Warning: This article contains an inordinate amount of Swedish puns.
Jack Eichel suffers an injury and the Sabres immediately start winning some hockey games. Some things simply cannot be explained. Although their recent run of solid performances has been a welcome respite from their routinely vile showings, Sabres fans are mindful that the roster they see today will incur significant alterations over the next few years.
Save for the aforementioned Eichel, along with the likes of Rasmus Ristolainen, Casey Nelson, Nick Baptiste and (potentially) Ryan O’Reilly, the Blue & Gold will assuredly look very different as early as next season. Studs like Casey Mittelstadt and Brendan Guhle both seem to be ready to take the leap, while the likes of upstart Hudson Fasching and C.J. Smith are also knocking on the Sabres door. Aside from these promising youngsters, there is a common theme for the future of the Sabres: an imminent Swedish invasion.
Sabres’ History Lacks Swede-ness
Fun fact: Ulf Sterner was the first Swede (and European, for that matter) to ever play in the NHL. Sterner made his debut for the New York Rangers on Jan. 27, 1965, against the Boston Bruins and only managed a total of four games to round out his brief NHL career. Although Sterner was an obvious trailblazer, the likes of Borje Salming, Anders Hedberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin were all instrumental in the ever-growing popularity in their homeland and, as a result, the consistent output of current NHL stars hailing from Sweden.
With the vast number of Swedish players to star in the NHL over the past 30+ years, one would think that the Sabres would have serendipitously secured at least one. Instead, the team’s most notable Swedish contingent over the last few decades consists of Henrik Tallinder, Calle Johansson, and Jhonas Enroth. Not exactly the Swede-st of the Swede.
Shelves Stocked With Swedes
The 2017-18 edition of the Sabres definitely has more Swedish flavor than teams of yesteryear. This can be partially attributed to former general manager Tim Murray having a proclivity to acquire Swedes. This includes questionable trades to secure the likes of Robin Lehner and Johan Larsson. The future, however, looks brighter and Swede-r.
Drafted in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL draft, Linus Ullmark is still in the midst of a lengthy journey to become the Sabres’ goaltender of the future. Upon being drafted by Murray, the decision was made to stash the 6-foot-4 netminder to his incumbent club, MODO, for an additional two years. Unfortunately for Ullmark, Murray developed an affinity for Ottawa Senators prospect, Lehner, which left Ullmark as the odd man out when arriving back in Buffalo during the 2015-16 season.
Despite this imperfect path, Ullmark has exhibited a great deal of resiliency for the Rochester Americans this season. The Amerks currently sit in second place in the North Division, and the 24-year-old Swede is a major reason why. He ranks seventh in the AHL with a .923 save percentage and is tied for third in starts with 34. There is increasing buzz that Ullmark may soon receive his opportunity to shine.
In the Jan. 9 edition of his popular 31 Thoughts weekly segment, Elliotte Friedman speculated, “I wonder if the Islanders take a look at Robin Lehner.” More recently, Friedman continued his Sabres goaltending conjecture in his Feb. 13 edition:
“I can’t pin it down, but a few teams suspected there was some traction between Buffalo and Philadelphia. Their two AHL teams, Lehigh Valley and Rochester, met last Saturday. It sounds like it depends on if the Flyers’ wish to buy, and they woke up Wednesday five points into the playoffs.”
Where there is smoke, there is usually fire. Let’s hope that Ullmark gets his long overdue opportunity sooner rather than later.
Ullmark Future Projection: Average NHL Starter (eta: 2019)
Other than Mittelstadt, Victor Olofsson is the next prospect in line that has Sabres fans drooling. Despite being the 181st selection in the 2014 NHL draft, Oloffson may very well have the most promising future of those the Sabres drafted significantly higher that year (i.e., Sam Reinhart, Brendan Lemieux, Eric Cornel, etc). Eliteprospects.com had the following scouting report of Olofsson:
Olofsson is a winger with natural goal-scoring instincts. Knows how to find open ice and has a good, hard shot. Skates extremely well and is a decent playmaker, too. His lack of size can be a problem in physical contests.
