Carl Grundström

Carl Grundström was drafted by the Leafs last June at 57th overall, and that might not be the best thing that happened to him that summer.  He also left MODO, the former team of William Nylander that has fallen on very hard times and suffered relegation out of the SHL to the lower-level Allsvenskan league, and joined Frölunda, the SHL defending champion.  Going from a very bad team to a very good team can change a young player’s life.

Frölunda is also the former team of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Marlies winger Andreas Johnsson.  Last year at this time, I looked at Johnsson’s season in Sweden, compared him to his teammates, and discovered some things about him and his play.  This year, it’s Grundström’s turn.

Grundström and Johnsson have a lot in common, but they are very different types of players.  Johnsson is what people like to call a “pure skill” player, and he moves the puck extremely well, passes well, and has excellent positional play.  He is a meaninglessly tiny amount smaller than Grundström, and he scored more on the power play than he did at even-strength for Frölunda.  He spent most of his last year there playing wing for Johan Sundström.  Johnsson is 22 now, with a November birthday, so he was just barely 21 last year at this time.

Grundström is not the kind of guy anyone files in the “pure skill” bin.  The words associated with him are grit, grind, hard-work, tough, physical, relentless, dogged.  If that all sounds a bit like Zach Hyman, everyone seems to make that connection after seeing him or hearing about him, and it is somewhat valid and also not.  At least not yet. Grundström was born on December 1, and is just barely 19.  It is important to keep in mind that two year age difference between his Frölunda season this year and Johnsson’s last year.

At the WJC, we saw Grundström make some excellent shots, score goals the pretty way, and move the puck well, but we also saw all those other qualities that have led people—Swedes and Canadians—to call him “more Canadian than a real Canadian”.  Ray Ferraro said in the bronze medal game that he has a “lot of sandpaper in his game”. That is all very colourful, but the reality of watching him play is that he seems to have taken on board at a very young age the lessons about playing every second of the game, never giving up, going into every board battle expecting to win, and I think Mike Babcock would love him.  Except for one thing.

Grundström is not going to wow you with his defensive zone play at levels above junior.  And yet, he should be good at it. Everything he does in the offensive zone—retrieve the puck, cause turnovers, draw penalties, get the puck into play, get in the goalie’s face—all of that should translate into great defensive zone play.  But so far it has not.

It seems sometimes that there are players that can be excellent, elite even, at offensive zone positioning and hockey sense who just can’t imagine the reverse image.  They get in the defensive zone and their brain just locks up.  It’s like someone who can put together IKEA furniture without even looking at the pictograms, but is baffled when asked to take it apart.

It’s impossible to say if this issue with Grundström is because he’s 19 and he’s only had so much time to devote to his game, or if it’s because he just genuinely isn’t and will never be any good at that side of the game. Offensive skills often come first for a winger. Defensive positioning can be taught.

Grundström, however, is not just a winger like Johnsson has always been.  He has played at centre sometimes throughout his hockey career, and he played some centre at the WJC.  His greatest success there came as the grinder, puck retriever and man bowling over the goalie—usually by accident—on the best line on the ice with Alexander Nylander at centre and Joel Eriksson Ek at the opposite wing. This arrangement of skill sets was extremely Babcock-like, and it succeeded immediately.

In the SHL, when Grundström has played bigger minutes on better lines he is always at wing, usually with Sundström, the same centre Johnsson played with.  Grundström has centred the third and fourth line some of the time, particularly in the Champions Hockey League games against weaker opponents.

Frölunda is one of the higher event teams in the SHL, and although their goals for has cooled off a bit from last year, they are still in the top three.  They struggled early with injuries and suspensions and jiggled the forward lineup around quite a bit, so they don’t have the stable top nine they had last year.  To examine how Grundström fits in there this year, I limited the comparison to forwards who have played over 10 games.

The other limitation is the data the SHL provides.  They do give you enough to look at individual shots in several ways.  You can look at shots on goal, and those can be split between power play, short handed and even strength.  You can also get all shots for an individual, or iCorsi, for all situations only.  This is a player’s shots on goal plus all his missed and blocked shots.  It’s not Corsi For which is all the shots from everyone while that player is on this ice, it is only his individual efforts.

The lack of more comprehensive shot statistics makes it difficult to really judge the impact of players since you just don’t know what shot differentials look like when they are on the ice or off.

First, we can look at those shot rates.  The chart shows Power Play Shots on Goal per 60 minutes, Even Strength Shots on Goal per 60 minutes, and the All Situations iCorsi per 60 minutes.

