To know Skelleftea is to know Adam Larsson. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound defenseman has been on scouting radars for several years now, but other than the famousness of the name, Larsson has been largely anonymous.
Skelleftea, the northern Swedish town he comes from and represents as part of the local AIK franchise, boasts a population of about 35,000. It was built on mining and the residents are mad about hockey. Famous locals include supermodel Victoria Silvstedt and best-selling international author Stieg Larsson, best known for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its hugely popular sequels. So essentially, it’s a quiet place known for striking gold in more ways than one.
The middle child of an office manager and a government worker, Larsson grew up surrounded by sticks. Older brother Hampus plays hockey in Sweden’s third tier and younger sister Julia plays floorball - a popular game in Scandinavia that correlates to floor hockey on this continent. It sounds like a bucolic upbringing.
But Adam will carry the family name to new heights. During the 2011 World Junior Championship in Buffalo, he rebounded from a shaky start to become far and away Sweden’s best player.
“He’s one of our most talented pieces in Swedish hockey at the junior level and he started a little slow, but he worked his way up,” said Tommy Boustedt, GM of Sweden’s national junior team. “He improved as the tournament went on and that was the player I recognized.”
True, the Swedes were victims of Russia’s fantastic Kardiac Kids in the semifinal, but Larsson did his part, scoring a goal and assisting on two others in what turned out to be a 4-3 shootout win for the Russians - and the eventual gold medal winners never scored when the big defenseman was on the ice. Larsson was trying to will his team to victory, throwing hits, running the power play and generally standing out amongst the rest.
Team USA beat Sweden in the bronze medal game, but once again Larsson had a loud performance. This is ironic, because on press row, one must lean in closely to pick up the church-mouse quiet musings of the big blueliner.
“He’s a bit shy,” Boustedt said. “Most Swedes are shy and Swedes from the northern part are especially shy. He’s from the northern part - lots of woods, lots of snow, lots of land, not so much people.”
But isolation has served the youngster well, particularly because he isn’t even the only super-talented junior on AIK. This was Larsson’s second year in the Elite League and in both he played on a defense corps featuring 2009 NHL first-rounders Tim Erixon (23rd overall, Calgary) and David Rundblad (17th overall to St. Louis, later traded to Ottawa). The trio also played together at the 2010 WJC, where the underaged Larsson helped the Tre Kronor to a bronze.
“I think he did really good,” Rundblad said at the time. “As a teammate, he’s a really good guy…a little quiet.”
Skelleftea charged all the way to the league title game this season thanks to a huge year from Rundblad offensively (he was given the Borje Salming Award as the league’s top defenseman) and a solid all-around performance from Larsson, whose numbers came down from his initial Elite League campaign. No matter, according to the experts.
“He’s pretty complete,” said one NHL scout. “Offensive skill, defensive skill, size…he never panics with the puck.”
If you need a number to hang on Larsson’s hype, shy away from goals and assists and turn to plus-minus. His plus-12 rating was a big reversal from the minus-7 he lugged around from the previous campaign when he burst onto the Elite League scene as a junior who could put up offensive totals. And that concept of not trying to do too much was by design.
“I think I’ve played good this year,” Larsson said. “I’ve taken more responsibility and the coaches have given me more ice time. I try to play physical and simple, that’s the way I think I should play.”
In North America, reviews have been excellent. NHL GMs and execs see a young man who plays a complete game and clearly isn’t fazed by big stages.
“He reminds me of Larry Murphy,” said one NHL exec. “His feet aren’t the best, but he has great hands and defends well. His feet probably aren’t as heavy as Murphy’s - and he was a damn good defenseman.”
That Larsson has come along just after another big, skilled Swedish defenseman - Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, taken second overall in 2009 - gives execs a good template to go by when judging his merits. And while teams often parrot the line they will draft the “best player available” when it’s their turn at the podium, it’s hard not to look at this year’s lottery teams and see a couple franchises in desperate need of a big-time defender.
Edmonton, which will pick first June 24, has a lack of elite blueliners in its system, while Colorado, picking second, finds itself in a similar situation. The Avs added Erik Johnson, but lost Kevin Shattenkirk and Colby Cohen, while veteran Adam Foote retired.
When tackling the question of where he might land, Larsson approached things in his typical understated manner.
“We’ll see how the draft goes,” he said.
Wherever he ends up, there will be a much more glaring spotlight than the one he is used to in Skelleftea. Larsson’s shy exterior has not affected him so far and he, surprisingly, doesn’t mind the extra attention. Interview requests, it goes without saying, have been more frequent.
“There’s been a couple,” Larsson said. “I like it, it doesn’t bother me so much.”
But the NHL will be a different story. From his town of 35,000 and a municipality that spans dense forests and subarctic landscapes, Larsson enjoys fishing in the off-season, a hobby that skews towards the more solitary end of pastimes. The franchise that snags him in the top few picks will have high expectations.
Ready or not, Larsson will be the talk of the town.
This article originally appeared in THN's 2011 Draft Preview.