The NHL’s sharpest general manager acknowledges he does not know the why behind the matter. The who and what, though, are as clear as a Windex-wiped pane of glass to Ken Holland.
The who are the Swedes. The what is the high-end Swedes’ superlative style of play in the NHL.
Nobody has reaped Swedish dividends more than the Red Wings GM. Nicklas Lidstrom is one of the NHL’s five best all-time defensemen. Tomas Holmstrom was once the league’s premier net-front presence. The odor of Holmstrom’s pants remains stuck in goalies’ nostrils.
The current Swedish core of Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Johan Franzen, Jonathan Ericsson, Mikael Samuelsson, and Joakim Andersson helped convince fellow Swede Daniel Alfredsson to choose the Red Wings over the Bruins this past offseason. The Wings have ex-University of Maine standout Gustav Nyquist and fellow forward Calle Jarnkrok developing (or baking, to use a Holland expression) in Grand Rapids, Detroit’s AHL affiliate.
The efficiency of the Stockholm-to-Detroit transport system makes the proposed Keystone XL pipeline look like a 3-year-old’s ditch at the beach.
Detroit’s group is the most significant concentration of Swedish talent. There are others who play like Zetterberg and Kronwall: Henrik and Daniel Sedin (Vancouver), Nicklas Backstrom (Washington), Erik Karlsson (Ottawa), Niklas Hjalmarsson (Chicago), Loui Eriksson (Boston).
In less delicate times, the joke around hockey, especially among their neighbors in Finland, was that the Swedes carried themselves in a certain way. The Swedes, naturally, parroted an equally crude stereotype of the Finns.
But the hallmarks of today’s Swedish DNA are undeniable: committed work ethic, high-level skating, and processing power to rival the National Security Agency’s best spy gear. Off the ice, they are pleasant, approachable, and gentlemanly. On the ice, they play with precision and ruthlessness.
“They’re really good competitors,” Holland said. “It doesn’t matter how hard the going gets. They don’t back off. There’s always an exception to every rule. But for the most part, they play hard. They go to hard areas. They’re respectful of the game. The ones that work their way through the system — through the Swedish World Junior, the Swedish national program, play in the NHL — they all can skate, and they’ve all got hockey sense.”
The Swedish identity reflects the Wings’ philosophy. Holland wants smart players. Coach Mike Babcock demands his players to think the game correctly. Hockey sense is one of the primary traits Holland seeks in his draft picks. Director of amateur scouting Tyler Wright and director of European scouting Hakan Andersson target high IQ.
Andersson, who is based in Sweden, has a track record of late-round thievery. The Wings picked Zetterberg in the seventh round of the 1999 draft. Ericsson was a ninth-rounder. Franzen (third round) and Nyquist (fourth) were also steals.
The Wings are not alone in identifying and selecting draft-eligible Swedes. In 2013, 23 Swedish players were selected, third most after Canadians and Americans. The Bruins drafted two: Linus Arnesson and Anton Blidh. Peter Cehlarik, their third-round pick, is from Slovakia but has played in Sweden since 2011-12. In 2011, five Swedes went in the first round: Gabriel Landeskog, Adam Larsson, Mika Zibanejad, Jonas Brodin, and Oscar Klefbom.
In Detroit, the Swedes’ contributions have produced the NHL’s hallmark of consistent excellence. The Wings last missed the playoffs in 1990. Among their last 22 iterations, four won the Stanley Cup. Last season, despite the departures of Lidstrom, Brad Stuart, and Jiri Hudler, and season-long injuries to Darren Helm, the Wings took Chicago to overtime of Game 7 in the second round.
Under Holland and Babcock, the Swedes’ smarts have led to seamless integration. Holland believes the hockey brain develops at younger ages. If a player arrives in the NHL without smarts, he’s behind the curve, like an adult struggling with a foreign language when a child can learn it far quicker.
“We can make you stronger,” Holland said. “But I think a lot of the instincts of the game, you either have some of those instincts by the time you’re 12 or 14, or you don’t. If you don’t have hockey sense by the time you’re 14, you’re not going to get it when you’re 18. Something’s going on where these young players have hockey IQ.”
