I, For One, Welcome Our New Swedish Overlords

For an organization whose undisputed greatest player ever and face of the franchise is Swedish, in some ways it's surprising past management didn't do more to surround the Captain with a few of his countrymen. Sure, Dackell and Arvedson were around for a time, and who can forget the annual PJ Axelsson to Ottawa dance? Yet for much of the last decade Alfie has continued to skate alone as the lone Senators representative from Sweden.

The Murray regime by comparison seems determined to make up for lost time. Since 2008, of the 21 draft picks the Senators have made, 7 have been Swedes (including the Rundblad-Tarasenko trade). Much of this focus can be attributed to the influence of Anders Forsberg, a now former Sens scout and current head coach of Skelleftea in the Swedish Elite League (SEL). Anders came to the organization on the recommendation of a Detroit contact of Bryan’s, one Håkan Andersson (arguably the most famous scout in the business, who's made a name for himself plucking Datsyuk, Franzen and Zetterberg out of obscurity). As the story goes, it was largely due to Anders and Pierre Dorion’s influence that Bryan was swayed to trade up in ’08 to select Karlsson. Randy Lee recounted the deliberations on the team1200; "(Bryan)…wanted to take some big Canadian kid” but ultimately Anders won out in spite of “Erik looking like a paper boy”.

That decision has few critics today, and Senator management has gone on to select or trade for fellow Tre Kronor compatriots Robin Lehner, David Rundblad, Jakob Silfverberg and Andre Pettersson among others. In light of Ottawa appearing to fashion itself a new Detroit of sorts or in Silfverberg’s words “the Swedish colony in the Canadian Capital”. It seemed as good a time as any to reach out to someone familiar with the Swedish Elite League, and who better than @steffeG (aka SG for the purposes of this interview) an excellent tweeter on all things SEL, who also happens to be a Sens fan.

So without further ado…

Q: First things first, let’s start with an introduction. Whereabouts are you from in Sweden and how did you come to be a Senators fan?

SG: I'm from the more central parts of Sweden, which is fortunate since most teams on the highest levels both in juniors and at the senior levels is within car travelling distance. The story about how I became a Sens fan has surprisingly nothing to do with either Alfie nor Ricard Persson (remember him?). When I started following NHL hockey on a more maniatic level, long before CenterIce and live TV coverage from all the games being available on this side of the pond, I just felt that a "new" team with potential of becoming a well-supported team, a Canadian team, was right. I was really more of a casual follower of the Sens back in the start, but the club has grown on me ever since and now I follow everything Sens, all the time.

Q: Do you have a favorite team in the SEL? and how many games a year do you get out to see live?

SG: I didn't really have a favourite team growing up, either. I'm orginally from a smaller town with a SEL-3-team, so that's my favourite team I'd say. I'd say I see 30-40 games live a year, mostly in Gothenburg (Frölunda), Karlstad (Färjestad), Linköping and Jönköping (HV) and Stockholm (AIK and Djurgården).

Q: Unfortunately it looks like Alfie may be hanging em up sooner rather than later, how would you characterize his legacy in Sweden?

SG: Well, it's kind of funny actually, how the players having success in the NHL are viewed upon here in Sweden. Markus Näslund for example, was never considered one of the superstars even during his glory days for the Canucks. It's always been Forsberg and Sundin, Lidstrom hasn't really been that popular until recent years either. I don't know what it is, but the stardom of the players in Sweden isn't reflected from the stardom of the players in North America.

That being said, Alfredsson has always been very well-liked in Sweden. He's always been great to the media and the fans, and played very well every time he's been wearing the Three Crowns for the national team, which is obviously higlighted by the Olympic Gold from Torino in '06. Alfie will be remembered as a great hockey player, not up there with Forsberg, Lidstrom, Sundin, but right behind them as a tier-II player of that generation. More importantly, will be remembered as a great leader and a great person.

Q: Does Alfie do a lot of swearing when he's back home, or only when he's winning SEL championships?

SG: No, he doesn't usually swear, and the "fucking" it's being translated to is a "worse" curse than what he actually used, it was more of a "gosh darn it" kind of thing. I can only think of one other time when he's been even the slightest rude to the media, and that was after Sweden's loss to Slovakia in the Vancouver games;

Reporter: "Out in the quarters, must feel like a major choke?"
Alfredsson: "Absolutely not."
Reporter: "Thank you."
Alfredsson: *Walking away* "What kind of fucking (again, not as bad a word but couldn't figure out a better translation) question is that? Idiot!"

Q: Swedish hockey development seems to be in a really strong place at the moment, what would you attribute that to?

