There has been a rise of dominant Swedish players in the NHL in recent years, and the Blackhawks have been at the forefront of the movement with 11 players currently signed (or rights held) with the organization or one of their affiliates. In fact, six of them have already made an appearance this season with several of them being integral to the Blackhawks success.
Ready, Willing and Able
Niklas Hjalmarsson – Defense – 28
Hjalmarsson has been with the organization since they drafted him in the 4th round of the 2005 NHL draft (108th overall). He is another success story from the Blackhawks system, as he first played with the Rockford IceHogs in 2007 after a couple of seasons in Sweden.
Hammer has been a part of each of the Blackhawks Stanley Cup runs, and his role has grown with each passing year. In 2010, he was still learning the Blackhawks system and developing as the shutdown defenseman we know today, but he was no less important to the team in that first championship run.
By 2013, Hjalmarsson was paired with Johnny Oduya (a fellow Swede) and the duo quickly became the Blackhawks premier shutdown pairing often drawing the opponent’s top offensive threats. They played a similar role in 2015 as well, though they were split up from time to time to bolster some weaker pairings down the line.
This year, Hjalmarsson has been equally as important even without his longtime trusted D partner Oduya (now with the Dallas Stars). He has played on both sides and continues to be one of the ‘Hawks premier shot blockers and shut down defenders. In addition, he has seen time in just about every situation on the ice.
Hammer is known for his toughness as he frequently absorbs high-velocity blasts and rarely misses a shift; Even when they hit him in the throat. In the time that he has been among the ‘Hawks top six defenders, he has rarely missed longer than a few games throughout the course of a season. Hjalmarsson may never get the recognition that Duncan Keith does, but he earned the trust of Stan Bowman and the coaching staff in 2010 and has never looked back. In fact, when it came down to the team matching the San Jose Sharks offer sheet for Hammer, or signing their Cup winning goalie, Antti Niemi they went with the defenseman. At the time, it may have been a source of concern for the fans. However, Hjalmarsson has done more than enough to garner the same kind of faith from the Blackhawks’ fans that he had already earned within the organization with his gritty play and incredible toughness.
Marcus Kruger – Center – 25
Kruger has been with the team since 2009 when he was drafted in the 4th round of the NHL draft (149th overall). Like Hjalmarsson, he played in Sweden prior to his time with the Blackhawks, though his only stint with the IceHogs was in 2012-13 during the NHL lockout. Kruger has anchored the fourth line through the last two Cup runs and is the player coach Joel Quenneville trusts most for defensive zone starts when the game is on the line. Over the course of the last two years, he has carried a faceoff win percentage above 50%. He is not as effective on the dot as top line center Jonathan Toews, but Kruger is very effective in the role the ‘Hawks have set out for him. Kruger’s job is to win draws in the defensive zone and help his linemates shut down the top offensive threats on opposing teams. He is also capable of burning teams in the clutch as he did the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Finals last year with his triple overtime winner.
Currently, Kruger is sidelined for the first time in his NHL career after having what is likely to be season-ending wrist surgery to repair a dislocation injury. He previously missed 13 games over the course of his career, this season if the projection is correct he could miss up to 49 regular season games. In fact, it has been speculated that Kruger may not be available until after the first round of the playoffs. Hopefully, the rest will do Kruger some good as the Blackhawks are looking forward to what could be another deep playoff run when he returns.
Dennis Rasmussen – Center – 25
Moose, as he is known in the locker room, is another Stan Bowman find. He was signed over the summer in 2014. Rasmussen played in 73 games for the IceHogs last season where he scored 13 goals with 14 assists and was +9. He was re-signed after his one-year contract expired.
Rasmussen started the current season with the IceHogs as well. However, he was called up to the Blackhawks and quickly made his presence known as he scored a goal in his debut against the Nashville Predators. Since then Moose has contributed two more goals and an assist, and had his first two-point night. Suffice it to say, he has earned a spot with the ‘Hawks and gained the trust of coach Q, which is not always an easy task for a young player.
Rasmussen has stepped up in his time with the ‘Hawks, and his size (6’ 3″) has complemented some of the smaller play making forwards that he has skated beside. He is not an overly physical presence, but he has proven his worth by getting to the dirty areas of the ice. In fact, his goals are generally of the greasy variety and directly related to the areas of the ice that he frequents. Specifically the blue paint.
Rasmussen may not play every game that remains in the regular season with the ‘Hawks, but he will likely be at the top of Q’s list should the need for a forward arise again. For now, Rasmussen is enjoying the role he was called up to play, and he will continue to make sure his name stays at the forefront if he is returned to Rockford.
Erik Gustafsson – Defense – 23
Gustafsson was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2012 NHL draft (93rd overall). He played in Sweden after the draft, and the Oilers ultimately opted not to sign the young blueliner. However, Stan Bowman and his scouts had been keeping an eye on Gustafsson. They signed the defenseman to a two-year entry level contract in 2015.
