Prep Watch: 2011 No. 1 pick?

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The Hockey News

The Hockey News

At last year’s World Junior Championship, Sweden drew a lot of interest thanks to a cadre of draft-eligible players that turned into seven first-rounders that summer, including the second player overall, defenseman Victor Hedman.

This year in Saskatoon, the Swedes had to soldier on without Hedman, who went straight to the NHL with Tampa Bay. And while the Tre Kronor had another beastly young blueliner patrolling the back end, NHL GMs will have to wait another year for Adam Larsson – he’s still only 17.

Despite being so young, Larsson has taken the Swedish Elite League by storm. Boasting size and skill, the 6-foot-2, 209-pound blueliner has 12 points in 32 games playing against competition sometimes twice his age. His story is very similar to that of Hedman, something not lost on Larsson when he made his Elite League debut last year with Skelleftea, while Hedman was still playing for Modo.

“I watched him every day,” Larsson said. “He’s a good player.”

And Larsson can be the same. His advanced size enables him to play physical hockey, something he demonstrated at the world juniors when he would muck it up in the corners with top prospects such as Switzerland’s similarly sized Nino Niederreiter. Larsson was also very adept at making strong outlet passes, sometimes finding lanes that didn’t unfold until the last second, showing off his creativity.

“He’s a good one,” said Team Sweden coach Par Marts. “He’s got all the skills you need, so (Larsson must) just be patient and work hard. He’s going to be a top defender for sure.”

Playing mostly with top Phoenix Coyotes prospect Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the 17-year-old wunderkind put up a goal and four points for the Swedes in six games, registering a plus-3 rating in the process.

Comfort on the Swedish WJC team likely would never have been a problem for Larsson, regardless of performance, since two of his teammates on Skelleftea, fellow defensemen Tim Erixon (Calgary, 23rd overall in ’09) and David Rundblad (St. Louis, 17th overall in ’09) were also on the squad.

“He’s an incredible player, extremely talented, skilled offensively,” Erixon noted. “He’s a good skater even though he’s a big-sized player.”

Getting the chance to strut his stuff on the big stage was also a great learning experience for Larsson, whose role at next year’s tourney in Buffalo will greatly increase. Both Rundblad and Nashville pick Mattias Ekholm will be too old for the under-20s, while Ekman-Larsson may find himself in Phoenix colors by that time.

“This was a big tournament, everything was a little more exciting,” Larsson noted. “I just enjoyed the whole tournament and played my game.”

For Rundblad, it was nice to see his younger mate enjoy a successful initial sojourn at the WJC, especially since Erixon, Larsson and Rundblad all hang out together back in Skelleftea.

“I think he did really good,” Rundblad said. “He’s a really smart player – he hasn’t got a weakness. As a teammate he’s a really good guy, a little quiet. He’s a very nice guy.

“It’s really fun to have teammates your own age. It’s really fun to play with both Tim and Adam.”

And while Larsson’s time in the Elite League has been successful so far, the youngster knows he has a long way to go thanks to the rigors of playing against much older competition.

“They are much stronger and mistakes can be worse in the Elitserien,” he said. “I must player safer, that is what I try to do.”

Based on his career trajectory to date, don’t be surprised to see Larsson at least match Hedman on the draft podium, or even surpass him – No. 1 overall is a definite possibility for the kid from Skelleftea.

Prep Watch, which features minor hockey players destined to become big names in major junior or the NCAA, appears every second Thursday throughout the season.

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