SG: Well, you're right, we're producing more talent than ever, or at least the quantity of talented players is way up. Swedish hockey have, much like the society in general, been afraid of people who takes up much space and try to create things, be better than the others. There's always been a very strong team-first mentality and a mentality that no one should paint outside the lines. However, that has changed quite a bit since a few years back when the Swedish version of Hockey Canada (Swedish Hockey Association/Svenska Ishockeyförbundet) reformed their way of developing players and the purpose of the national teams. The education of coaches is much better, especially on the goaltending side which is starting to result just now. It's also been a major change in the approach to the game, it's now more okay to want to win all the time, to be the best all the time, and not just take a number and stay in line. We've always developed great hockey thinkers, great defensively responsible and cautious players. But now we're starting to get exciting players as well, as Erik and David for us for example, Nicklas Bäckström for the Caps, Calle Järnkrok, Tedenby etc. Most of them are still two-way-guys, but there's been a more open approach to the creative minds in the latter years which has benefitted everyone's development and the quality of the junior leagues.

Q: The Czech and Slovak hockey federations have raised concerns recently that too many young players are leaving to play overseas in the CHL and NHL. As a result, it's argued their development is being stunted which affects both the competitiveness of their professional leagues and national teams. Are there similar voices in Sweden?, and calls for players to stay in the SEL longer to develop?

SG: No, there hasn't really been too much concern over that. So many stay an extra year, and the success of the large part of everyone going over has quieted critiques. It's a little bit with goaltenders playing in the AHL (like they have too, in my mind) but there's enough quality staying in Sweden and such great width on the goaltending talent back here that it doesn't really matter. There aren't really that many players that chooses the CHL route and most "big" prospects have been great in the SEL before they cross the pond. Of course, SEL fans want them to stay, but it's not a rising issue and most people respect and understand their desire to play in the NHL.

Q: There's a perception in Canada at the moment that we're doing a poor job of developing goaltenders. Is there a position or kind of player that's perceived to be a weakness of Swedish hockey development?

SG: Carey Price isn't enough, huh? ;-) It's "always" been goaltending and goal-scoring forwards, but now we have great goaltending on all levels, so that would leave the goal-scoring forwards. There's really only been Håkan Loob for the Flames way back, and Näslund and Sedin (if you don't count the likes of Alfie and Sundin who scored pretty well some years), but we've never had the consistent goal scorers, the Nashs, Kovalchuks, Heatleys, Brett Hulls.

We don't get many pure physical players either, but that is more considered a strength than a weakness in Sweden.

Q: I’m going to go out on a limb and assume Detroit has the largest following in Sweden, but after that which teams are the most popular? Is Ottawa's hoarding of Swedish draftee's paying off in that department?

SG: You're right in assuming that, and it's mostly Eastern teams for obvious reasons. It's the teams with significant Swedes mostly, like the Rangers from Hank, Leafs from Sundin, Canucks from Naslund and Sedins, Sens from Alfie, and then there's a pretty big support for the "bigger" Eastern clubs like the Caps, Pens, Flyers as well. It's very rare for someone to cheer for the Cats, for instance, but you get that. :-)

I'd say the Swedish "invasion" has helped increasing interest in the Sens, but not massively boosted the amount of people having them as their favourite team. But then again, just like me, most of the Swedish fans don't just follow their team, but the NHL in general and watch a lot of different teams. When the Sens start winning again, and probably having Erik, Rundblad, Silfverberg, Regin (not Swedish but "adopted") and maybe some more Swedish guys on the team, it will attract some new supporters.

Q: My sister was living in Jönköping last year, and has remarked about how thrilled/excited/drunk the entire city was after HV71 won the Elitserien. How would you describe the fan culture in the SEL?

SG: I'd say the "normal" fan isn't as wild about the team as for instance a fan of an NHL team is in the playoffs, it's more divided into "sitting supporters" and the hardcore fans singing and jumping as you probably would recognize as soccer style. Generally, most people are more reserved and mostly complaining. :-)

Q: Alright I'd love to get your take on a few Sens prospects playing in the SEL and J20.

Jakob Silfverberg had some very respectable numbers this season, 18G, 34 PTS in 53 GP. Do you think he's ready to step into the NHL next year, or would another year or two with Brynäs be more beneficial? I've seen his game loftily compared to Alfredssons, is that accurate at all?

SG: I think he could play next year, especially with the type of season we are expecting from the Sens, but his situation in Sweden is also looking great and would also benefit his development, especially that he would, for the first time at the senior level, really be counted on for a full season to provide goal-scoring and be a go-to guy. Having said that, there are many little things you need to learn in the NHL and I'd rather have him learn them next year than the year after that. He wouldn't look out of place in the NHL, but not be a big scorer either.
The Silfverberg-to-Alfie-comarpison is fair in the sense that they're skilled two-way wingers with good shots, but it's really not justified to say that Silfverberg's top-end potential is anywhere near where Alfie was at his peak, and certainly not something that should be counted on from Silfverberg. He's probably one of the most improved players of the young Swedes this year, taking a big step forward into a leading role at Brynäs, not only counted on for goal-scoring but playing big minutes and more importantly, key minutes.

