Two of the most prominent Toronto Maple Leafs of the past half-century were Borje Salming and Mats Sundin. And while neither could deliver a Stanley Cup to the franchise, they are beloved to this day. Scanning the roster of Toronto's rookie development camp roster, it's easy to see the infatuation with Swedes has only grown over time.
William Nylander was the team's top pick in 2014, hearing his name called eighth overall. But he's not alone in the organization. Tom Nilsson, Petter Granberg, Andreas Johnson and Viktor Loov are all recent draft picks, while Pierre Engvall bookended the most recent draft in Philadelphia, going to the Leafs in the seventh round. Several of those players are expected to play in the American League with the Toronto Marlies this season, but the Leafs have taken a page out of Detroit's book by slow-cooking their prospects, letting them develop back home for years.
“We purposefully have left some kids over in Sweden, like a Granberg, because they were in such good situations," said director of player development Jim Hughes. "Why extract them and pull them out of a good spot when they’re getting good coaching and gaining man strength, playing big minutes in the Swedish League?”
Granberg, a big defensive defenseman who plays a simple, responsible game, came over to the Marlies last year after developing with the Skelleftea organization. Nilsson, who plays a physical all-around game, is expected to jump to the AHL squad this fall.
Nilsson played for Frolunda in the Swedish League last season on an Indians team that featured many talented youngsters, such as Columbus first-rounder Alexander Wennberg, Islanders prospect Sebastian Collberg and fellow Leafs pick Johnson.
“It was a great experience," Nilsson said. "Our coaches did a great job putting us on the ice and giving us opportunities to develop as much as we could. We had great practices, great training – really focusing on individuals. Great development program there.”
The coach of Frolunda, Roger Ronnberg, helped lead Sweden to a surprise silver medal at the 2013 world juniors. The national squad had been decimated by injuries, with players such as Hampus Lindholm, Oscar Klefbom and Mika Zibanejad all missing the tourney. Nilsson was a key member of that side and has been learning from Ronnberg ever since.
“Probably the best coach I’ve had," he said. "He works with the individual and always looks at the mental side, trying to get the most out of his players.”
Engvall is also hoping to get more of that tutelage in 2014-15. The big, speedy forward has only played for Frolunda's junior teams at this point, so his experience with Ronnberg has been limited to training sessions. But he sees the path forged by the teenagers before him.
“It’s my goal this year to get up to the ‘A’ team," he said. "I can see that it’s possible for them, so it’s possible for me.”
Of course, the player on the fastest track is Nylander. He played in both the SHL and second-tier Allsvenskan last season and is free from any contract back home. That means he can develop for the Swedish team of his choosing next season, or come over to North America and play for the Marlies. If he dazzles enough, maybe he even winds up getting some reps with the Maple Leafs. Hughes confirmed that new Toronto president Brendan Shanahan wanted some NHL roster spots open so that players from the Marlies and perhaps even the new prospect pool could create competition and maybe even snag a job for themselves. Nothing is a given, but at least Nylander has experience against much older competition.
“I’ve played against men and that might have helped me a bit," he said. "I haven’t been at the NHL level yet, but it might give me a bit of an advantage over guys who have played juniors. It will be a tough step.”
Fortunately for the youngster, he's already making a great first impression with his new NHL team.
“Willie is obviously a great hockey player," Hughes said. "You can see his skating and his skill sets – they’re elite. But more importantly we’re getting to know him as a person. This is a kid who has been parented correctly. He’s humble, he’s respectful, he’s got a glowing personality and he’s a fun kid to talk to and be around.”
So the more Swedes, the merrier, eh?