STOCKHOLM – When you look at the new era of Swedish hockey after Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg, and Nicklas Lidström, Gabriel Landeskog may be the crown jewel among the wave of talents born in the early 1990s.
Can the Colorado captain also become a leader with Tre Kronor?
Don’t forget: Landeskog is still only 20.
While it’s too early to tell whether Sweden’s 1990s generation will have the same international impact as the three ex-superstars all born in the early ‘70s, one thing is for sure: never before today has Sweden produced such an abundance of high-skilled players who are between ages 19 and 23.
Check out this list of skaters: Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, and Jakob Silfverberg (all born in 1990); Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Magnus Pääjärvi (1991); Landeskog and Adam Larsson (1992), Mika Zibanejad and Jonas Brodin (1993). In addition, there are goaltenders Jacob Markström (1990) and Robin Lehner (1991).
They’re all NHLers already. Perhaps one or two would have been better served by staying home a season or two longer, but that’s a story for another day.
As Landekog has discovered this year, being the captain of an NHL team isn’t always necessarily fun. With his Avalanche having struggled to find success, the 20-year-old Swedish left wing’s leadership has come under the microscope.
Wearing a letter on his jersey is hardly foreign to Landeskog. The Stockholm native became the first European captain ever of the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers in 2010, and donned an A at last year’s IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
There, in his hometown where he began playing for Djurgården’s skating school at age 5 before eventually transferring to Hammarby at 9, he added five points as Sweden came sixth on home ice.
Yet when the budding power forward was named the youngest NHL captain in league history back on 4 September (19 years and 286 days), he couldn’t have imagined that his sophomore campaign would've been this tough.
He has always been precocious. On February 21, 2009, Landeskog become the youngest elite player in Djurgården’s history, debuting at 16 years and 90 days in a game vs Brynäs Gävle.
Last year, he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year with 22 goals and 52 points. But this season, he has not only experienced his first work stoppage but also missed 11 games due to a concussion from a hit by defenceman Brad Stuart of the San Jose Sharks. The 185-cm, 93-kg forward has also had other injuries to deal with.
“I’m not used to this position that I’m in,” Landeskog said of being the captain of an NHL franchise at the bottom of the Western Conference standings. “I haven’t been through this before. So it’s something new. But I have a good group of guys around me that support me in decisions and everyday life as a captain in the National Hockey League.”
Even though Landeskog bounced back comparatively well after his head injury, recording five goals in six games between March 14 and 27, he sets high standards for himself, and he’s far from satisfied.
“It hasn’t been as good as I want it to be,” said Landeskog. “It hasn’t been as good as we need it to be, both in terms of how I’ve been playing and from a team standpoint. We expect to be doing a lot better than this, and we know we’re a better team than the way we’re playing.”
One bright spot was getting linemate Ryan O’Reilly back in the line-up. The 22-year-old Canadian, who also suited up for his country at last year’s Worlds and will be part of Team Canada also this year, played for the KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk past the end of the labour conflict in the NHL since he couldn’t come to terms with the Avalanche as a restricted free agent. But he signed a two-year, $10-million offer sheet from the Calgary Flames on February 28, which Colorado promptly matched.
Landeskog enjoys the chemistry he has with O’Reilly. “It’s a lot of fun to be back with him,” Landeskog said. “He’s good at everything. I think we play the game similarly. He was a big part of my success last year.”
On March 13, Landeskog tweeted (in Swedish): “You’re not a real fan if you’re only there for the good times.” He was alluding to the difficulties Djurgården has experienced in Allsvenskan play. Traditionally a powerhouse, it finished fifth in the regular season and failed to return to the Elitserien after last year’s surprising relegation.
But there might have been an implicit statement to Avalanche fans in there as well, since this club is a long way from its glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s with Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Patrick Roy.
If there’s a silver lining to Colorado’s floundering, it’s the likelihood that Landeskog will be able to play for his country for a second straight year on home ice at the World Championship. Already in early April, Swedish national team coach Pär Mårts said that Landeskog would be picked provided Colorado doesn’t make the playoffs and Gabriel stays healthy.
So for the second consecutive year, Landeskog could have the privilege to represent his country in his home town, playing in front of friends and family, headed by father Tony, a defenceman for Hammarby in the Swedish top league in the early ‘80s.
Gabriel hasn’t achieved his full potential internationally so far, earning no medals. (He suited up for the fifth-place Swedish team at the 2009 World U18 Championship and, due to injury, appeared in just one game for fourth-place Tre Kronor at the 2011 World Juniors.)
Nonetheless, Landeskog is a strong candidate to be included on the Swedish roster for the Sochi Olympics, less than a year from now.
With that said, Mårts may need Landeskog to provide some valuable insurance – and a much-needed physical element – behind more experienced left-wing stars like Daniel Sedin, Johan Franzén and Loui Eriksson in 2014.
And if this young man can do that, he’ll be an important ingredient in Sweden’s recipe for gold – in the present, and for many years to come.