Bowman was very high on the defenseman, as he endorsed Gustafsson almost as vehemently as he did Finnish phenom Teuvo Teravainen for the last few years. Considering how well he turned out, that is some pretty high praise for Gustafsson.
#Blackhawks controlled 68% of even-strength shot attempts when Erik Gustafsson was on the ice tonight. No secret why they love this kid.
— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) December 30, 2015
It is not difficult to see what Bowman and the ‘Hawks scouting team saw in the young D-man. He is a skilled defender with some offensive upside and smooth skating skills that should allow him to gobble up minutes (much like Duncan Keith). He also has excellent vision and can run the powerplay, though that isn’t necessary with several veteran blueliners at the ‘Hawks disposal. However, it is a good attribute to have should the need arise.
In addition, Gustafsson has a quick release and can fire a blistering, accurate shot on net when needed. Though he is not the biggest defenseman in the league at 6’ 0″, 176 lb., he plays with a bit of a physical edge and will more than likely add some bulk to his frame as he develops in the NHL. His defensive positioning is still a work in progress, but he has garnered more faith from coach Q than his predecessor, David Rundblad.
David Rundblad – Defense – 25
Rundblad was drafted 17th overall by the St. Louis Blues in the 2009 NHL draft. He is a bit of a journeyman in spite of only playing in the NHL for five years. He has played for the Ottawa Senators, Phoenix Coyotes (now Arizona Coyotes) and the Blackhawks.
Unfortunately, for Rundblad, it would seem that his time in Chicago may be coming to an end, as he just never really found a niche on the blueline. He plays a more offensive-minded brand of defense and can get caught out of position more frequently that Quenneville is comfortable with.
For that reason, Rundblad has found himself dropped on waivers in order to send him down to the IceHogs, and it seems likely that he could be traded once again. While he may not fit in Chicago, he has enough offensive upside and a reasonable cap hit, which should make him appealing for teams that run that style of defensive play.
— Rockford IceHogs (@goicehogs) December 30, 2015
Only time will tell where Runblad will land next.
Viktor Svedberg – Defense – 24
Svedberg signed with the Blackhawks AHL affiliate, Rockford IceHogs in 2013 and has played there for most of his career in the US. He started this season with the Blackhawks as he got his first call up at the beginning of the season with Michal Rozsival still out after ankle surgery during the 2015 playoffs.
The first thing that anyone will notice about Svedberg is his incredible size. At 6′ 8″ without his skates, he is a massive defender reminiscent of Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins (6′ 9″). However, the big blueliner has surprising mobility for his size and is capable of finding the back of the net. Though, he has developed into more of a stay at home defenseman since his junior career in Sweden, where his offense was a bigger factor.
Svedberg is a two-way defender who can impact the game with his size as he can deliver punishing hits and clear the zone. He is a capable puck mover and will put the puck on net with considerable force to help his team mates grab those greasy goals that are often difference makers.
On the Radar
Gustav Forsling – Defense – 19
Forsling was selected by the Vancouver Canucks in the fifth round (126th overall) in the 2014 NHL Draft. The Blackhawks acquired Forsling’s rights as part of a trade in 2015.
Forsling is on the smaller size at 5′ 11″, 175 lb., but is an excellent and efficient skater who likes to create plays. He is similar to players like Sami Vatanen and Torey Krug. Forsling is capable of controlling the tempo and flow of a game, particularly on the power play.
As with many smaller, offensively-minded defensemen, he is a work in progress when it comes to his positional play in his own end of the ice, and he is at a disadvantage against bigger, stronger players in tight areas.
However, the Blackhawks may just be the team that can appreciate his style given the outstanding success they have had with Duncan Keith, another smaller defenseman. Forsling is not as strong defensively as Keith, but he has a lot of similar attributes that should have the ‘Hawks keeping tabs on the young blueliner’s progress.
— Blackhawks Fans (@BlackhawksViews) December 30, 2015
John Dahlstrom – Right Wing – 18
Dahlstrom was the final player selected in the 2015 NHL Draft, where he was chosen by Chicago in the seventh round (211th overall). He is currently playing in Sweden. Dahlstrom is a natural scorer with penchant for finding the back of the net. He has a hard, accurate shot with a quick release and reads offensive opportunities quickly, reacting accordingly.
He still has some development hurdles to overcome regarding his one-on-one play and his defensive game. However, he is a player that should remain on the Blackhawks’ radar.
Down the Pipeline
There are other players that the Blackhawks have under their organizational umbrella in Defensemen Robin Norell and Carl Dahlstrom, as well as left wing Frederik Olofsson. However, each of them are more likely to be long-term development projects for the organization. Both defensemen are currently playing in Sweden, while Olofsson is playing in Omaha.
The Blackhawks have no shortage of Swedish players throughout their organization, and this trend will likely continue as long Sweden keeps producing players like Hjalmarsson and Kruger.