NHL Draft History: Ranking Sweden’s Best First Rounders

The NHL launched the Amateur Draft in 1963 before rebranding it as the Entry Draft in 1979. There have been 59 events in the league’s history, including the one recently held on July 23-24, 2021. According to the statistics, there have been 12,029 players selected through the NHL draft system. There have been 1,387 players selected in the first round, accounting for 11.5 percent of all players drafted. 

In 59 years, only 777 Swedish-born players have been selected in the draft, representing 6.46 percent of all players. There have been 83 Swedish players chosen in the first round, with Bjorn Johansson taken as the first-ever in 1976. Johnson played a total of 15 NHL games, scoring two points. 

Mats Sundin became the first Swede to be selected in the No. 1 spot (1989), with Rasmus Dahlin becoming just the second player in 2018. So far, there have been 21 centers, 15 right wingers, 14 left wingers, and 32 defencemen drafted from Sweden in the first round. Franchises had never selected a Swedish goalie in the opening round until Jesper Wallstedt became a member of the Minnesota Wild in 2021. The Wild selected the highly touted prospect with the 20th-overall pick, making history in the process. 

Jesper Wallstedt Sweden
Jesper Wallstedt, Sweden, 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Wallstedt’s selection was symbolic as it meant that one of the world’s hockey superpowers finally checked all the boxes and produced a first-round pick from every position. This weekend’s draft led us to look back at Sweden’s best first-round selections. 

10. Erik Karlsson – 2008 NHL Entry Draft (Round 1, Pick 15)

Career numbers: 788 games played, 143 goals, 482 assists, 625 points, minus-63, 372 penalty minutes, 27 game-winning goals

Awards & Honors: 2011-12 & 2014-15 Norris Trophy

Not that long ago, there was a time when Karlsson was the best defenseman in the world. He joined the Ottawa Senators one season after getting drafted, scoring just 26 points in his first season. He doubled up his totals within a year before producing at a nearly point-per-game pace in 2011-12.

A significant injury derailed his career for a season in 2012-13 before rebounding and playing every game for the next three seasons. During the 2015-16 season, he set a career-high with 66 assists, one year removed from a career high in goals (21). 

Erik Karlsson
San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Karlsson remains only the second Swedish-born player to win multiple Norris Trophies. After earning the captaincy in Ottawa in 2014-15, the Senators traded their star defenceman to the San Jose Sharks. As of 2021, Karlsson is the 17th highest-scorer from Sweden and is just the third defenceman to be ranked so high. 

9. Gabriel Landeskog – 2011 NHL Entry Draft (Round 1, Pick 2)

Career numbers: 687 games played, 218 goals, 294 assists, 514 points, plus-50, 523 penalty minutes, 38 game-winning goals

Awards & Honors: 2011-12 Calder Trophy

Landeskog was the second-overall pick in 2011, right behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers. The two tied for the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year, with Landeskog winning the tie-breaker based on more goals scored. 

Related: Gabriel Landeskog: The NHL’s Most Underrated Leader

After a stellar rookie season, management promoted Landeskog to team captain, a role he’s been in for the last nine seasons. He has yet to crack 100 points, but averages 21 goals and 29 assists a season. His best season on record is 75 points, which came in 2015-16. 

Gabriel Landeskog Colorado Avalanche
Gabriel Landeskog, captain of the Colorado Avalanche. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Landeskog is an unrestricted free agent at the time of this writing and may find a new home in the offseason. No matter what happens in terms of his contract, he has proven to be an elite talent in the league and is already the 29th highest scorer born in Sweden. Should he lead the Avalanche or any other team to the Stanley Cup, he’d be just the second Swedish captain to achieve such a feat.

8. Ulf Dahlén – 1985 NHL Entry Draft (Round 1, Pick 7)

Career numbers: 966 games played, 301 goals, 354 assists, 655 points, minus-20, 230 penalty minutes, 49 game-winning goals

Awards & Honors: None

Dalhén cracked this top-10 list because of the significance of his place in Swedish draft history. He was just the fifth player from the country selected in the first round. When he retired, he ranked amongst the top-5 Swedish-born scorers of all-time, and now almost 20 years since his retirement, he is still in 15th place. 

The native of Ostersund, Sweden, played in 14 NHL seasons with five different teams. His best season (74 points) came in 1992-93 while a member of the Minnesota North Stars. Dalén is the second-highest scorer from his draft class and the seventh-highest scoring Swede in the first round of any Entry Draft. 