The following chart is sorted by that last metric, shown with the yellow bar.

Sean Bergenheim was signed late in the season and only has 12 games played. He was a ~25 points per season player in the NHL for several years. He last played NHL hockey in 2014-2015.

I will admit that I was surprised to see Grundström at fifth on the team in individual all shot rate.  Even more curiously, the top line players like Joel Lundqvist and Casey Wellman are very low down the list.  Sundström as the top player on the team in nearly every category is not a surprise, and Frölunda has been keeping their best centre on the second line for the whole season.  Remember that Grundström plays with him a great deal.

As for Grundström, his SOG at even-strength are virtually the same as Sundström and Robin Figren who is often on their line.  Grundström’s power play results are odd, however. He plays just under 2 minutes per game on the power play, which is low, as he is never on the top unit.  Frölunda is very, very good at scoring with the man advantage, and approximately one-third of their goals come from there.  They also lead the league in power play scoring.  Grundstöm’s very, very low shot rate on the power play might be a factor of usage.  When you have a guy who can reliably get in the goalie’s face and cannot be moved out, you are going to put him there on the power play, and his shot rate won’t be very high.  Leo Komarov has the lowest individual shot rate on the power play for the Leafs even though he gets a lot of minutes.

Now for the scoring.  If you’ve been following the European Reports each week, you know that Grundström has a lot of goals and only two assists on the season so far.  His goal total hit 11 before he went to the WJC, and at that time was league-leading.

This has the same ordering as the first one, so we’re ranking these players by how much they shoot, not how often it goes in.  As you can see, Grundström gets goals at a higher rate than anyone else. And yes, he has a very, very high shooting percentage.  19.3 at the moment, which is is the second highest in the league for a regular player who has appeared in more than 10 games.

His points per 60 minutes, which is made up almost entirely of goals, would wither down to nothing impressive if you adjusted him to a more plausible shooting percentage. Just what that would be, what his career percentage in the SHL “should be” is hard to guess at.  Last year on MODO, it was 8.14 percent.

But before we decide he’s just a one-season marvel riding a shooting percentage spike—remember, shooting percentage varies and is not a repeatable skill; there’s too much randomness mixed in with the skill—we should remember that his shot rate is high as well.  Looking at his goal scoring is a bit like looking at Michael Grabner this year.  Yes, it’s a bit of an illusion, but it’s not all fake snow made of cotton batting.  There is a foundation of good play underneath it all.

Now that we’ve seen where Grundström fits on his team, where is he in the bigger world of the Leafs prospect pool?  When PPP did our top 25 under 25, he’d yet to play a game for Frölunda, and we had not much to go on other than scouting reports.  Now, with half a season of success on the top-ranked team in Sweden and his WJC performance behind him, we can see more clearly.

He is right now, a better all-around player than Andreas Johnsson was at his age, but not better than Johnsson was last year.  Johnsson was and is a better goal-scorer.  They are too different for that comparison to take us very far.  I wouldn’t compare him to Kasperi Kapanen either; their function in a lineup is different.

He is more on the Leo Komarov, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Kerby Rychel, Tobias Lindberg continuum.  He doesn’t have the defensive game of the top two on the list, but he might slot in around Soshnikov’s level in determination, physical ability and impact.  He might be a similar sort of goal-scorer to Soshnikov as well.  He picks up garbage at the net-front, keeps the puck in play all the time, and doesn’t get a lot of assists.  Neither of those two players are play-makers, they are “pucks on net and good things happen” players.  Hyman and Komarov are much more about passing the puck off to their scoring centres.

Going further down the list: Rychel and Lindberg scored a lot of goals when they were 19, and they both did it in the OHL.  It’s hard to compare players who had developed into enough of a physical force to dominate teenagers and score on teenage goalies to players like Johnsson and Grundström who had already moved into a men’s league where the occasional teenage goalie is a prodigy better than the men.

Rychel and Lindberg aren’t scoring much in the AHL this year.  Neither is Johnsson, and they all have similar results—poor ones.  But there is more to making it in the NHL than scoring statistics, more even than shooting statistics.  Soshnikov and Hyman have full time jobs on the Leafs—for now.  Remember: what is true today in hockey is not always true tomorrow.  Grundström may prove one day to be the kind of guy that can score enough and do the right things on the ice the rest of the time to get himself a job in much the way Soshnikov and Hyman have.

In the meantime, don’t overrate Grundström’s scoring, but don’t underrate it either, because that shot rate is very good for a guy who just turned 19 and is playing with much better players for the first time in his life.