In the 2020-21 season, 88 Swedish-born players appeared in at least one NHL game, a slight decrease from the 100 players in 2019-20. Most of these players are household names and vital to their team’s success. As we embark on a new campaign, many on this list are approaching milestones, contract years, or will look to define themselves after a shortened 2019-20 season.
Related: Sweden’s Best NHL Players in 2020-21
The league returns in a few weeks with a regular 82-game schedule, which means there is still some time to debate the ten questions surrounding Sweden’s top NHL players.
1. When Will Nicklas Bäckström Join the 1000 Point Club?
Nicklas Bäckström has been a premier setup man throughout his NHL career, so it should be no surprise that the native of Valbo, Sweden, is about to join the 1,000th point club. At 980 points, Bäckström will become the sixth Swedish player to join the club, which has 91 members.
Based on his career points-per-game average (0.96), Bäckström should reach the milestone before the Christmas break in December. His teammates should understand the significance of this achievement and will look for him on the ice. The Washington Capitals know about chasing records, as teammate Alex Ovechkin continues his quest for 850 goals.
It would be fitting if Bäckström and Ovechkin connect on that 1,000th point since the two have a long history of being on the scoresheet together. Bäckström has assisted on 269 (36%) of Ovechkin’s goals while the Capitals’ captain has returned the favor on 109 (42%) of Bäckström’s 258 goals.
In 2018, Bäckström earned a Stanley Cup championship, achieving a feat that has eluded some of the game’s greatest players. If and when he retires, the debate will start regarding his credentials for the Hockey Hall of Fame. He may not be a first-ballot candidate, but if he continues to rack up points, there’s a solid chance he will join his former teammates in Toronto’s Hall. The biggest question about his quest for 1,000 points is when will he become just the second Capitals player to achieve this milestone?
Author’s prediction: Bäckström is only two points behind Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks) in their quest for 1,000, so it would be fitting if both players achieved their feats in the same game (Dec. 6, 2021) at Capital One Arena in Washington.
2. Will Linus Ullmark Keep the Boston Bruins as Contenders?
Linus Ullmark has a 50-47-13 record in the NHL while spending parts of six seasons with the Buffalo Sabres. The native of Lugnvik, Sweden, managed to walk away from Buffalo with impressive numbers, despite how unsuccessful the team has been around him.
The Sabres have secured the first overall pick in two of the last four NHL Entry Drafts yet remain at the bottom of the league’s standings. Ullmark is not the first elite goalie to leave the city; Robin Lehner turned his career around after he signed with the New York Islanders as a free agent and has also earned the starting role with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Ullmark signed with the Boston Bruins this offseason. The franchise won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and has been to the Final twice (2013 and 2019) since their last parade. Tuukka Rask has been the team’s starter for the bulk of that decade, setting club records every time he stops a puck or picks up a victory. Rask will likely be out until January, which is why Ullmark came to town.
The burning question surrounding Ullmark and the Bruins is, can he rise to the challenge and keep the Bruins at the top of the Eastern Conference. His career-high in wins is 17, and he achieved that on a team built very differently than the Bruins, who boast one of the top lines on the planet. He has proven he can help a mediocre team win, but what happens to his mindset when the team doesn’t need their goalie to steal wins on a nightly basis?
Playing in Boston will be the opportunity of a lifetime for Ullmark; how will he adjust to playing for a winning franchise and a fanbase that demands perfection?
Author’s prediction: If Ullmark has a chance to play night in and night out, nothing will stop him from winning 25-30 games this season.
3. Is Robin Lehner the Answer in Vegas?
Henrik Lundqvist just retired after a stellar 15-season career. Many considered him one of the league’s best goalies for a decade, which means his departure leaves a massive hole at the top of the Swedish depth chart.
During the 2020-21 season, only eight goalies from the Nordic country saw action in the league, which means there isn’t a long list of candidates waiting to pick up the king’s crown. Many experts would say that the battle for Sweden’s best goalie is now between Lehner and Jacob Markström.
