When Nicklas Lidstrom skated his first strides on NHL ice, Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson were not yet 2 years old. In the years since, they have grown into towering two-way defensemen and joined the Detroit Red Wings legend as fellow Swedish Norris Trophy winners. It's no surprise, then, that Hedman and Karlsson serve as two of the bigger role models for today's aspiring Swedish defensemen on their way to the NHL -- a group that has significantly grown in recent years.
Ask many of those defensive prospects about their favorite players or after whom they try to pattern their games, and Hedman or Karlsson are the most frequent answers. And the next wave of Swedes couldn't ask for much better examples to follow.
"We have Hedman, Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, [John] Klingberg and all those guys. Everyone watches them a lot and takes the best parts of their game and put it into ours," says Victor Soderstrom, whom the Arizona Coyotes traded up to get with the 11th overall pick in the 2019 draft. "I think that's a big reason why we have such great [young] D-men."
Hedman takes pride in it, too. "That's obviously very flattering to hear from fellow countrymen," says the Tampa Bay Lightning's No. 1 blueliner. "It's something I take very seriously. The thing for me is, I try to be the best I can be every night, play the right way in all parts of the game. It's a good receipt for me that I'm doing something well and those guys look up to me."
Those indirect proteges are quickly making gains in reaching the NHL and finding their spots alongside the likes of Hedman and Karlsson, a four-time 70-plus-point player now with the San Jose Sharks. In the past five drafts, 12 Swedish defensemen have been selected in the first round, including Rasmus Dahlin, who in 2018 became the second Swedish player of any position to be selected with the No. 1 pick (Mats Sundin, 1989).
Still just 19 years old, Dahlin is on pace to become the second highest-scoring teenage defenseman in NHL history, with 70 points so far through his first two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres. He'll surpass Bobby Orr, Aaron Ekblad, Larry Murphy and Rick Hampton as long as he gets seven more points this season. (He's not catching No. 1, though; Phil Housley's 143 points over two teenage seasons is a bit out of range.)
Dahlin's hot start signifies how prospects are adapting to the North American pro game, too. Players are making quicker transitions to the NHL, which is one of the things Hedman has noticed about the younger players coming into the league from Sweden.
"They're obviously ready to play right away," says Hedman. "We've got two Rasmuses now. We've got Dahlin in Buffalo and Sandin in Toronto."
That second one, Rasmus Sandin, was part of Sweden's entry at the recent World Junior Championship, where he was one of five first-round draft picks on a blue line that propelled the team to a bronze-medal finish after narrowly losing to Russia in the semifinals. The 19-year-old was named the tournament's best defenseman and a media all-star selection, making him a little easier for the Maple Leafs to recall on Jan. 13 when injuries hit.
And Toronto didn't wait long to call up another young Swedish talent on the back end. It summoned Timothy Liljegren, a 2017 first-rounder, the next day -- a few hours before Sandin recorded two assists in his NHL debut.
"They're great skaters, good defensively, plus they've got a skillset that's very, very high," says Hedman of the new wave. "They are taking it to the next level. It's a lot of fun for us older Swedish defensemen to see these young kids coming in and being key players on their team right away."
It may be difficult to remember now that he's among the best defensemen in the NHL, but Hedman's transition to the league was not necessarily the smoothest. He says he had a tough time refining his defensive game at first and struggled for a few years before he gained confidence and improved that aspect of his game. Even offensively, you could see a jump in his fifth season. Hedman hovered between 20-26 points in his first four campaigns before exploding for 55 in 2013-14. Now in Year 11, Hedman has 41 in 44 games (0.93 per game).
"You've got to be able to have speed to be able to make it in this league," he says. "You've got to play against Connor McDavid and at least try to stay with him. It's a different game than 10 years ago when I got into the league. You look at all the guys -- not only the defensemen but the forwards as well. The skillset that they have, the speed that they play with and still be able to handle the puck like they do, it's impressive."
