in developing NHL prospects goes to its junior program director Emil Olsén, youth development director Bertil Carlsson and J20 coach Jens Gustavsson. Their work speaks for itself in terms of identifying top young talent, creating a productive learning environment and bringing the most out of players on a winning team.
“The reason why so many picks come from their program,” says one Western Conference NHL scout, “is that they produce character kids who play team hockey. They’re fundamentally sound players who work hard without the puck and play the game the right way. It’s not a system where one star or two stars do all the scoring and everyone else does all the checking.”
Coach Gustavsson’s squad was dominant in five-on-five situations during the three-phase SuperElit season (regional regular season, combined top-eight round, playoffs). The team got balanced scoring, with seven players reaching double-digit goals.
Meanwhile, the powerplay, triggered by playmaker Eller, top sniper Hjalmarsson, Bødker, Andersson, defenseman Jonas Ahnelöv (a Phoenix Coyotes prospect drafted last year), Larsen and Svensson scored a combined 67 goals. The club also scored a combined 11 shorthanded goals. What was initially thought to be a transitional year turned instead into a banner season.
“Coming into the season, we lost a couple of talented players from last season. Kirill Starkov, Morten Madsen and Robin Figren all went to the CHL. Patrik Zackrisson went to Rögle. And, of course, all the good players born in ’86 were gone because they’re too old for junior hockey in Sweden,” recalls Gustavsson.
“We started the season almost with a whole new team, very talented but with less experience at the J20 hockey level. We had 12 players born in ‘89 and two players born in 1990 on the roster. One positive from the roster turnover was that our most talented players got space to take on bigger roles and play their game.”
Despite the youth on the J20 roster, the team gelled quickly. With a regular core of NHL scouts in the stands, the youngsters on the club came into their own.
“Our defense had a positive progress throughout the whole season and peaked during the playoffs. When it comes to offensive play, it´s all about giving the players the confidence – both as a team and individuals – to perform better. The more important the game, the more you want young players to embrace their roles. We have had the kinds of players who can make the unexpected move without taking too big of risks even when the game is tied late in the third period,” says Gustavsson.
In goal, 19-year-old Joel Gistedt graduated from the J20 team to the Elitserien squad early in the season and supplanted veteran Tommy Salo as the primary starter. Pontus Hansson took over for Gistedt on the J20 team. After Frölunda’s big squad failed to qualify for the playoffs – largely the product of a horrendous start that cost head coach Stephan Lundh his job and saw him replaced with Per Bäckman – Gistedt returned to the J20 team and backstopped them to the SuperElit championship.
Gistedt, who also started for Team Sweden at the 2007 World Junior Championships in Leksand and Mora, is the number-one ranked European goaltender in Central Scouting’s final ratings. An above-average stickhandling goalie with good all-around athletic skills, Gistedt could still use some work not committing too early to drop down in the butterfly.
“The biggest difference from last season is that Joel is a lot stronger both physically and mentally,” says Gustavsson. “Joel is a lot like Henrik Lundqvist in his style but also better with his stick. If Joel continues to progress the way he`s done so far, perhaps he will have the same success as Henrik in the NHL.”
Danish talent pipeline pays off
One of the defining characteristics of Frölunda’s junior success has been Olsén’s uncanny ability to identify top prospects from Denmark and recruit the players to further their development in Gothenburg. Very quietly, Danish youth programs have started to churn out high-end prospects at a steady rate and Frölunda has been at the cutting edge of cultivating a Danish talent pipeline.
“Our method of scouting started with former NHL player Tomas Steen – Alexander Steen’s father – when he was on our junior program. We have continued what he started and developed the way we work,” says Gustavsson. “When it comes to Danish players I think, of course, over the years we have built a good reputation. But it´s also about the location of Denmark. It´s only a three-hour drive for us from Göteborg, so it comes natural for us to scout in Denmark compared to scouting the far north of Sweden were it takes us a two-hour flight. It’s the opposite situation for a northern team such as Modo.”