7. Markus Näslund – 1991 NHL Entry Draft (Round 1, Pick 16)

Career numbers: 1,117 games played, 395 goals, 474 assists, 869 points, plus-6, 736 penalty minutes, 53 game-winning goals

Awards & Honors: 2002-03 Lester B. Pearson Award

Näslund was a first-round pick for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and many wondered if he would find his potential or not, scoring just 15 points in his first 85 games. Then a breakout season (55 points) in 1995-96 led to a trade with the Vancouver Canucks where a star was born.

Markus Näslund, former captain of the Vancouver Canucks. (Jim Brasset/Flickr)

Within four seasons of his acquisition, the Canucks promoted their blossoming star to team captain. He became the first European-born leader in franchise history. When Näslund departed as a free agent in 2008, he was the Canucks’ all-time leading scorer until the Sedin brothers started their careers. 

Näslund’s most significant achievement in the league was being voted the most valuable player by his peers in 2002-03, the only season in which he scored more than 100 points. He remains the Swedish ninth-highest scorer in league history.

6. Nicklas Backstrom – 2006 NHL Entry Draft (Round 1, Pick 4)

Career numbers: 1,011 games played, 258 goals, 722 assists, 980 points, plus-119, 476 penalty minutes, 38 game-winning goals

Awards & Honors: 2018 Stanley Cup 

Backstrom has been a premier playmaking center in the NHL for the bulk of his 14-year career. His career-best season came in 2009-10 when the native of Galve, Sweden, scored 104 points with 33 goals and 68 assists. Backstrom became just the 10th Swedish player to score more than 100 points in an NHL season. 

Nicklas Backstrom Washington Capitals
Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

His crowning achievement came in 2018 when the Washington Capitals beat the Vegas Golden Knights to capture the Stanley Cup. It was a massive moment for Backstrom and the Capitals because they were always contenders who never finished their playoff runs. 

Backstrom’s career points-per-game average is 0.969 in the regular season and 0.812 in the post-season. He’s been a reliable player who averages 72 games a season. His current five-year contract expires after 2024-25, which means there is no telling how high he’ll climb on the country’s scoring list. 

5. Victor Hedman – 2009 NHL Entry Draft (Round 1, Pick 2)

Career numbers: 816 games played, 114 goals, 404 assists, 518 points, plus-121, 588 penalty minutes, 19 game-winning goals

Awards & Honors: 2020 & 2021 Stanley Cup, 2017-18 James Norris Trophy, 2019-20 Conn Smythe Trophy

Hedman is one of the youngest entries on the list, and he has already built himself an incredible resume that makes him a lock for a future Hall of Fame selection. 

In September 2020, Hedman helped guide the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup championship. Less than nine months later, the Lightning was back at the top with just the second back-to-back championship during the NHL’s salary cap era. During their first title run, Hedman walked away with the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff’s most valuable player. 

Gary Bettman Conn Smythe Trophy Victor Hedman Tampa Bay Lightning
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman presents the Conn Smythe Trophy to Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

As of 2021, Hedman has won the Norris Trophy for best defenseman just once (2017-18); however, he has been a finalist for the award in the last five seasons. Not only is he widely considered one of the game’s best defenders, but he’s also a scoring threat with 518 points in 816 games. 

He’s just 30 years old, and there is no telling how his career will end up, yet it is safe to say that he has lived up to his status as a second-overall selection.

4. Daniel Sedin – 1999 NHL Entry Draft (Round 1, Pick 2)

Career numbers: 1,306 games played, 393 goals, 648 assists, 1,041 points, plus-147, 546 penalty minutes, 86 game-winning goals

Awards & Honors: 2010-11 Lester B. Pearson Award, 2010-11 Art Ross Trophy, 2017-18 King Clancy Award

The 1999 NHL Entry Draft will always have a special place in the history books. The Vancouver Canucks had the third-overall pick. Still, general manager Brian Burke was so adamant on picking Daniel and Henrik Sedin that he worked out a deal with Atlanta to select the brothers with the second and third-overall picks. As they say, the rest is history.  

Daniel Sedin Canucks
Daniel Sedin, former alternate captain of the Vancouver Canucks. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Daniel played 18 seasons alongside his brother Henrik and was known as the goal scorer out of the two. When he retired in 2018, Daniel was the Canucks’ leading goal scorer with 393. His best season came in 2010-11 when he scored 104 points to become the second Swedish-born player to win the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s highest scorer. 

It is almost impossible to separate Daniel from Henrik, except one likes to score and the other was happy to set the goal. Daniel served as an alternate captain for almost a decade, collecting 1,041 points in the process, second to his brother in the Canucks’ record book. Together the duo are the only 1,000 point scorers from their draft year. 