Lehner would have the edge in most arguments based on his impressive track record with the Sabres and Islanders. He’s been a Vezina Trophy finalist (2018-19), a Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy winner (2018-19), and a two-time winner of the William M. Jennings Trophy (2018-19 and 2020-21). His trophy case is much larger than Markström’s, who has only one All-Star Game (2020) appearance on his resume. The only advantage Markström has over Lehner at this stage of their careers is his international experience, of which Lehner has none. Should the NHL decide to allow their players to go to the Olympics, these two should battle it out for the starting role on the Swedish Olympic team.
Although that is a debate for another day, Lehner finds himself in quite a cozy situation with the Golden Knights. Acquiring him (from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2020) raised many eyebrows because Vegas already had a future Hall of Famer, Marc-Andre Fleury, between the pipes. In 2021, management decided to move on from Fleury and traded him to the Blackhawks, leaving Lehner the keys to the kingdom.
The Golden Knights have placed all their faith in Lehner to lead them to their first Stanley Cup championship. He is a number one goalie on a contender, something he has yet to experience in his career. During the 2020 Playoffs (9-7), he filled in admiringly, but the Golden Knights were still Fleury’s team. This season’s big question surrounding Lehner is whether he can handle the pressure of carrying a team penciled in for a deep playoff run while working to earn the starting job at the Winter Olympics.
Author’s prediction: The Olympic starting job is Lehner’s to lose, and he should have no problem holding down the fort as the Golden Knights contend for the best record in the NHL.
4. What’s Next for Gabriel Landeskog?
Gabriel Landeskog has been the captain of the Colorado Avalanche for nine seasons. This summer, he became an unrestricted free agent, and the media hype surrounding his possible destinations kept many people restless at night.
Despite what everyone thought, Landeskog stayed in Denver, signing a new eight-year contract valued at $56 million. As one of his team’s best players and one of the best from his home country, he is worthy of the massive contract extension.
We all love to analyze contracts and all the details of every move. There are no concrete numbers to determine an athlete’s performance in a contract year versus the seasons leading up to a new deal. Many big names in all sports have signed blockbuster deals and never lived up to the hype, while others come to be valued more than the numbers on their contract.
Throughout his ten-year NHL career, Landeskog has been a solid player, scoring 512 points in 697 games, with a career-high of 75 points in 2018-19. He is the leader of his club, and his actions speak for themselves. Despite playing on the same team as Nathan MacKinnon, Landeskog has the skill set to score 30 goals and 100 points. The biggest question heading into the 2021-22 season is will his production go up, stay the same, or go down after signing his new deal?
Author’s prediction: Landeskog will be on a mission to prove to everyone that he is worth every penny of this deal and should score 25-30 goals while reaching 70 points again.
5. Will Mika Zibanejad Have a Career Year and Big Pay Day?
Mika Zibanejad came to the New York Rangers from the Ottawa Senators in 2016. Since then, the Rangers have won the deal since Zibanejad has been a consistent performer, playing a vital role in the team’s offensive success.
To date, Zibanejad’s career highlights include the Golden Goal at the 2012 World Junior Championships and a five-goal game against the Capitals on Mar. 5, 2020. That particular game summed up Zibanejad’s 2019-20 season as he finished the 57-game season with 41 goals. It was a remarkable campaign that got cut short, leaving everyone to wonder if he would have reached 50 in the final stretch.
Right before training camp opened in early 2021, Zibanejad came down with COVID-19 and missed all of camp, returning to action on opening night without any training. The time he missed showed as he struggled for most of the 56 games, collecting points in streaks. He wasn’t the same player from the previous season, which left many fans wondering what happened to him?
His contract expires at the end of the season, and there is a lot of talk of what kind of extension he deserves. Outside of the term and dollar amounts, some far-fetched rumors have his name attached to a Jack Eichel deal. Much of the talk is nonsense, but these questions leave us wondering about his value in 2021.
He’s an alternate captain on a team looking for a leader. He was the straw that stirred the drink in 2019-20; however, he tends to be a streaky point producer with a career-high of 75. In one of the most significant moments of his NHL career, with a chance to lock in his last big contract (eight years), what can the Rangers and their fans expect from the native of Huddinge, Sweden, this season?
Author’s prediction: Given a clean bill of health to start the season and a desire to show he deserves a massive contract extension, Zibanejad will score 35 goals and break his career-high in points.