Frölunda has surpassed the Malmö IF Red Hawks and Modo Hockey Örnsköldsvik as the destination of choice for top Danish players. It should be noted that Modo’s world-famous development program has not typically aimed for teenage Danish players. Instead, the Modo organization has primarily looked at older Danes who are already established pros or Elitserien-ready prospects who have done well in lower-caliber leagues.
The fruits of Frölunda’s labors in Denmark have already started to pay off. Minnesota Wild prospect Morten Madsen and Columbus Blue Jackets draftee Kirill Starkov both developed in the Frölunda junior system before coming over to North America.
The Russian-born Starkov, selected by the Blue Jackets in the sixth round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, tallied 34 goals and 72 points for the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels this season. Madsen, a fourth-round pick by the Wild in the same draft, had 32 goals and 100 points this season for the QMJHL’s Victoriaville Tigers. Both players suited up for Denmark at the 2007 IIHF World Championships in Moscow.
Three Danish players – Eller, Bødker and Larsen – played important roles in Frölunda winning this year’s J20 SuperElit championship. Eller is rated third among European skaters in Central Scouting’s final rankings for the 2007 draft. He’s widely regarded as a top-notch playmaker, above-average finisher and excellent skater who is also responsible enough defensively to kill penalties.
"Eller has come on as much as any player in this draft. Last year you could see the skill level but he was undersized even for a junior player. This year he's grown and added strength. In terms of skill, he is a plus skater and shooter and an excellent playmaker. He's a kid with a lot of upside," says one Eastern Conference NHL scout.
One big factor in Eller’s progress has been that he has grown several inches and started to fill out his frame over the last year. At 17, he now stands a legitimate six feet tall and weighs about 200 pounds, and should continue to add muscle to complement his speed.
The son of former player and longtime coach Olaf Eller, Lars Eller is likely to be picked anywhere from the middle of the first round to the early second round. Many scouts have likened his potential to Detroit Red Wings star Henrik Zetterberg at the same age. While Gustavsson cautions that it’s hard for any player to live up to such lofty expectations, he sees no limit on the young Dane’s potential.
“Lars is very determined in his goal-settings, both as an individual and a team player. He has a fantastic attitude to improve his game every day. I can honestly say I don’t see any weaknesses in his offensive game,” says Gustavsson. “What Eller needs to continue improving, like most young players, is his play without the puck. But Lars had a fantastic season. He has led the team with his play in a very mature way. It`s hard to compare young players with today’s star players, but I would say Lars is Denmark’s answer to Peter Forsberg.”
Able to play either center or wing with equal skill, Eller had 18 goals and 37 assists for 55 points in 39 games this season for Frölunda’s J20 team. He was also a key member of Denmark’s victorious entries at both the IIHF Division I Under-20 World Championships (seven points in five games) and Division I Under-18 Championships (10 points in five games).
“He has no real weaknesses to his game,” says one independent scout. “Skating is top notch. Stickhandling is top notch. Passing is top notch. Plus he's a mature, two-way player. He's filling out his frame, so size isn't really a concern any more. He isn't afraid to get hit. If there's a flaw, it's that he's sometimes a little too unselfish and passes up open shots. …I think he'll be an NHL player and could be a very good one.”
Meanwhile, Frölunda J20 right winger Mikkel Bødker could be a top-five pick in next year’s NHL draft, according to The Hockey News. A creative player with soft hands and jet-propelled skates, he had 19 goals and 49 points in 39 SuperElit matches this season. At the Division I Under-18 Worlds, Bødker led all players in the tournament in both points and assists to win Best Forward honors.
Defenseman Philip Larsen is also likely to be drafted early in the 2008 NHL draft. Larsen, who turned 17 in December, had 18 points in 37 SuperElit games this season and even earned a five-game callup to the Elitserien team. Last year, he was selected as the top defenseman at the Division I Under-18 World Championships. This year, he was a mainstay in Denmark’s victorious Under-20 Division I WJC lineup.
Frölunda recently announced that two additional top Danish youngsters, forwards Mark Mieritz and Sebastian Svendsen, have been recruited to join the J20 team. A year ago, Svendsen scored 15 goals in 14 goals for Rødovre IK at the Danish Under-19 level, while teammate Mieritz had 29 points in 17 games.