3. Henrik Sedin – 1999 NHL Entry Draft (Round 1 Pick 3)

Career numbers: 1,330 games played, 240 goals, 830 assists, 1,070 points, plus-165, 680 penalty minutes, 38 game-winning goals

Awards & Honors: 2009-10 Art Ross Trophy, 2009-10 Hart Memorial Trophy, 2015-16 & 2017-18 King Clancy Award

Henrik and his brother Daniel were the faces of the Canucks for 18 seasons. Daniel was the goal scorer, but most goals were thanks to Henrik, who always had this sixth sense to his game to find open ice and his brother’s stick. 

Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks
Henrik Sedin, former captain of the Vancouver Canucks. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He became captain of the Canucks in 2010 and led the team to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, where the team lost to the Boston Bruins. Despite the awards, the points, and successes, that season was his only chance at hoisting the silver chalice. 

Related: Sedins’ Hall of Fame Credentials

When Henrik retired in 2018, he was the franchise’s leading scorer with 1,070 points and the record holder for most points in a season (112). He is the fourth-highest scoring player from Sweden and should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible in 2021.

2. Peter Forsberg – 1991 NHL Entry Draft (Round 1, Pick 6)

Career numbers: 708 games played, 249 goals, 636 assists, 885 points, plus-238, 690 penalty minutes, 43 game-winning goals

Awards & Honors: 1996, 2001 Stanley Cup, 1994-95 Calder Trophy, 2002-03 Hart Trophy, 2002-03 Art Ross Trophy, 2014 Hockey Hall of Fame Induction

Forsberg would be the consensus No. 1 pick for this list in many hockey circles, but he comes in second here. There is no denying that Forsberg is hailed as one of the greatest to ever play in Sweden, let alone on the international stage. His most significant moment may be at the Winter Olympics, where he scored the Golden Goal in 1994 to win the tournament in the shootout. 

Peter Forsberg Nordiques
Peter Forsberg during his rookie season with the Quebec Nordiques. (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)

His success carried over to the NHL, where he won Rookie of the Year and hoisted the Stanley Cup the following season. He produced at a rate of 1.25 points per game, scoring more than 100 points twice and becoming the first Swedish player to win the league’s scoring title. 

Sadly lower body injuries hampered his production in his late 30’s forcing him into early retirement. Forsberg’s heart was always in the game as he tried numerous times to come back, but the pain was just too much. Forsberg was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014 in his first year of eligibility. 

1. Mats Sundin – 1989 NHL Entry Draft (Round 1, Pick 1)

Career numbers: 1,346 games played, 564 goals, 785 assists, 1,349 points, plus-73, 1,093 penalty minutes, 96 game-winning goals

Awards & Honors: 2007-08 Mark Messier Leadership Award, 2012 Hockey Hall of Fame Induction

Sundin made NHL history in 1989 when he became the first Swedish player ever to be selected first overall in the Entry Draft. The Quebec Nordiques also made the native of Bromma, Sweden, the first European-born player to be taken first overall. After working his way through the ranks in several of Sweden’s premier professional leagues, which included a championship in the top division in 1989, he came to North America to make a whole lot of history. 

Mats Sundin, Toronto Maple Leafs
Mats Sundin, former captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Mike Lynaugh Photography)

As of 2021, Sundin remains the only Swedish player in NHL history to score 500 goals. He spent most of his career in Toronto, where he ranks first in goals and points in club history. While a member of the Maple Leafs, Sundin served as captain for 11 seasons (1997-2008), which is the longest tenure for any European-born player. He remains Sweden’s top goal scorer and point collector in NHL history. 

Sundin was a clutch player who had a bad reputation because he never won any individual awards, let alone led the Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup Final. Despite what the fans or pundits of his day thought, he still ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame alongside the game’s greatest.  

Final Analysis

The 2020 Entry Draft represents Sweden’s best year, with 32 players selected. Meanwhile, the 2009 Entry Draft marked the only time in history that seven players from the Nordic country went in the opening round. 

As of 2021, only a handful of teams have yet to select a Swede in the first round, including the Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, and Seattle Kraken. The Buffalo Sabres have stockpiled the most players, selecting six players throughout their draft history. There are now 32 spots in the first round. Franchises have called a Swede’s name in all the spots except ninth, 30th, 31st, and 32nd, leaving plenty of room for someone else to make history. 

The NHL is about to enter into its 104th season of operation. Only 338 Swedish players have suited up for a game in the league, with 83 of them drafted in the first round. This list may summarize the country’s best players; however, there is no denying that these 10 players have earned that recognition for the way they have conducted themselves on and off the ice. 

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