Q: André Pettersson has been slowed by back problems for some time now, but how did he look in the few games he did play last season?

SG: André had such an amazing pre-season and looked poised to have a breakout year, stepping into a major scoring role at HV, but the back issues ruined that. If he would've been healthy, I'm absolutely sure that Sens fans would be singing his praise right now, and he could even have been considered for the Worlds. If he gets his back issues sorted out, the sky is the limit, really. Absolutely love what André brings in terms of his shot, his vision and his one-on-one-skills.

Q: The Senators went a little off the board in LA last June selecting Marcus Sörensen 106th, but that pick is looking pretty shrewd at the moment. Your thoughts on his game, and if you think he stands a good chance of playing significant minutes at the World Juniors next year?

SG: What's really to like about Sörensen is his work ethic along with the skill set. He's always trying to be the hardest worker for his team, which makes him a contributor even the rare off nights for his offensive game. He will probably be promoted to the big club, playing at the SEL level and if he stays up there, should also get a WJC spot, probably in a 2nd or 3rd line. I think he'll get much more attention next year, as is expected when he breaks into the SEL. Hopefully, he can make the transition look easy, but otherwise, a loan to SEL-2 isn't out of question. He's likely signing with Skellefteå if I'm informed correctly, joining Anders Forsberg.

Q: For a 20 y/o D-man David Rundblad has obviously had a spectacular season, were you surprised at the numbers he was able to put up?

SG: Well, both yes and no. I don't think anyone here was surprised that Rundblad would be an offensive force for his team and a great PPQB, but on the other hand, those numbers are truly amazing, especially at that age, so I'm not gonna pretend like anyone really talked in "point-per-game, third overall in scoring terms". He was expected to about double his production from last year, chipping in a solid 20-30 points this year, but he's really exceeded any kind of offensive expectations. The same question marks from recent years still remain, though.
 

Q: On the subject of those "question marks", what part of his game needs the most refinement? And do you think he'll need to spend significant time in the AHL next year?

SG: I don't think he will spend significant time in the A, but I think he should. You know how we complain about Erik Karlsson, that he's too risky, too soft, and out of position? Rundblad may not be as soft as Erik, but the other worries are even bigger with David. He's skilled enough to play a "junior's game" at the men's level, but that won't fly in the NHL. Mistakes get punished there. As he progresses, he will learn to cut down on the creativity, to be creative with a bit of a safety margin, but he's never gonna be a defensive stud, he will just have to learn to be good enough so he can be used regularly and not be put in the Marc-André Bergeron-folder where everyone wants you on their power play but nobody wants you out there 5-on-5.

Q: I’ve seen and read some criticism of Rundblad’s game in the Swedish media. Two weeks ago he won the Borje Salming Trophy (best d-man in the SEL). Since that time has David faced any backlash similar to what Mike Green could expect if he won a Norris?

SG: That's a great comparison, Rundblad's basically the Swedish Mike Green in terms of how he's viewed upon by the fans. He's always mentioned as Mike Green, like he doesn't really count as a "real" defenseman because of his offensive mindset, although I think both of them have improved on the other side of the puck in the last year. They're still considered a "4th forward" or "rovers", and both fans and experts are questioning giving out awards to a player that isn't really among the top defenders in his own zone. That's the same reason that many fans don't want Rundblad to go to the Worlds either, because they think he's a liability, especially against a Canadian or Russian team, where the team won't carry the play for the most part.

Q: Skelleftea are in the Elitserien finals at the moment, how has Rundblad looked in the playoffs?

SG: He's been quite good. Not as dominant as he was at times during the regular season, and his team's power play struggles have been a major let-down for them, but he's been carrying the puck and playing with the same confidence as if it was the regular season. He's been getting a lot of negative criticism from fans and experts that he's making bad decisions with the puck and defensively, and I agree to that extent for a bit, but I don't think it's as bad as some turn it out to be. However, the mistake you can make three times in SEL you can't make once in the NHL, so it's more me worried about his NHL career than it is that he's actually a huge liability for his team in the SEL, he really isn't.

Q: Looking forward to the draft, at the top of the class Adam Larsson and Gabriel Landeskog seem to be locks to go in the top three. If Ottawa is lucky enough to have either fall to them or they trade up, what do you see as each player's realistic upside?

SG: As often is pointed out, the sky is the limit for Adam Larsson. But the limit does not equal the realistic expectations. I think anyone expecting more than a stable defensive d-man that can move the puck with ease and maybe chip in on the second PP unit, is gonna be disappointed. He does not have the offensive flare of a Drew Doughty, Cam Fowler, Erik Karlsson or other yong D-men climbing into the league in the past years. It's more realistic to expect a Chris Phillips-like career than a Nick Lidstrom or Shea Weber-one.