“We’re extremely happy that we secured these Danish talents for us,” said Olsén of the newest recruits. “They both have a good combination of ambition, talent and modesty.”
Toronto Maple Leafs center Alexander Steen could still blossom into NHL stardom, Per-Johan Axelsson has been one of the top checking forwards in the NHL for several years and St. Louis Blues defenseman Christian Bäckman played his best all-around NHL season to date this year. But Alfredsson and Lundqvist are the marquee Frölunda names to most North American fans and will remain so until the next Indians alumnus emerges as a top NHL star.
Center Joakim Andersson is ranked 5th among European skaters in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft by Central Scouting. The captain of Frölunda's junior championship team, he is considered one of the best two-way players in the draft.
Despite the lengthy roll call of Frölunda players picked at the NHL draft over the years, there haven’t been many upper echelon stars. Instead, the players who make it to the NHL tend to blend in with their clubs. Among the Frölunda players likely to be selected in the 2007 draft, only Eller and Simon Hjalmarsson have the natural offensive flair to potentially become high-scoring NHLers.
Hjalmarsson is one of the best finishers to come through the Swedish junior ranks in quite some time. He has a very quick shot release, can puck the puck upstairs even from in close and is accomplished on the backhand as well as the forehand. He is also a nifty stickhandler and a good passer. Some have compared his offensive skill package to that of Kristian Huselius or a more goal-scoring minded Michael Nylander. Hjalmarsson ranked sixth on Central Scouting’s final European skater list.
This season, he scored 31 goals and 54 points during the season for Frölunda (although he only scored once and had two points during Frölunda's victorious playoff run). Hjalmarsson's nose for the net combined nicely with Lars Eller's ice vision and playmaking ability. He is also unafraid of the rough stuff, as his 91 penalty minutes in 41 games attest. Although scouts say there's still room for improvement in his play without the puck, he is decent defensively and should continue to improve with additional experience.
“I see these kids every day, and I would say there´s not much difference in potential between Eller and Hjalmarsson,” says Gustavsson. “Hjalmarsson has been our top scorer and at the same time one of our best penalty killers. That gives you an idea of his big range of playing different style games. He has a tremendous work ethic. It´s hard to take the puck from Simon and he protects the puck very well. He has a humble, laid back attitude off the ice, and a real competitive, winning attitude on the ice. To compare his game to someboby is hard, since his game has so many faces in a positive way. But I would say if you mix Michael Nylander and Sean Avery you will have Hjalmarsson.”
Hjalmarsson excelled for Team Sweden at the Under-18 World Championships, scoring four times and adding five assists in six games. Much of the damage came in his five-point bronze medal game against Canada. Prior to the U-18s, he was the third highest point-getter at the Five Nations tournament.
The main knocks on Hjalmarsson are his lack of size and strength. Although he is willing to get his nose dirty by venturing into traffic, his ability to do so at a higher level remains to be proven. While the 5-foot-11, 161-pound player, has slighty above-average speed, he's not a blazer. These factors may knock him out of the first round of this year’s draft, although it would not be a surprise if he were picked late in the first round.
"He's a good prospect but I don't think his upside all-around is quite as good as Eller. There's more guesswork about his size and his skating. But he has two things you can't teach -- hands and work ethic. He keeps his legs moving, and he competes," the Eastern Conference scout said of Hjalmarsson.
Hjalmarsson comes from a hockey family. The youngest of three hockey-playing brothers, his older brothers, Erik and Gustav, play for Swedish minor league clubs Nybro IF and the Växjö Lakers respectively.
While Hjalmarsson is considered something of a wildcard due to his lack of size, Frölunda J20 center Joakim Andersson is regarded as a safe pick. Rated fifth among European skaters in the final Central Scouting ratings for the 2007 draft, J20 center Joakim Andersson has a lot of things going for him that NHL scouts like.
Unlike Hjalmarsson, Andersson’s talents are more in the mold of Anaheim Ducks pivot Samuel Pahlsson (Påhlsson in Swedish) or fellow Frölunda products P.J. Axelsson and Mikael Andersson than a future NHL scoring star.
