Even the most casual fan of the Detroit Red Wings knows that the pipeline to Motown more often than not goes through Sweden/Scandinavia. Players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg represented Sweden with pride during their time with the Red Wings, and the current generation of Red Wings are continuing that trend. Even non-Swedish players such as Moritz Seider and Joe Veleno spent a season playing in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) before making the jump to the NHL.
For this week’s prospect report, we’re going to focus primarily on players strutting their stuff in the SHL. The ongoing joke about the Red Wings is that Team Sweden at any level of competition consists solely of Red Wings. While that’s a bit of an exaggeration, there is no shortage of future Red Wings that proudly represent the blue and yellow of Sweden. So, without further ado: Låt oss börja!
SHL – Frölunda HC
Theodor Niederbach – Center/Right Wing
THW Rank: 7
Games Played (GP): 34
Stat Line: 3 Goals (G), 7 Points (P)
Niederbach is a prospect that seems to be gaining some traction around the hockey world. Selected 51st overall in 2020, the slender Swede has always had some serious skill in his toolkit, but until this season, he’s had trouble earning the right to play against the best players the SHL has to offer. Despite playing in five games at the 2021 World Junior Championships (in which he scored two goals), he seemed to be stuck in no-man’s land as a player that hadn’t quite figured out what his role is as a professional player.
This season, while his stat line doesn’t exactly reflect it, Niederbach is starting to put that skill on display. With two goals in two games at the 2022 WJC (before it was ultimately shut down), he showed on an international stage that he knows how to put the puck in the net, and that he can be a source of offense against the best of his peers. In our recent Red Wings Prospect Rankings, I compared him to former Red Wing Valtteri Filppula because of his ability to create plays as a passer. Don’t let his goals at the WJC fool you: this guy will rise or fall based on his ability to create, not finish.
In fact, it might be best to take his production this season with a grain of salt. While seven points through 34 games doesn’t jump off the page, it’s worth pointing out that Lucas Raymond had just 18 points through 34 games while playing with Frölunda last season; he has almost double that amount of points this season with the Red Wings. Niederbach obviously doesn’t have the elite offensive skill of Raymond, but if Raymond’s production increased when he joined the NHL this season, it stands to reason that Niederbach’s numbers are being a bit suppressed in the SHL right now. Niederbach is still at least two years away from challenging for an NHL spot, but it’s fair to wonder whether or not it makes sense for him to cross the pond and learn the North American game in the American Hockey League (AHL) next season.
Liam Dower Nilsson – Center
THW Rank: 21
Stat Line: 0 G, 0 P
One of my favorite depth picks to come from the 2021 draft class, Liam Dower Nilsson was the player that Red Wings scout Håkan Andersson was “banging the table” for the Red Wings to select, according to Kris Draper, the Red Wings’ head of scouting. As the captain of Team Sweden’s U-18 team at the U-18 World Juniors last year, Dower Nilsson fits the high-character mold that general manager Steve Yzerman seems to be targeting in the draft. It also helps that he’s got some sneaky-good skill to go along with it.
While Dower Nilsson has seen action in seven SHL games, he has spent most of his season at the J20 level, where he currently has 28 points through 21 games. While he has the ability to bury the puck himself, he seems to take pride in setting up his teammates. If he has the puck in the offensive zone, he surveys the scene in front of him and does well to put the puck into the high-danger areas. Much like Niederbach last season, it seems like Dower Nilsson is in that weird spot where the J20 level seems a bit too easy for him, but he hasn’t been able to stand out in the SHL in his limited appearances.
I showed my hand at the beginning of this section: I like this prospect a lot. While he could use an extra 10-to-15 pounds or so on his 6-foot frame, he’s exciting to watch when he’s got the puck on his stick in the offensive zone. He may eventually have to move over to the wing to really let his offensive skills shine in North America, but building a strong two-way game could keep him down the middle. He will most likely spend next season in the SHL, but he’ll be watching his good friend Simon Edvinsson from afar and setting his sights on joining him in North America sooner rather than later. I’ll put his odds of making the NHL one day at 50/50; his development over the course of 2022 will play a big role in determining whether those odds head north or south.
SHL – Färjestad BK
Albert Johansson – Defense
THW Rank: 4
Stat Line: 3 G, 17 P
Among SHL defensemen that are 22 years old or younger, Johansson’s 17 points so far this season ranks second; the only player ahead of him is Calle Själin, a New York Rangers prospect, who has 18 points through 31 games. After scoring 19 points in 44 games last season, Johansson is close to setting a new career-high in the SHL – and fans of the Red Wings should be very excited about it. With his ability to transport and move the puck in the offensive zone, Johansson fits the mold of a “modern day defenseman”.
One concerning stat this year is his plus/minus. With a rating of minus-7 on a team with a minus-2 goal-differential, Johansson is seeing the puck go into the wrong net a few too many times this season. While defense isn’t necessarily a problem for him, his calling card is what he can do on the offensive side of the puck. With that in mind, he will need to take his defensive game to another level if he wants to carve out a long, fruitful career in the NHL. I have full faith that he can get there, though, and I fully expect that he’s going to push really hard for an NHL roster spot next season. Even if he ultimately begins the 2022-23 season in the AHL, it shouldn’t be too long before we see him wearing the winged wheel.
Like Edvinsson, he’s expected to come to North America next year, and his play in camp will dictate whether he starts in Grand Rapids or Detroit. Because Johansson (who just turned 21) is a three-year pro already, the Red Wings don’t view him as a true rookie who will need to learn to play against men. But physically, he’s still going to need to add strength, especially if he’s going to step right into the NHL.– Max Bultman (From “Red Wings defense pipeline: How Simon Edvinsson and 14 other prospects fit into Detroit’s future”), The Athletic, 1/24/22
Liiga – TPS
Eemil Viro – Defense
THW Rank: 13
Stat Line: 1 G, 3 P
Another one of my favorite prospects in Detroit’s system, Viro was selected 70th overall in 2020 and has since established himself as one of the best up and coming Finnish defensemen in the world. While this year’s WJC was ended prematurely, he looked like he was ready to build on his performance in last year’s WJC where he had two points in seven games and had an impressive plus/minus rating of plus-12. That would have been great to see because his season in the Liiga this year hasn’t been as impressive as the prior season.
I wouldn’t say that he has taken a step back because he’s still doing a lot of the things that have made him successful in the past. He still plays a cerebral game that offers value at both ends of the ice. He can still lead the rush, and he still makes good decisions with the puck. However, it’s fair to wonder if he has stagnated a bit. As I wrote in our latest prospect rankings, sometimes you have to get uncomfortable in order to grow. Seeing as Viro is already signed to an entry-level deal with the Red Wings, he could (and probably should) find his way to Grand Rapids next season to start the next phase of his development. He still projects as a number four or five defenseman, likely playing a big role on a contending team’s bottom pairing.
As is the case with most prospects, each year brings heightened importance to their development. In the case of Viro, a strong finish to this season would be welcome as he gets set to hopefully take the next step next season.
Who would you like an update on next week? Is there anybody I missed this week that you would like to highlight? Be sure to leave a comment down below!
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.