With Gabby, I could see him being a great fill-out on a first line. Not being on the first line purely based on skill, but to add grit to two other skilled players and still not look out of place. Think Burrows with the Sedins, like Kunitz have been for Crosby, but I'd definitely say he's more skilled with the puck even than those guys. He could carry his own line, he's no crash-and-bang-slouch. People seem to forget his skill set (which is by no means close to Nugent, that should be made clear) because of his other qualities. I expect a Mike Richards type of player, a gritty leader that can also carry the puck. Maybe you have to put a "light" post on Mike Richards, but I don't wanna do that, because I think it's realistic for Landeskog to top out at that kind of production, netting 60-75 points a year on a regular basis.

Q: Mika Zibanejad has started to creep into the top 10 in a few draft rankings. What once looked like a player to target with the Nashville pick may end up being in the mix with Ottawa’s first. If the Senators end up taking him what kind of a player would they be getting?

SG: Well, I doubt they'd take him unless we move up or down, depending on which pick we're talking about. But if we were to take him, or for the team that does, for that matter, they'll be getting a very versatile player. A kid that started the year as a pretty unknown name outside of the most initiated people, ended it with the senior team in the SEL playoffs, doing it all. He was hitting, carrying the puck, making plays, killing penalties, playing the power-play, was on the ice in the last minute to defend a lead, was on the ice in the last minute to try to get the equalizer.

In terms of what he brings in actual skill set, there's really no "top end" quality there, really, just so many good ones. Powerful skater, pretty good hitter, pretty good hands, average shot, above average offensive sense with the puck but no wizard by any means, good "hockey body", smart without the puck, great working in the corners and around the net.

He'll project as a second line center/wing, and to make it easy for Sens fans, think of a little bit smarter, more skilled Fisher.

Q: If it isn’t too sacrilegious to ask a Swede about a Finn….What’s your take on Joel Armia’s game?

SG: Haven't seen him as much as any of the Swedes, obviously, but he's a good goal scorer. Don't get fooled by the dissapointment of the WJC, his awareness around the net and his shot is the best out of any of the European prospects this year. The knock on him is that he doesn't bring much more than his scoring, like for example Zibanejad does. Many areas of improvement and will need a real good playmaker to be succesful at the NHL level.

Q: Among the rest of the notable Swedes whose game are you the most high on among; Oscar KlefomRichard RakellVictor RaskJonas Brodin?

SG: I love Brodin's game, he's got the smooth-skating, calming, tape-to-tape-passing presence that made Oliver Ekman climb the rankings a few years back. Klefbom may not be as good a transitional defender as Brodin, but his size/smarts/skating combo makes him a low-risk pick, since he could fill out any role in your defense corps, and contribute a lot even if he doesn't reach maximum offensive potential. Rask could be a good value pick since his situation this year really has hurt his stock, but I think he'll climb a bit with a good U18 Worlds performance, which he's started on the top line with Zibanejad and fellow '11 draftee Jeremy Boyce.

I don't like Rakell that much, he doesn't posess the hockey intelligence necessary to warrant a pick in the range he's projected to be in, but that's really more of a matter of my preference of hockey players and my philosophy than anything else. He brings a lot of good things to the table, otherwise he'd obviously not be ranked within the first two rounds.

Q: Any potential sleepers you like later in the draft?

SG: Well, I know many Sens fans are depending on Lehner to be a future franchise goaltender (I'm not but that's a different story), but overage goalie Magnus Hellberg I've been pushing for all year. He's big, very sound technically and comminucates well with his D. Hard to project because he's older than the other players in the draft and the fact that he's a goalie, but I'm absolutely certain that he will turn out to be a great pick whenever and from whoever he's picked. He out-dueled Swedish WJC backup Fredrik Pettersson-Wentzel (Thrashers) for his club, and now he's taking the step to the SEL with Lundqvist and Lehner's former club Frölunda. 

Rasmus Bengtsson's combination of size and skill makes him a very interesting pick, if he adds muscle the sky's the limit. Could go in round 3.

Mattias Bäckman is another defenseman that will go a little bit later, but is also very intelligent and great with the puck. He's a project, but with good potential.

The four picks with the most value in my books out of the Swedish players are Landeskog, Brodin, Klefbom and Hellberg.

Q: Alright that’s the last of my questions. If you have any interest in Swedish hockey I can’t recommend following @steffeG enough. Thanks again for the interview. The last word is yours if there's anything else you'd like to add?

SG: My pleasure, always happy to talk anything hockey, really. And here's to a better year Sens-wise, starting at the draft! Cheers!


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