The 5-foot-11, 172-pound winger has had a breakthrough season for Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League this season. Through 43 games played, Olofsson is leading the league in goals (24) and is seventh in points (37). Check out some of his impressive work on the power-play here:
THIS GUN FOR HIRE: Victor Olofsson connects for two more power-play goals in a Frölunda loss. That's his fourth two-goal game of the year. Olofsson's 24 marks lead the Swedish Hockey League. Of the 24, 13 have come on the PP and six have been game-winners. #Sabres pic.twitter.com/vv66yjoIZy
— Kris Baker (@SabresProspects) February 9, 2018
What makes Olofsson’s production so intriguing is the SHL has, historically, been a league dominated by more season veterans. It will be interesting to see how the skilled winger will fare in a far more physically imposing league in the NHL. Based on Olofsson’s current production and trajectory, the odds are in his favor.
Olofsson Future Projection: Top-six NHL Forward (ETA: 2020)
Alexander Nylander is steadily becoming Buffalo’s favorite whipping boy because of his ostensibly slow development. What compounds the criticism is Nylander’s brother, William, has already turned into a top-six NHL forward and is trending towards becoming elite…all at the ripe age of 21. Alexander, on the other hand, was the eighth overall selection in the 2016 NHL draft but has struggled to rapidly rise up the ranks like his brother.
The 19-year-old had a horrific first season with the Amerks in 2016-17, tallying a pedestrian 28 points in 65 games, with a paltry minus-24 plus/minus rating. His 2017-18 season has not been much better, with nine points in 28 games. The silver lining is that Nylander is young, highly skilled and has produced for Sweden at the last two World Junior Hockey Championships.
Eliteprospects.com had the following scouting report of Nylander:
“Nylander’s game is all about skill. Blessed with exceptional hockey sense, technical skills and overall offensive awareness. Very creative and shifty player with speed and soft hands. Furthermore, he has a great release, a good scoring touch and the ability to do the unexpected with the puck. On the downside, there’s some consistency issues and intensity could be better. Some room for improvement when it comes to his defensive game as well.”
Much like Olofsson, Nylander will need to continue to assimilate to the physicality of North American hockey before he can truly excel. He is currently taking his lumps, but his skill level and pedigree bode well for a fruitful future.
Nylander Future Projection: Top-six NHL Forward (ETA: 2019)
Unlike Oloffson and Nylander, Rasmus Asplund has been labeled as an all-around player that does not merely rely on his physical tools. Instead, the cerebral element to his game reigns supreme. He was taken in the second round of the same draft as fellow Swede, Nylander. Additionally, he and Nylander shared some chemistry during the 2016 WJHC.
The 20-year-old center has been a model of consistency over the past three seasons for his SHL team, Farjestad. His offensive numbers have grown from 12 to 19 to 27 points over that period of time, all the while maintaining a positive plus/minus rating. Much like Olofsson and Nylander, Asplund could add some muscle to his 5-foot-11, 176-pound frame in order to make his integration into the NHL a seamless one. Once Asplund does make it to the show, it’s pretty obvious that he’ll be excited to don the same jersey as Mr. Mittelstadt:
— WGR 550 (@WGR550) July 11, 2017
Asplund Future Projection: Bottom Six NHL Forward (eta: 2020)
Sabres general manager, Jason Boterill, has certainly inherited a bunch of exciting young Swedish prospects, but he’s also gotten into the act himself. Boterill drafted center, Marcus Davidsson, in the second round of the 2017 NHL draft. Dennis Schellenberg of Hockey Prospectus writes about the 19-year-old:
“A playmaking, two-way center from Sweden. He can take off in a hurry with his powerful strides. Has real good puck distribution skills as he can pass the puck through tight lanes and areas to set up perfect scoring chances. He is a long-term project with strong playmaking upside.”
Davidsson has enjoyed a fantastic season with Djurgarden of the SHL. Through 32 games, he’s contributed a respectable 14 points, with an astounding plus-14 plus/minus rating. Much like Asplund, Davidsson’s two-way approach speaks to a mature game that will likely help his entry into the NHL easier than the likes of Oloffson and Nylander. Unlike Asplund, Davidsson does have a more NHL-ready frame, standing at 6 feet tall, weighing in at 191 pounds.
Davidsson Future Projection: Bottom-six NHL Forward (ETA: 2021)