“Andersson has been one of our captains this year even despite his young age. He´s a real team leader,he puts the team in the room first in every situation. You know what you will get from him every day,” says Gustavvson. “It´s hard to find a better player in his age group when it comes to defensive play. He also sets up the powerplay for us since he is a good passer. He´s a real two-way center.He has improved his skating this year, and hopefully that progress will continue. I would agree that he’s a Påhlsson type.”
At the SuperElit level Andersson is a fine offensive performer (20 goals and 46 points in 41 games this season). But if he has an NHL future, it will likely be as a solid defensive forward, rather than a scorer. Even when suiting up for Sweden’s Under-18 national team, he took on more of a defensive role.
"If he improves his skating a little bit, I think he could be a [third line] type in the NHL,” says the Eastern Conference scout. “He has some offensive skills and he is strong playing without the puck. I don't think he's as good as [Mikael] Backlund but I think he's a fairly safe pick. He's pretty good now and should get better."
Originally a product of Munkedals BK, Andersson has been with the Frölunda system for the last few years. His cousin, Fredrik Johansson, was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 9th round (#274 overall) of the 2002 draft. Johansson, a center, now plays as a checking liner for Frölunda's big club. Andersson got into one game with the Elitserien squad this season and was also briefly loaned to Division I (minor league) team Kungälvs IK, failing to get on the scoresheet in limited ice time.
Putting it all together
The only player among Frölunda’s five ranked Entry Draft prospects who may fall to the middle rounds of the 2007 draft is defenseman Jens Hellgren. The big defenseman (6-foot-3, 191 pounds) is rated 17th on the final Central Scouting European list.
Hellgren has all the physical tools usually seen in a first-round draft pick. In addition to his size, he is a good skater and passer. But he has been an inconsistent player for the J20 team (a team-worst minus-five during the regular season, but a plus-one in the playoffs). He had four goals and 10 points. Hellgren also played for bronze-medalist Sweden at the Under-18 Worlds, going without a point. He was even in plus-minus.
“I think he can do a lot more that we've seen at both ends of the ice. He doesn’t seem to trust his ability yet. Based on performance, I thought he was the third-best defenseman the Swedes had at the Under-18s. Based on tools, I'd put him first,” the Eastern Conference scout says.
Keep in mind that defensemen typically mature later as players than forwards. That’s particularly true for larger defensemen, who take time to grow into their bodies and learn the nuances of position. Hellgren’s biggest challenge going forward will be to simplify his game and not let one mistake turn into two.
“Hellgren has all ingredients: passing, shooting, skating and ice vision. He`s one of our most athletic players.When it comes to improvement, Hellgren needs to play more aggressive, and by that also gain more confidence.I´m sure that will happen this coming season,” says Gustavsson.
For next season, Gustavsson expects another transitional season on the roster. The success of the team this year means another group will be moving up the ladder.
“Larsen has signed a full contract with our pro team. All the other youngsters have been signed to tryout contracts. If they won´t make it all the way to Elitserien next year, they will play with minor league team Boras in Allsvenskan and maybe a few junior games with us. But, hopefully, I won´t see them too much with the junior team the coming season,” the coach says.
Come next season, yet another highly regarded talent will assume a more prominent role on the J20 squad. Center Anton Gustafsson, the son of Swedish national team head coach and former Washington Capitals player Bengt-Åke Gustafsson, graduated from Frölunda’s J18 team to the J20 side during the 2006-07 season.
Ranked by the Hockey News as a potential top-10 pick in the 2008 NHL draft, the 6-foot-2, 190 pound Gustafsson suited up in 26 games for the J20 team this past season, scoring 5 goals and adding 3 assists. He also showed a willingness to play physically. Gustafsson turned 17 years of age on February 25 of this year.
Regardless of what happens in the short-term future, the Frölunda junior system seems poised to continue churning out NHL draft prospects with both craft and precision. In a decade where the percentage of players drafted from Europe has dropped dramatically since 2000, Frölunda continues to grow as a source of developing future NHL players.
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