Landeskog, Colorado’s captain, hails from Stockholm. But Landeskog is as North American as a can of Coke. As a 16-year-old, Landeskog first played for Kitchener of the OHL. The Avalanche drafted him No. 2 overall in 2011 following his second season with the Rangers. Landeskog’s English is perfect.
But Landeskog plays with the hockey IQ ingrained in Swedes of his generation. Landeskog recalled that as early as when he was 10 years old, coaches didn’t emphasize games. Instead, Landeskog’s coaches stressed good, fun, instructive practice habits.
“When we grow up, when we’re practicing back home, we do a lot of game-type situations,” Landeskog said. “You learn how to play and think the game. I think Swedish coaches are really good at coming up with drills that create game-type situations in practice. They shrink it down. There’s tons of in-zone types of games. Lots of give-and-gos and stuff like that. You learn that part of the game early on. I think the coaching aspect in Sweden has been really good. That was how we got good at it.”
Landeskog helped Sweden win the 2013 world championship and will likely make the 2014 Swedish Olympic team. Landeskog’s Detroit countrymen, the Sedin twins, Karlsson, and Henrik Lundqvist will be the lead dogs. On the big ice in Sochi, Russia, the Swedes will be among the favorites.
Because of their hockey sense, Swedes are the game’s geeks. These days, nerds rule.
GIVE IT TIME
Oiler Dubnyk will be better
After a two-game sitdown against Washington and Pittsburgh, Devan Dubnyk was back in goal for Edmonton on Thursday on Long Island. Dubnyk, 0-3-1 with a 5.43 GAA and an .829 save percentage entering the game, finally looked like an NHL goalie in his fifth appearance of the season.
Dubnyk turned back 37 shots but could do nothing to stop goals by Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo, and John Tavares in Edmonton’s 3-2 loss.
The Oilers are hoping Dubnyk’s performance marks the start of better days for their supposed ace. If not, GM Craig MacTavish will have to move quickly to address the position. Leaky goalies affect every team, but especially young ones, whose confidence wanes with each stoppable shot.
The Oilers have three choices: trade for an ace, acquire a dependable goalie, or pump Dubnyk’s tires.
The first route takes them to Buffalo. The Sabres are going nowhere. Ryan Miller will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Miller does not project to return to Buffalo.
Acquiring Miller, who has a no-trade clause, would be risky. As the best goalie on the market, Miller would not be cheap. Also, there is no guarantee the 33-year-old would want to stay in Edmonton. Miller’s wife is actress Noureen DeWulf, and Edmonton is not famous for retaining Hollywood talent.
The moderate choice would be landing an experienced goalie such as Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby’s No. 2 in Washington. Neuvirth went 4-5-2 with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage last season. The 25-year-old is under contract through 2015. Neuvirth is motivated to gain starter status, which he won’t in Washington.
The third option is the safest. Last season, Dubnyk was 14-16-6 with a 2.57 GAA and a .921 save percentage. Dubnyk will also reach UFA status after this season and is playing for his next contract.
Every goalie runs into tough times. Few fall off a mountain from one year to the next. Dubnyk will be better. But by then, it might be too late.
Some Jackets need tailoring
Seven current Blue Jackets spent important segments of last season in Springfield: former Boston College standout Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen, David Savard, Matt Calvert, Dalton Prout, Boone Jenner, and Curtis McElhinney. During their time in Western Massachusetts, the youngsters developed under rookie coach Brad Larsen. Because of how well they progressed under Larsen, they don’t project to return to Springfield any time soon. “You have to give a lot of credit to what they did in Springfield, what the coaches were able to do,” said Columbus coach Todd Richards. “The good job they did to get their team to play well, but to prepare guys for the opportunity when they got up here. We had a number of guys who had to jump into some pretty tough situations.” Richards points to Prout as an example. Last season, the defenseman was recalled to Columbus on March 1 for a game in Chicago because of injuries to Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, and John Moore. Prout arrived so late he didn’t play in the first period, but finished with 8:58 of ice time. Prout has not been back to Springfield since.
In the first month of the season, there have been few centers more offensively dynamic than Matt Duchene. Colorado’s No. 1 center scored five goals through seven games while winning 57.6 percent of his faceoffs. Duchene has always had great hands and wheels. But there were times, especially in his third year, when his shot and skating were not in synch. The Avalanche were nervous that Duchene’s 2011-12 season indicated a regression that couldn’t be fixed. “He was so bad,” said one executive of Duchene’s 14-14—28 output. Team Canada is loaded in the middle with Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Patrice Bergeron, and Eric Staal. But Duchene’s start may have the Canadians considering him for the Olympics as a left wing.
