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Prospect Roundup: The Impressive Djurgårdens Pipeline to the NHL

Everyone knows about powerhouse development programs like the London Knights and Chicago Steel. But Djurgårdens in Sweden has proven to be a major stepping stone to the NHL, too.
Alexander Holtz

Hockey has a few notable powerhouse development pipelines in the sport. 

The OHL's London Knights, the USHL's Chicago Steel, and the U.S. National Team Development Program are often the programs getting the shine from media and fans alike.

While the volume of players that these programs produce is nearly unmatched, there is one team that has been pumping out quality over quantity. They’ve had a player drafted in the first round in each of the last three drafts, a top-10 each of the last last two years, and could have up to three top-50 picks in the 2022 NHL draft.

Let me introduce Djurgårdens IF in the Swedish Hockey League – as well as their U-20 squad. Djurgårdens has always been one of Sweden’s more recognizable and talent-rich teams as the only team in Stockholm, the countries most successful hub for producing hockey talent. This gives them the advantage of having the ability to get young players into their system and develop their games.

Tobias Björnfot (2019, 22nd overall to LA), Alexander Holtz (2020, 7th overall to NJ), and William Eklund (2021, 7th overall to SJ) all look like players who will at least play up to their draft stock, with the latter two being central figures in their teams rebuilds. 

Björnfot was with the Kings out of training camp right after the draft before heading down to the AHL after a short stint. His maturity and ability to play a smart defensive game predicated on his mobility and positioning gave the Kings confidence that he would adjust to the North American game quickly. He spent the majority of last season with the Kings and hasn’t looked back as he has established himself in the top-six, playing over 15 minutes a night.

Holtz is biding his time in the AHL right now but his scoring prowess is almost assuredly going to be utilized at the NHL level with the Devils at some point this season. His shot is lethal with legitimate 30+ goal potential on his stick. Pairing him with a young talented playmaker in New Jersey such as Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes could be a perfect compliment.

The San Jose Sharks were so impressed by Eklund that they couldn’t send him anywhere but the NHL squad. He has creativity as a playmaker that teams covet. After playing against men for all of last season with Djurgårdens men’s team, San Jose felt confident that the young Swede would be capable of handling the NHL, and through three games, he has three assists. I’d say he’s adjusting just fine.

While the last few years have been a run of consistency from Djurgårdens, this year could be a real banner year for the organization. Noah Östlund, Liam Öhgren, and Jonathan Lekkerimäki have all had outstanding starts to the 2021-22 season. The trio of draft eligibles are widely considered top-50 prospects with Östlund and Lekkerimäki garnering top-20 consideration.

Östlund came into the year as the player to watch with his combination of creativity and work ethic. His intuitive play as an off-puck attacker is among the best in the class. He reads the defensive structure and sets himself up for success by finding the pockets of space. He plays a complete 200-foot game and likely won’t be a long-term development thanks to his mature processing of the game.

Lekkerimäki is the surprise of the group. While expectations of a good season were there, no one saw him leading the U-20 squad in scoring by such a significant margin. His 25 points in just 15 games have paced the junior Djurgårdens club and put him in second in league scoring behind Slovak super prospect Dailbor Dvorsky.

Lekkerimäki's 16 goals in as many games is borderline ridiculous. Lekkerimäki has an outstanding shot and feasts on defenses from all over the offensive zone. While he has been a menace to deal with on the power play from the left faceoff dot, his even-strength scoring has been incredibly impressive. Watch for the young Swede to continue to rise up the board as one of the draft’s most underrated goal scorers.

Öhgren may be the fringe first-rounder of the Djurgårdens trinity of prospects, but he is also experienced at the men’s level with nine games to his credit. He is a slick playmaker who sees the offensive zone extremely well. His ability to thread passes through levels of the defense is what has earned him high praise as an attacker.

Öhgren is a true dual-threat as well with the ability to unleash a wicked wrister from time to time. At 6-foot-1 and 181 pounds, Öhgren has a solid frame and has looked more than competent against the SHL competition that he has faced thus far despite limited playing time. If he can get some more opportunities, it’s entirely conceivable that Djurgårdens puts three prospects into the first round next summer.

According to Swedish prospect analyst Mikael Holm, one of the trademarks of the organization is how they focus on making players the best at what that player is good at. Whereas many other programs focus on making players above average at every area of the game, Djurgårdens has its players play to their strengths. Whether that’s a goal-scoring winger or a stay-at-home defender, the club has historically nurtured the players’ skills and gotten the best out of the player for it.

They may never get to the heights of the Knights or Steel as true developmental pipelines to the NHL because of the structure of hockey in Sweden, but the quality is definitely there. Their recent run of high-level talent from Holtz to Eklund – and now this year’s trio - is impressive, to say the least. 

Djurgårdens deserves to be mentioned among the best pipelines in hockey. Period. 

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