A goal, a glare and Steve Spott was sold.
Before Spott was benefiting from Gabriel Landeskog’s beautiful mash-up of skill and will, he was burned by it while serving as an assistant coach for Canada at the world under-18s in Fargo, N.D. in 2009. A 16-year-old Landeskog, playing against some guys who had already turned 18, was representing his home county.
“There was a kid on Sweden who had a full cage on and he scored a goal against us on the power play and as he came by our bench he kind of stared us down,” Spott recalled. “And in the back of my head, although I was coaching Team Canada, I had my general manager’s cap on for Kitchener and I said ‘I better find out who that kid is.’ ”
That kid is a stereotype-smashing Swede who doesn’t just play like he grew up in Canada’s prairies, but talks like it, too. When Landeskog speaks about wanting to learn English at a young age because he knew it would help smooth the path from Stockholm to his dream of becoming an NHLer, it’s with an accent thinner than most runway models.
“I started paying attention in English class pretty early back home,” he said.
Drafted third overall by the Plymouth Whalers in the 2009 CHL import draft, Landeskog refused to report because he had already forged a bond with Spott and the Rangers, who expected they would be able to take him at No. 6. A trade was arranged and a relationship grew between the Swede and a city that takes its junior hockey very seriously.
“You don’t become the Kitchener Rangers’ captain, especially a Swedish-born player, without having character and grit and the intangibles to handle the media in this city,” Spott said. “For us, this is the Green Bay Packers of junior hockey. It’s front page every day.”
Coaches are usually loath to make comparisons between prospects and players who’ve already established themselves as NHL stars. But Spott sees such striking similarities between Landeskog and former Kitchener captain and current Flyers ‘C’ bearer Mike Richards that he enthusiastically makes the correlation. For evidence, Spott cites the way Landeskog, a left-shooting right winger who turned 18 in November, takes young players around the team’s weight room and out for dinner. With skates on, the similarities become even more pronounced.
“He just does those things ‘Richie’ did when he was with us,” Spott said.
Added fellow Ranger and Maple Leafs prospect Jerry D’Amigo: “He works for pucks and grinds. He has skill, too. A lot of players can’t blend those two things.”
Landeskog relishes the physical game. The idea of supplementing skill with a little smash was introduced by his dad, who played two years in the Swedish League. It took the youngster a little while to strike the perfect balance, but the end result emboldens Spott to declare Landeskog will one day be an NHL captain.
Other top players in the draft might have one higher gear talent-wise, but Spott points to a 200-foot game and the ability to generate chances through creativity and pure perseverance as Landeskog’s greatest strength.
“I know this draft pretty well,” Spott said, “having coached at the national level and with Team Canada and I can tell you there’s not a player in this draft who’s ready to step in like Gabriel.”
This article originally appeared in THN’s 2011 Draft Preview.