The Central Scouting Serviceís final ranking of draft-eligible European skaters for 2009 is remarkable. All of the top eight ranked players are from Sweden. Not until #9 do we finally come across a non-Swedish player. Indeed, of the 30 skaters ranked by CSS (which seems like a pretty small number to me compared to the 210 or so North Americans ranked), 17 are from Sweden. These are the Elite Eight:
1. Victor Hedman, D, MoDo (Elitserien)
2. Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, F, Timra (Elitserien)
3. Jacob Josefson, F, Djurgardens (Elitserien)
4. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Leksands (HockeyAllsvenskan)
5. Tim Erixon, D, Skelleftea (Elitserien)
6. David Rundblad, D, Skelleftea (Elitserien)
7. Carl Klingberg, F, Vastra Frolunda (J20 Superelit)
8. Marcus Johansson, F, Farjestads (Elitserien)
For those of you unfamiliar with the Swedish Ice Hockey Association, hereís a quick guide to the various leagues in the country. Elitserien is the highest level of competition, and is usually called the Swedish Elite League (SEL) in North America, though that is not its official name. HockeyAllsvenskan is the next-lower league, and that is followed by League I, League II etc., getting progressively lower in quality. There are also junior leagues, the most important of which is J20 Superelit, which is essentially major junior in Sweden.
Typically, European hockey leagues are broken down into Elite, Division 1, Division 2, etc., getting progressively lower in quality. This allows some comparison of league between countries. Finlandís SM-liiga, the Czech Eztraliga and the Russian KHL are all elite leagues, for instance. In Sweden the equivalencies are:
HockeyAllSvenskan Division 1
League I Division 2
League II Division 3
Looking at this draft list dominated by Swedes makes me wonder: is this really a reasonable assessment of the talent coming out of Europe this year, or is there some other effect leading scouts to overestimate the Swedes, or underestimate the players from other countries?
One way to approach the question is to look at past drafts, and see if any country has come close to such a level of dominance before in a draft year. To check this, I devised a very crude method. I looked at each draft year from 1995 to 2004, and made a list of the 15 European skaters drafted each year with the most NHL games played through the 2007-08 season. I ranked the players 1 through 15, and assigned 15 points to the player with the most NHL games, 14 to the next-most, etc. This is to give some indication of quality rather than just quantity. I then tallied the points for each country and divided by the number of points available (expressed as a percentage), to give a very rough idea of the talent contributed to the NHL by each country for those years.
Percentage of European Talent Contributed, by Country
Year CZE FIN GER NOR RUS SUI SVK SWE
1995 27 21 9 0 16 0 13 15
1996 27 16 13 0 8 0 16 22
1997 11 19 0 0 19 0 21 30
1998 22 17 0 0 55 0 0 7
1999 28 13 0 0 5 0 0 54
2000 8 14 0 0 18 0 29 31
2001 23 22 22 0 23 0 0 11
2002 31 27 1 5 16 0 0 21
2003 29 13 2 0 24 0 5 28
2004 20 3 0 0 29 10 14 23
Average 22 16 5 0 21 1 10 24
So in recent years Sweden has been the most successful purveyor of European talent to the NHL, at least by this measure. I would suggest that overall Russia produces the most and best talent in Europe, but Russians often have greater financial incentive to play in their home country, and as such only the best Russians generally cross the Atlantic, resulting in many very good Russian NHL players, but relatively few merely-okay Russian NHL players.
If the top 15 European players as ranked by CSS end up in the same order as they are ranked, this is what the 2009 table would look like:
Year CZE FIN GER NOR RUS SUI SVK SWE
2009 3 9 0 0 6 0 2 81
From 1995 through 2004, only two countries eclipsed even the 50% mark in any year: Russia in 1998 and Sweden in 1999. However, the table above does show that the talent contributed by each country can fluctuate wildly from one year to the next. Russia went from 55% to 5% the following year, while Sweden shows 7% the year before they hit 54%. So while it seems unlikely that Sweden would achieve an 81% result in 2009, it is entirely possible that a single country dominates the European content in any one year. In Mythbusters parlance, itís not ďconfirmedĒ, but itís certainly ďplausibleĒ.