On Nov. 29, San Jose and St. Louis will play for the first time since Maxim Lapierre belted Dan Boyle on Tuesday. The hit knocked Boyle unconscious. If Lapierre is still with the Blues (debatable, given his 0-0—0 and 9:35 of average ice time when the incident occurred), he’ll have to answer for his hit. Matt Pelech is San Jose’s tough guy. Usually, Lapierre (6 feet 2 inches, 207 pounds) would not tangle with Pelech (6-4, 230) because of the differences in size and job description (agitator vs. tough guy). But the Code demands that Lapierre be held accountable via fisticuffs. On March 18, 2010, 11 days after he helped to end Marc Savard’s career, Matt Cooke knew that Shawn Thornton would come calling. Cooke accepted the challenge, took his beating, and moved on. The Penguins and Bruins knew it had to take place. Now, the Sharks and Blues feel the same way.
Former agent Bill Zito, who once represented Tuukka Rask, is still adjusting to his new job as Blue Jackets assistant GM. The biggest difference Zito feels as a team executive vs. independent agent is the importance of every win and loss. As an agent, Zito recalled wondering why team bosses were down in the dumps after an early-season setback. It took only a season-opening loss to Calgary for Zito to feel the burn. “It just happens,” said Zito of the change in feeling.
The most important reason why the Panthers are riding Tim Thomas — the ex-Bruin stopped 37 shots in a 3-2 loss to his old team on Thursday — is because of his supposed competitor. Youngster Jacob Markstrom is also bidding for crease time. Markstrom, the third goalie picked in 2008 after Chet Pickard and Thomas McCollum, projects to be a future ace. But it is hazardous for the 23-year-old goalie to play in Florida’s JV lineup. It does Markstrom no good to be torched because of his teammates’ goofs . . . One of the Flyers’ many problems is their time spent killing penalties. In their first eight games (1-7-0), the Flyers were shorthanded 38 times. Lack of discipline is a hallmark of Philly’s identity, just like firing coaches and burning ownership’s cash . . . Minnesota’s Ryan Suter is the only player averaging more ice time per game than ex-Bruin Dennis Wideman. As Calgary’s No. 1 defenseman, Big Money Wides (1-2—3, 28:04 per outing through six games) has earned coach Bob Hartley’s trust in every situation, which proves you can put high miles on a BMW . . . Nazem Kadri is on a point-per-game pace. Kadri is a small and skilled center, but he plays with bite. It’s the kind of edge the Bruins would like to see in Ryan Spooner when he makes the jump from Providence . . . The Devils will have to fight to climb back into the top half of the Metropolitan Division. New Jersey’s problem: three former teammates (Cory Schneider, Peter Harrold, Stephen Gionta) from the wrong end of Commonwealth Avenue . . . In Monday’s game against the Red Wings, Bruins equipment manager Keith Robinson replaced one of David Krejci’s skate blades on the bench. Krejci is one of three players on the team wearing Bauer’s Lightspeed Edge Holder. The device allows equipment managers to pop in a replacement steel without taking off the skate and making a time-consuming repair. Krejci didn’t miss a shift . . . Islanders coach Jack Capuano was on the bench for his 200th career game Oct. 12 against Nashville. Capuano is second on the franchise’s all-time list. Hard to see Capuano approaching the leader (Al Arbour, 1,500 games) . . . On Thursday, Tyler Seguin had his worst night yet on the draw, losing seven of eight faceoffs. But on the same night, Seguin scored his third goal by being in the net-front real estate when a loose puck popped his way. Seguin’s faceoff work is shaky, but Stars coach Lindy Ruff has options because Rich Peverley is on Seguin’s right side. Peverley can take important draws . . . One play just about scrubbed from the Bruins’ playbook: the fourth line’s hard rim or fling to the left corner from the defensive zone. Because of his speed, Daniel Paille regularly reached the puck before a defenseman. But hybrid icing makes it a risky play. Paille no longer has the circles-to-end-boards segment to close on the puck.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.