WILMINGTON — They don’t all play the same, or look alike, and certainly not all of them make it to the NHL. But as one Swede watching another, former Bruins forward P.J. Axelsson sees something familiar in Boston prospect Oskar Steen.
“A good two-way player,’’ said Axelsson, his energy and high hockey IQ evident on a nightly basis during his years wearing the Spoked-B. “Can play in all three zones. Good hands . . . better hands than I had, actually. I won’t say he’s like all Swedes, but I’d say he is the typical Swedish player.’’
If Steen, 18, can come close to matching Axelsson’s NHL run, then the Bruins will have pocketed a bit of gold with the No. 165 pick in this year’s draft. A righthanded-shooting right wing, Steen made the leap from his junior club to the Swedish Elite League varsity with Farjestads midway through last season. He is only 5 feet 9 inches and 188 pounds, but like Axelsson, Steen’s game is equal parts energy and smarts — qualities that often lead short players to long NHL careers.
“I am a team player, and [Axelsson] was a really good team player,’’ Steen said early Wednesday afternoon, following a second day of workouts during the Bruins’ annual development camp. “He would do whatever it takes to win the games, and I may be the same player.’’
For now, Steen is a prospect in a sea of WannaB’s, one of 22 skaters (and four netminders) the Bruins herded here this week in order to measure their NHL baseline. Steen, who still has three years remaining on his Swedish contract, will board a flight home Saturday and most likely won’t be seen here again until this time next year.
Steen says he has time, that he’s not in a hurry, and his aim is to return to the Swedish Elite League and whip his game into NHL readiness.
“I think it could be many years, like three, four, five,’’ he said. “I don’t have to force anything. I must improve my game before I come over here and play maybe for the AHL team, or the NHL. I have to be a better player before I come over, improve the level of my game.’’
For those who remember, that’s very similar to what Axelsson had to say when he reported to his first Boston camp in September 1997. But times were different. The Bruins finished dead last in 1996-97 and Axelsson was a first-time camper, along with the likes of Joe Thornton and Hal Gill. Available roster spots were plentiful. It was a franchise, with new coach Pat Burns in charge, that had nowhere to go but up.
“I was over in the other room,’’ recalled a smiling Axelsson, pointing to the auxiliary dressing room at Ristuccia Arena, where some 60 players began camp in 1997. “Oh, I was way down there.’’
He was also older, stronger, and bigger (6 feet, 190 pounds) than Steen. Drafted when he was age 20 in 1995, Axelsson, now a European scout for the Bruins, was age 22 upon coming to camp in ’97. While the 18-year-old Thornton struggled in his first camp, the older and vastly more energetic Axelsson easily won a spot on the varsity roster, launching a career that lasted 11 seasons.
Axelsson, according to assistant general manager Scott Bradley, “banged the table’’ when Steen was still available in the sixth round of this year’s draft in Buffalo. All of which was news to Steen, who called it “my life’s dream’’ to be drafted by an NHL team.
“I hadn’t talked to P.J. before the draft, so I was a little bit surprised,’’ said Steen. “He phoned me after the draft and told me he felt he was very lucky to get me in the later rounds and that he thought it was a nice pick — he was happy to get me. I know his career. I watched him when I was a child.’’
What sets Steen slightly apart right now, said Axelsson, is his offensive ability. He sees parts of his own game in the young prospect, but believes Steen has better hands, making him a better passer, better shooter, and with overall greater offensive upside.
Also a habitual golfer, Steen hits the links 3-5 times a week when home in Karlstad, some three hours west of Stockholm. Upon hitting the ice here for the first time on Tuesday, he had not skated in three months, having put away his skates after Farjestads was eliminated from the playoffs.
“That made it a little bit hard here the first day,’’ said Steen, noting that it takes time to get back in skating rhythm after a 90-day layoff.
Axelsson, the only other Swedish-speaking member of the organization in attendance, offered Steen on-ice tips during the drills. But most of all, he said, he has reminded Steen to have fun, to observe, soak in the first lessons of what it takes to be a pro in North America. All the same things he told himself nearly 20 years ago, when he reported as a wide-eyed kid in September and a newbie NHLer less than a month later.
“To be a better player,’’ said Steen, pondering what he hopes to gain from his first week in the Hub of Hockey. “To improve everything in my game. To meet new people, meet some guys, and get better with my [English]. It is a good, what do you say? . . . to get more pumped up to be NHL player. That’s the biggest thing, I think, to learn what it’s like to be in the Bruins organization.’’