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The NHL wanted to hear about what is developing in Sweden

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A delegation from Sweden was invited to the General Manager’s meetings in Florida.

Sweden v Russia - Bronze Medal Game - 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship
Where should he play next year?
Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Swedish Hockey’s Vice President Peter Forsberg (not that Peter Frosberg, this one is a career administrator for the national program), General Manager Tommy Boustedt, the SHL’s CEO Jorgen Lindgren and their sporting director Johan Hemlin were invited to meet with NHL General Managers at their annual meeting in Boca Raton, Florida.

“To my knowledge it has never happened before that representatives of any single European country has been invited to such a meeting, where the NHL's General Managers are in place for several days of meetings on topical issues. It is a unique opportunity for us as representing Swedish hockey to speak directly to those who take the decisions out of the NHL clubs,” says Peter Forsberg. [Google Translate]

Forsberg first broached his concerns over how many Swedish players are in the AHL at the All-Star game in Los Angeles this year.

Expressen reports:

He [Forsberg] complained during the visit to Los Angeles in conjunction with the All Star game in late January importance of NHL clubs will learn how the development of the Swedish clubs are built and all the costs it entails. [Google Translate]

Forsberg continued:

“We had to make a long and detailed presentation on how our hockey is built and the response was very good. Several general managers came up afterward and thought it was very interesting and that they learned things they did not know before. We explained why we do not want players to go through the AHL to reach the NHL, but that they should stay at home in Sweden and developed there in our league.

“We believe that this opens up a new page in the dialogue with the NHL. The compensation is one thing, and we are delighted to have extended our agreement with the NHL about the money, but this is an equally important part of the dialogue with them.” [Google Translate]

The Swedish position on this has been clear for some time, and it’s one shared by a lot of pundits and journalists in Sweden. They don’t want NHL-drafted Swedes going to North America to play in the AHL fulltime. They want teams to develop players in the SHL and have them jump directly to the NHL.

The number bandied about in the Swedish press this fall was 150 Swedes in the minor leagues in North America. Right now, Elite Propects lists 65 Swedes in the NHL. That includes players like Dmytro Timashov or Tobias Lindberg who played junior hockey in Canada, and it also includes players like Anton Lander who is not quite cracking his NHL club’s roster.

This isn’t just nationalism on the part of Swedish Hockey; they feel that the loss of top players is diluting the quality of the play in the SHL. They may be right. Elite Prospects lists just under 500 players who have passed through the SHL this year. There are 14 teams in the league, so not all of those players stayed long. Over 350 of them are Swedish, with Canadians, Americans and Finns the most common foreigners to join the league.

A loss of even 50-60 players, nearly all of them NHL-drafted players and therefore the elite level Swedes, will lessen the quality of play on the ice. The number is more than double the small group of Swedes that have gone to the KHL. I believe the SHL is declining in competitiveness. But that is partly because the foreigners who used to play there are going to the KHL instead.

The SHL is compensating by playing younger players at the top level earlier, which may be a good thing. But a decline in quality of competition means a decline in development value. If you keep skimming the cream, eventually, it seems like you must do that if you’re an NHL team.

The conversation, as is inevitable, becomes one of which league is better at development and mindless parochialism can come into play.

The problem with that simplification is that it leaves out the obvious answer to the question of where to develop Swedish players: Why not both?

Andreas Johnsson is a good example of a player who was drafted and developed in the SHL until there was nothing more for him to accomplish there except perhaps a better personal performance in the playoffs. Now he’s in the AHL, learning the style of game that is expected of him if he wants to crack the Leafs lineup. He is about to get another shot at playoffs.

If the question is which league should Swedes play in, and you have a simple answer to that, I think you’re doing it wrong. The needs of the player, the team, and other considerations about the situation should be taken into account.

When the Minnesota Wild chose to send Joel Eriksson Ek back to Sweden this year, they knew he was going to be on the WJC team, would get a chance to train with that team for all of their training camp and would likely make the playoffs with his club team. It was right for him and for them. The Iowa Wild are flirting with a playoff spot now, but they were terrible last year, and they might not have been the best place for him this year.

For other teams and other players, the calculation is different.

But if NHL GMs assume that their AHL team is the only option, that’s bad too. It might be a big mistake, and you need look no further than the desperate flight back home of the SenatorsMikael Wikstrand to see an example of a player not thriving in the AHL. Those parties worked out a solution, and Wikstrand was allowed to play in Sweden, but the lesson is that the AHL might not be right for everyone.

This is the next decision for the Leafs to make. They very obviously have a good relationship with Frölunda, Carl Grundstöm’s team, also, Andreas Johnsson’s former team, but they obviously will also decide, with Grundström, where he should play next year with their own interests and his as their top priority.

This meeting was likely a very good idea, and likely will lead to better communication on this issue. But if it dissolves into nothing but a fight over which league is better, then it was all pointless.