As the style of play has quickened, the NHL's landscape has shifted little by little since Hedman entered the NHL in 2009-10. In each of the past 11 seasons, Sweden has had the third-most NHL players, according to QuantHockey. Over that span, the NHL's Swedish population has nearly doubled from 54 players to appear in NHL games to 106 so far in 2019-20. Hedman was one of 22 Swedish defensemen to play in a game in 2009-10; this season has seen 40.
There are even more on the way, too. While forwards Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz are garnering the bigger headlines in Sweden when it comes to the 2020 NHL draft, a trio of Swedish blueliners have a chance at first-round consideration in June. William Wallinder, who plays for MODO -- the same club that developed Hedman -- is getting attention with his 6-foot-4 frame, great skill and high-end mobility. Then there are Helge Grans, a 6-foot-3 right-shot defenseman playing for Malmo in the Swedish Hockey League, and Emil Andrae, a 5-foot-9 offensive-minded rearguard who has averaged nearly a point per game in Sweden's junior ranks and has played games in the SHL with HV71.
So what has triggered the growing population of Swedish defensemen? It's difficult to pinpoint. But one thought is the NHL caught up to Swedish-style hockey, as opposed to the other way around.
The importance of puck movement, puck possession, and creating offense -- particularly from the back end -- has been a strong point for Swedish national teams and club teams for years now. That puts the onus on the defensemen to improve their two-way skills and skating.
"I think every team in Sweden wants to involve their D-men in the offensive zone," says Soderstrom, who was loaned back to Brynas IF by the Coyotes for this season. The 18-year-old World Juniors standout has 12 points in 17 games this season for the club system he's played in since he was 14 years old.
Another factor in play: rising tides lift all boats among Swedish defensemen. The peer-to-peer interaction within a national-team setting allows players to compare and contrast their games with those of their fellow high-end countrymen. As the player pool improves, they're able to help each other get better in direct and indirect ways.
Nils Lundkvist, another 2020 World Juniors standout, took a lot of lessons from playing with so many of his elite peers at the event. His hockey sense and ability to get the puck up ice stood out for the New York Rangers in 2018, prompting them to take him in the first round. Lundqvist finished up the tournament with eight points in seven games.
"Soderstrom and Sandin are so incredible, just seeing them do these dangles on the blue line, you can learn a lot from that," says Lundkvist. "[Sandin] and [Tobias] Bjornfot have played in the NHL. To be on the same team as them, it's a big motivation for me to be as good as them and do the same as they have done."
Being able to watch and learn from the NHL players has also been a big help. It's one advantage that wasn't as readily available to players like Hedman when he was coming up as a youth hockey player. Today, the younger players just have better access to watching the pros.
"With the internet, YouTube, watching video of guys at a younger age, you start working on it and maybe you catch a skills coach posting something on YouTube. The internet and everything has opened many doors," says Hedman. "If you get that information early on, you keep doing it, and I think that's helped a lot of guys."
Regardless of why it's happening, the growth is extremely promising for the future of Swedish hockey. And for Hedman, it creates some longing for the opportunity to play with these players on national teams in a best-on-best tournament. At the moment, chances are limited. The NHL doesn't appear close to returning to the Olympics, and it's unclear when we will see the World Cup of Hockey again. The only pro-level international tournament right now is the IIHF World Championship, which takes place while many NHL teams are still participating in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"All of us dream about that," says Hedman. "We deserve that chance to go play for our country, and it means so much for us as well. It is the greatest honor as a Swedish player. So I'm really hoping that we're going to get a chance to play on a big stage."
While at the World Junior Championship, IIHF President Rene Fasel said they need to hear from the NHL about participation in the 2022 Olympics by the end of the summer. Hedman has yet to play in the Olympic Games and undoubtedly would be a cornerstone piece for what could be the strongest Swedish entry since winning gold in 2006, when then-35-year-old Lidstrom starred on the back end.
If the NHL allows its players to go in 2022, Hedman could have a number of new talented faces joining him on the blue line in the iconic Tre Kronor jersey. And Sweden will be better for it.