6. Will Filip Forsberg Finish the Season in Nashville?
After a trade from the Capitals in 2013, Filip Forsberg found a home with the Nashville Predators. Since his rookie season in 2014-15, he has been a central part of the Predators’ offense, making a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. He has produced 385 points in 497 games throughout nine seasons, earning the respect of many opponents who have tried to shut him down. He is an offensive thread both on the power play and at even strength.
The Predators had their best season in 2017 when they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Cup Final. Since then, big names have found homes in other cities. One of the first players dealt was P.K. Subban, who went to the New Jersey Devils in 2019. Additionally, Viktor Arvidsson found a new home with the Los Angeles Kings in 2021, before veteran Ryan Ellis went to the Philadelphia Flyers. On top of these trades, franchise icon Pekka Rinne recently retired after 15 seasons.
The team’s core, who once won the Presidents’ Trophy (2017-18), is no longer. The Predators didn’t blow everything up and spark a rebuild with high draft picks; however, they have been busy sending big-name players away for younger and more cap-friendly ones. If not signed to an extension by Jan. 2022, Forsberg’s name will be at the top of the trade board, and that’s when the bidding war for his services will commence. As the fourth highest-paid player on the team, he has many offensive gifts that most teams would kill for, leaving many wondering if he still has a future in Nashville?
Author’s prediction: If Forsberg returns to form and scores 20-30 goals, it would be tough to turn down a trade package for him. I think he will stay in Nashville for the season but will sign a new deal in the offseason.
7. Will Victor Hedman Finally Win the Norris Trophy (Again)?
In 2021, the Rangers’ Adam Fox won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. The general population agreed with the voters’ decision, except for those who live in the Tampa Bay area, where Victor Hedman plays.
Hedman is one of the league’s best defensemen, even though he doesn’t have the hardware (one Norris Trophy 2017-18) in his trophy case. He does, however, have two Stanley Cup rings and a Conn Smythe Trophy at home, which more than makes up for the lack of individual awards.
Hedman was a top finalist for the award in the last five seasons, winning it in 2018. As the superstar turns 31 this season, time is running out for him to catch fellow countryman Nicklas Lidström in trophy wins (seven). Some would argue that it is a tragedy that one of this generation’s best defensemen hasn’t taken home more hardware.
Lidström won four Norris Trophies after age 35, which means Hedman has plenty of time to rack up a few more wins to cement his first-ballot Hall of Fame candidacy. There’s no doubt he has already built a solid case for induction, but he has the same number of awards as teammate Steven Stamkos, who has one more season of experience.
This season the pressure will be on the Lightning, led by Hedman on the back end, to become the league’s first three-peat champions since the New York Islanders dynasty in the early 1980s. The biggest question surrounding Hedman is, can he push through and force the voter’s hand to rightfully secure his second Norris Trophy?
Author’s prediction: Hedman should be a finalist for the Norris again, and even though the Lightning shuffled the deck a bit, they are still contenders with a desire to win again. There’s a lot of young talent in the league, but Hedman will push through and win the Norris again this year.
8. Can Elias Pettersson Stay Healthy?
Elias Pettersson is just 22 years old with three NHL seasons under his belt and a Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. He scored 66 points in each of his first two campaigns while missing games here and there.
When the NHL returned in Jan. 2021, many thought the Vancouver Canucks could be challengers in the Scotia North Division with their young core. They boosted their chances by signing a veteran goalie, Braden Holtby, to anchor down the backend. Although scoring wasn’t the only problem for the 2020-21 Canucks, the group that seemed poised to step forward took a step back by finishing last in the division and missing the playoffs.
One of the Canucks’ most significant problems is protecting Pettersson, their young star who has all the tools to be a top scorer in the league. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 178 pounds, many people who watch the Canucks can see that bigger and taller players are able to push Pettersson around, hampering his ability to create offense. It is a challenging situation since Pettersson has the potential to be the team’s best player night in and night out.
Training camp opens soon, and Pettersson remains unsigned, which means the team is being cautious in assessing the future of one of their top players with a history of injuries. After lengthy time off to recover from a wrist injury, we will soon see if Pettersson can bounce back. Vancouver retooled this offseason, but the big question facing the offense is whether or not Petterson can stay healthy, protect himself, and breakthrough that proverbial 66-point ceiling?