So how do the Elite Eight look by the numbers? Pretty good, actually. 17-year-olds playing regularly in the elite league in Sweden are fairly rare. Though these players donít have eye-popping numbers at that level, itís extremely rare that anyone of that age does. Yet we have several of these high-profile prospects competing against men, and playing well.
Player Pos Level GP G A PTS
1. Hedman, Victor D Elite 43 7 14 21
2. Paajarvi-Svensson, Magnus F Elite 50 7 10 17
3. Josefson, Jacob F Elite 50 5 11 16
4. Ekman-Larsson, Oliver D Div.1 39 3 14 17
5. Erixon, Tim D Elite 45 2 5 7
6. Rundblad, David D Elite 45 0 10 10
7. Klingberg, Carl F Junior 35 13 13 26
8. Johansson, Marcus F Elite 45 5 5 10
Hedman led all 17-year-olds in the Elitserien with 21 points, as a defenseman, despite missing seven games. Combined with his obvious physical gifts, itís clear why heís ranked number one in the country, and in Europe. He deserves it.
All of the other players have good numbers for their age and level, except Klingberg. His J20 numbers are unremarkable, but he did post three points in 10 elite games, and had fairly impressive totals in 2007/08, so perhaps he does belong there.
The other Swedish prospects ranked by CSS break down like this:
Player Pos Level GP G A PTS
12. Silfverberg, Jakob F Junior 30 14 24 38
15. Rodin, Anton F Junior 37 29 26 55
17. Bertilsson, Simon D Junior 30 9 22 31
19. Lander, Anton F Elite 47 4 6 10
21. Urbom, Alexander D Junior 16 5 6 11
22. Lindstrom, Mattias F Junior 31 8 5 13
23. Bjorklund, Henrik F Div.2 38 21 14 35
27. Karlsson, Martin F Junior 35 11 10 21
Anton Rodin sticks out a bit as probably being underrated by the scouts, while Mattias Lindstrom has the opposite appearance. Lindstrom is a big guy, which is always a big check mark in a scoutís book, but heís ranked pretty low in the grand scheme of things so itís certainly not a big deal. Calle Jarnkrok, who played for Sweden at the under-18 world championships but was not ranked by CSS, should rate ahead of Lindstrom given his 26 points in 41 junior games.
Sweden does appear to have a very good, very deep pool of talent available for this summerís draft. While it seems unlikely that the best eight players to come out of Europe this year will all be Swedish, itís difficult to argue too vociferously with the CSSís rankings in this case. Other European nations arenít putting up much of a fight in this category this year. Russia has its own deep and talented pool of young players coming up (including Dmitri Orlov, who is the highest-ranked non-Swede on this yearís list), but the majority of them are not eligible for the 2009 draft. Weíll see them in 2010, a year in which CSSís rankings will likely be dominated by Russians such as Vladimir Tarasenko, Evgeni Kuznetsov, Alexander Burmistrov, Kirill Kabanov, Maxim Kitsyn and Nikita Zaitsev.
The player I see as most likely to break up the Swedish octet is Finlandís Toni Rajala. Heís ranked #11 overall, just behind his countryman Joonas Nattinen. Rajala was dominant at the world under-18 championships, and probably deserves to be ranked around #5 or #6. He probably a better prospect than Klingberg in my eyes, at least. However, heís fairly small, which scares some teams away, Iím sure.
Any way you look at it, Sweden certainly has a great crop of young talent this year. This group of players may not turn out to be the eight best Europe has to offer this year, but the great majority of them are very good prospects, and the top pair of Hedman and Paajarvi-Svensson, are elite prospects, especially the big defenseman. For European talent, Sweden is the place to be. For this year, at least.
Next week weíll look a bit more at the under-18 championships, as well as the 2010 crop of talented Russians. Will they turn out to be a disappointment like the 2001 Russian first-rounders, or are they really as good as they seem to be?