TORONTO – The 2011 NHL draft is shaping up to be a big one for the Swedes.
Two Swedish-born players figured prominently in mid-season rankings released by the NHL’s central scouting bureau Monday—Kitchener Rangers forward Gabriel Landeskog was listed as the top North American-based skater while Skelleftea AIK defenceman Adam Larsson was the top-ranked European.
One of the two players could become the first Swede to be selected with the No. 1 pick since the Quebec Nordiques took Mats Sundin in 1989.
It’s a change from last year when there wasn’t a single Swede selected in the first round in Los Angeles.
“There’s no conspiracy here, it’s just cyclical,” E.J. McGuire, the NHL’s vice-president of central scouting, said in an interview. “It just so happens that it might be a wave or a bump. Maybe there was a blackout in 1991 or something that caused a lot of Swedish hockey babies to be born.”
The country has produced 20 first-round picks over the past 10 years—seven of which were taken in 2009, when Tampa’s Victor Hedman (No. 2), Phoenix’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson (No. 6) and Edmonton’s Magnus Paajarvi (No. 10) led the way.
Landeskog has travelled a different path than most of his countrymen. After playing a couple games in the Swedish Elite League at the age of 16, he came to North America a year ago and was named captain of the Rangers this season—becoming just the second European ever to wear a C in the Ontario Hockey League.
The move has allowed more scouts to watch him play.
“It’s helped his visibility,” said McGuire.
The 18-year-old leads Kitchener with 25 goals and 45 points in 32 games. However, he was unable to make an impact at the recent world junior championship alongside Larsson after suffering a high-ankle sprain in Sweden’s first tournament game.
It didn’t keep Landeskog from being placed ahead of Sean Couturier of the QMJHL’s Drummondville Voltigeurs and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels in the mid-season rankings.
Jonathan Huberdeau of the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs was listed at No. 4 while Tyler Biggs of the U.S. national developmental program was fifth.
The rankings are always met with debate—McGuire immediately heard from a number of agents who had an axe to grind on behalf of clients—and were tougher than normal to compile. Scouts are still mixed on who deserves to be taken No. 1.
Earlier this year, Don Cherry predicted on “Hockey Night In Canada” that it would be Kitchener defenceman Ryan Murphy. Even though he was ranked No. 10 on Monday, McGuire believes it could still happen.
“Any of those top-10 guys, including Murphy, could be juxtaposed pretty darn easily,” said McGuire. “This is not a year like a Crosby year, or even a Tavares vs. Hedman year or a Tyler vs. Taylor year like last year.
“This is a pretty even pack. And it’s spread around.”
The final rankings will be released in April and the draft will be held June 24-25 at the Xcel Energy Center in Minnesota.
While there may not be a marquee prospect for teams to target, McGuire believes it could end up being a better draft overall.
“If you have Sidney Crosby and a (lesser) group below him, some make the mistake of saying it’s a good draft,” said McGuire. “But it’s only a good draft for the one team of 30 that drafts first. …
“I’d argue that this is a deeper and better draft because the No. 6 picking team doesn’t have to scramble to be one or two. They may get the best player in the draft at six.”
The NHL’s central scouting service is in its 36th year of operation. It employs eight full-time and 15 part-time scouts throughout North America and another six scouts in Europe.