Author’s prediction: Since day one, there have been rumors about offer sheets for Pettersson, but he will re-sign in Vancouver and continue to be one of their best players. This season he should become a point-per-game player and finish with 70-80 points.
9. Can William Nylander Find the Space to Be a Star in Toronto?
The Toronto Maple Leafs have one of the league’s best goal scorers in Auston Matthews and one of the top point-getters in Mitch Marner. Their captain, John Tavares, is also an elite center who has no problems scoring. Lost in the shuffle, though, is William Nylander, with whom the Maple Leafs’ fanbase seems to have a love/hate relationship.
In 2019-20, Nylander set a career-high in goals (31) and came within three points of matching a career-high in points (61). As another player who tends to be streaky, fans have grown tired of his up and down seasons and wish the budding star would be more consistent.
Nylander’s playing time is about 16 minutes a night, an average of four to six minutes less than Matthews and Marner. We are not here to compare them; instead, we are pointing out that someone of Nylander’s skill could use some extra time to generate offense and surpass his career highs. After a somewhat down season in 2020-21, the big question is whether or not he can rebound to reach 30 goals again and be a point-per-game player.
Author’s predictions: The Maple Leafs are in win-now mode, and if the team doesn’t breakthrough, it will be tough on a player like Nylander, who may find himself the odd man out and traded for the greater good of the team. There is no reason to believe Nylander can’t return to the 30 goals and 30 assists club.
10. Which NHL Stars Will Be the Leaders of Team Sweden at the Winter Olympics?
The last time the NHL participated in the Winter Olympics was in 2014. Since players may be allowed to participate in the games again, who will be the faces of this new era of Swedish hockey?
The 2014 Swedish men’s Olympic hockey team had Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Zetterberg, Lundqvist, and the Sedin twins (Daniel and Henrik). In the eight years since that tournament, many of those silver medalists have retired. Even though some of the younger players on that team are now in their prime, it will be interesting to see who steps up and helps Sweden regain their place at the top of the podium.
The last captain of the Swedish Olympic team was Henrik Zetterberg, who served as the leader of the Detroit Red Wings for six seasons. Today there is a boatload of Swedish leaders in the NHL who could serve as the team’s captain. Landeskog, as mentioned earlier, has been the Avalanche’s captain since 2012. Olivier Ekman-Larsson was captain of the Arizona Coyotes for three seasons before he was traded to Vancouver this summer. Erik Karlsson is an alternate captain for the San Jose Sharks and was the Senators’ captain for four seasons. Backstrom and Zibanejad are other candidates worthy of the captaincy, serving as alternates for their respectful clubs.
A handful of other Swedish-born players have leadership roles in the NHL, which means the country has a Christmas-sized list of star players who could be the team captain. The biggest question may just come down to who has earned the respect of the coaching staff and has proven themselves to be the one to lead the troops into battle against the world’s best.
Author’s Prediction: Landeskog should be named captain of the team, with veterans Zibanejad and Ekman-Larsson securing alternate captains roles.
A Return to the Norm
It has been two long years since we witnessed an 82-game schedule, which is why we haven’t had a chance to see the stars do what they do best over a full campaign. Many players on this list have found their name in the news for one reason or another, so the 2021-22 season should be a great opportunity for them to showcase to the world that Sweden has some of the game’s best players.
I didn’t venture far off the beaten path with my questions or predictions. I played it safe but asked some tough questions. It will be fun to see how things play out for the ten situations listed above. If you thought of something I missed, leave a note in the comments, and we can revisit this post at a later date.
Ryan Gagne is one of the newest members of The Hockey Writers, covering the New York Islanders. He grew up in a small town in northern New Hampshire, where he idolized the Boston Bruins. Before moving to Canada in 2008, he was the equipment manager for his high school varsity hockey team and a sports journalist for the local newspapers. Ryan has been active in the hockey community, whether coaching, officiating, instructing, or playing. He is the ultimate rink rat with 19 years of experience making ice and driving the Zamboni. An avid fantasy sports player, Ryan created a blog, Keeping the Stats, where he dissects his teams and brags about his 2020 fantasy football championship. Outside of hockey, his life revolves around the New York Yankees, much to his wife’s chagrin.