(This article was originally featured in "St. Louis Game Time," Vol. 4 No. 9, November 16, 2008 in "Tomorrow's Blues with Brian Weidler")
Over the last few years, Sweden and Finland have become a popular stop on the itineraries of the Blues' scouting staff. Since drafting the departed (and unlamented) Christian Backman in the first round of the 1998 Entry Draft, the Blues have drafted eleven players from Sweden, five Finns, and one each from Norway and Denmark. Two of these players (current Blue Patrik Berglund and Dane Lars Eller) were first-rounders, two more (Simon Hjalmarsson and the reluctant Carl Söderberg) were second-round selections, and three more (2008 pick Jori Lehtera, 2006 pick Jonas Junland, and 2001 pick Tuomas "Who?" Nissinen) were taken in round three.
Of course, the fact that both chief scout Jarmo Kekalainen and chief Euro scout Ville Siren are Finns may have something to do with the abundance of Vikings taken by the Blues in recent years... but it's interesting to note that Kekalainen and Siren have drafted only two of their countrymen (Juhamatti Aaltonen and Lehtera) since coming to the Blues in 2003. Also interesting to note is that none of the Scandinavians drafted by the Blues before 2006 are under contract to the organization at present.
Tonight, we'll focus on the three prospects playing in Sweden -- Eller with Frölunda of the Elitserien, or Swedish Elite League; Berglund with Luleå HC, also of the Elitserien; and Hjalmarsson with Borås HC of the Allsvenskan, or the Swedish equivalent to the American League.
A big "thank you" must go to a regular commenter on the Game Day Threads at the Game Time website and all-around good guy, Marcus Pettersson, for his observations "on the ground" of the prospects currently toiling in the land of Gustavus Adolphus and Volvos.
Lars Eller, C/LW, shoots L, 6'1, 198, born May 8, 1989 in Rodovre, Denmark.
The Blues' first selection (13th overall) in 2007, Eller is considered one of the top prospects in the Blues' system at the moment. A versatile player who is equally proficient at center or left wing, Eller is under contract to the Blues, but is honoring the remainder of his contract with Frölunda, one of the top organizations in Sweden.
Scouting reports on Eller make note of his excellent skating ability, both in terms of breakaway speed and overall mobility. Also of note is Eller's puckhandling ability, his quick release, and creativity on offense. These attributes have served him well in Sweden, allowing him to pile up 29 goals and 77 points in 84 games at the J20 Superelit (Swedish major junior) level, but his success at the junior level has not fully translated to the Elite League level as yet.
In 17 games for Frölunda this year, Eller has three goals and six points, with an even plus/minus and 4 PIM. Respectable for a 19-year-old, but consider that Eller started the year like a house afire, with four points in his first four games, and has only a goal and an assist in 13 games since. Per our source in Sweden, Eller's ice time per game is decreasing, and "(m)any Frölunda fans feel that Eller's development has stagnated some, that he's not making the strides everyone's expecting. Hopefully he has more to give as the season goes on, but right now, he's not NHL material."
It's not just Eller that's slumping, however; it's the entire team. Frölunda, one of the wealthiest and best-staffed clubs in Sweden, is just 7-8-5 in 20 games, good for only ninth place in the 12-team Elitserien.
Kristofer Berglund, D, shoots L, 5'10, 180, born Aug. 12, 1988 in Umea, Sweden.
Selected in the fifth round (125th overall) by the Blues in last summer's Entry Draft, Berglund has been a star in the IF Björklöven system since age 15. Now skating for Luleå HC of the Elitserien, Berglund is a first-rate skater with speed and mobility, as well as a smart player with excellent hockey sense and on-ice vision.
No relation to fellow Blues' draftee Patrik, this Berglund is an offense-minded blueliner with a good shot, excellent stickhandling skills, and an ability to make the first pass out of the defensive zone. He racked up seven goals and 40 points in 68 career games with Björklöven's J20 squad, and posted 4-21-25 totals with the Allsvenskan club last season. This year, in his Elitserien debut, Berglund is a very respectable 2-5-7 (one SHG,) with 8 PIM and a plus-4 mark as a 19-year-old playing with veterans ten years older than he is (including teammates and former Blues Jaroslav Obsut and Lubos Bartecko).
Per our source in Sweden, Berglund is "considered one of the biggest defensive talents in the country, definitely top 10 among defenders aged 20 and below," and he is popular with the Luleå fans as well as Swedish National Team coach (and former NHLer) Bengt-Åke Gustavsson. Gustavsson, our source notes, "likes (Berglund" a lot, and has invited him to several of the National Team's games."
Like Eller's club (Frölunda), Luleå HC is struggling a bit with an 8-8-4 record in 20 games, good for seventh overall in the Elitserien. Based on his performances to date, Berglund can be expected to help make that record better.
Simon Hjalmarsson (Jahl-mur-son), RW, shoots L, 5'11, 161, born Feb. 1, 1989 in Varnamo, Sweden.
For the Blues, the 2007 NHL Entry Draft may well end up going down in history as their best ever, at least at the top. Their three first-round picks in that draft included Eller, Ian Cole, and current NHLer David Perron, and in the second round they chose Michigan star Aaron Palushaj 44th overall after taking Simon Hjalmarsson with the 39th selection.
Hjalmarsson, according to our source in Sweden, "has officially emerged as a scoring threat in senior hockey. He's not a dominant player by any means, but he's very fast, hard working, and always looks to get the offense going." His team, Borås HC, started the Allsvenskan season with seven straight losses, but is 3-3-3 since then, and Hjalmarsson leads the way in scoring for the club with 6-8-14 totals and a plus-2 mark in 17 games. He has also won five of eight faceoffs taken (63%), and his six goals include a power-play marker, a shorthanded goal, and a game-winner.
When with Borås HC, Hjalmarsson is lined up most often with Islanders' 2008 draft pick David Ullström, and Atlanta draftee Nicklas Lasu (since assigned to Frölunda's J20 squad), and that Kid Line is considered the team's top line. Hjalmarsson has been out of Borås' lineup recently, skating for the Swedish Junior National Team, and he is expected to play a key role at the U-20 World Juniors next month.
Next time in "Tomorrow's Blues," we'll go back to Europe for a look at the Blues' prospects in Finland and Switzerland. Until then, remember... "if we do not prepare for ourselves the role of the hammer, there will be nothing left but that of the anvil." Auf wiedersehen.