Have you seen Casey Mittelstadt lately? Buffalo must be overjoyed with his work at the Summer Showcase, especially following a superb performance at Sabres’ Development Camp a few weeks ago. He assertively registered nine points (six assists and three goals in just ten shots) over five games with Team USA and USA White, and enjoyed great simpatico lining up again with Logan Brown and Kailer Yamamoto at the WJSS. The trio notched 14 goals and 20 assists with 2016’s bronze-winning WJC-U18 squad, and ripped off four goals and five assists while drubbing Canada Red 8-2 in their mid-Showcase tilt. Mittelstadt’s theft vs. Finland and one-on-one successful challenge of new organization-mate Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen in goal was a true signature moment.
USA defenseman Quinn Hughes turned heads, particularly with his wicked, masterfully-deceptive stick handling and heavy power play shot. He may have ascended the 2018-eligible prospect board with two goals and three assists in five contests while continuing to demonstrate impressive poise on the ice and smooth, shifty skating. As son of a coach, the offense-oriented Hughes’ hockey IQ and vision jump out along with his skillful playmaking.
Fellow blueliner and Calgary Flames’ draftee Adam Fox also tore up the score sheet as well as the ice with three goals and six assists, including four assists and a goal in the finale. With two goals in the penultimate game against Finland he tied Mittelstadt for tops in points during the Showcase. Devils’ prospect Joey Anderson also impressed while leading the squad with four goals, three against Canada in their final contest. And the trio of Oettinger, Petruzzelli and St. Cyr assumed the Showcase’s top three in net in terms of save percentage and goals-against average.
Rapidly-rising Duck prospect and WHL scoring champ Sam Steel, and Sarnia sniper Jordan Kyrou paced Team Canada with five points each. Steel, motivated by being cut from Canada’s World Juniors squad last year, saved his best for their culminating contest against the USA with a goal and two assists while Kyrou registered two goals and an assist versus Sweden.
Rasmus Dahlin continued his bruising game as all eyes were on this candidate for first overall selection next June. Just turned 17, his two-way combo of smooth skating, playmaking ability and blue line physicality will make some NHL team very happy. Better than Erik Karlsson as some have prognosticated? Not sure about that, but no doubt he’s a star in the making. His blocked shot in the waning moments of Sweden’s lone win thus far vs. USA Blue along with an overall tough, smart game make him a must-watch.
Sweden’s Oskar Steen, a 2016 sixth-round Bruins’ selection who regularly plays for the SHL’s Färjestad BK, put on one of the most impressive Showcase showings landing four goals against rival Finland in their 6-5 closing-contest triumph. While the 5-09, 187-pound forward took 15 shots-on-goal over five contests those were his only points. Still, his four total goals tied Anderson for most in the Showcase. Steen’s scoring was surpassed on Team Sweden only by Dallas prospect Fredrik Karlstrom two goals and four assists on 12 shots.
Forwards Janne Kuokkanen, a promising Canes prospect who maintained a point-per-game pace last year with the OHL London Knights and newly-drafted Canadien Joni Ikonen, with his own hat trick against Sweden, led Finland registering five points each.
Considering the WJSS results this isn’t the most opportune to time to raise this topic, but sizing up recent draftees and 2018 eligible prospects one can’t help but be impressed by the reputation and rankings of Scandinavian defensemen. Finland’s roster included four first round picks (Heiskanen, Vaakanainen, Valimaki and Jokiharju), two second rounders (Räsänen and Salo), two thirds (Kotkansalo and Niemelaine), two fourths (Laavainen and Reunanen), a fifth (Almari), and 2018 prospect Roni Allen.
Sweden’s roster featured the aforementioned Dahlin, 2017 first rounders Erik Brannstrom and Timothy Liljegren, second round picks Filip Westerlund and Gustav Lindstrom, third round 2013 pick Linus Hogberg, 2016 fourth rounder Jacob Moverare, and MODO Hockey staple Jesper Sellgren.
While certainly not all of it can be attributed to their blue lines, both squads gave up quite a few points though. Winless Finland allowed 24 goals in five contests and Sweden’s 22 goals in the same number of games was also unsavory.
This all led me to wondering historically, and obviously in a very general sense, how Swedish defensemen have differed from Finnish. I’m looking at NHLers here since that’s what I know best. I’ve seen some interesting thought about the subject across the Internet so I thought I’d probe further.
Sweden as a nation has the advantage in terms of population (nearly double that of Finland) so they draw from a larger pool of potential prospects, and my perception is that Finland emphasizes more physical, defensive play. I’m not sure there’s any good way to quantify this to help make conclusions, but I looked at some stone-age, purely offensive stats anyways. Not a ton of possession metrics out there for Thommie Bergman and I refuse to do this on a large scale with plus/minus. Here’s what some time with a calculator, and hopefully no errors, gave me.
There have been 56 Finnish NHL defensemen. They have scored 5095 total points in 13151 contests (0.39 per game) with the top three in both categories Teppo Numminen (637 in 1372 games), Kimmo Timonen (571 in 1108 games) and Jyrki Lumme (468 in 985 games). Reijo Ruotsalainen had the best points-per-game average at 0.77 in 446 contests. Best plus-minus? Sami Salo with a plus-130. Most penalty minutes? Janne Niinimaa’s 733, though Timonen’s 654 and Lumme’s 620 place second and third. Numminen finished fifth with 513.
Mirroring the population difference, Sweden nearly doubles that amount with 107 NHL defensemen. In 31776 contests Swede blueliners have scored 11602 total points (0.37 per game). The top three scorers are Nicklas Lidström (1142 in 1564 games), Börje Salming (787 in 1148 games) and Fredrik Olausson (581 in 1022). Lidström and Salming rank one and two in games played. Olausson is fifth behind Calle Johansson’s 1110 contests and Ulf Samuelsson’s 1080. Erik Karlsson tops them all with 0.82 points-per-game in 556 contests, and Lidström takes the plus-minus title by a mile with a plus-450. That approaches a 300-point margin over next-best Stefan Persson’s plus-176. Ulf Samuelsson is the penalty minute king with 2453, vastly surpassing second-place Salming’s 1344.
Remarkably similar point-per-game averages, which doesn’t tell us much except that the average Finn defender and average Swede defender have scored at nearly the exact same rate per game, with the Finns ahead by a hair. Sweden boasts more scoring at the top with Lidström and Salming besting Numminen. Karlsson with 456 points already ranks fifth all-time for Sweden, Hedman is 12th at 301, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson totaling 248 is in 17th place. All three being relatively young will likely climb much higher. Other actives with less upside at this point in their careers are Kronwall at sixth with 378, Enstrom at 11th with 302, and Edler in 13th place with 300.
The top two active Finns are Sami Vatanen who ranks 12th with 122 points and Rasmus Ristolainen who is 15th with 110. Olli Maatta also weighs in at 20th with 58 career points. Like Karlsson and Hedman each of these has many years left to ascend the national ranks.
So what to make of all this? Perhaps my perception of Finland as the more defense-oriented group isn’t correct. Still, Sweden has a significant edge in points-production among active NHL defenders, so that’s something. We shall see if this newest crop of prospects tips the scales further in either direction.
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