Norway's young ice-time leader
by Derek O'Brien|18 MAY 2022
Emil Lilleberg logs a lot of ice time for Norway despite being the youngest player on the ice.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

In two of Norway’s first three games at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, the team’s leading ice-getter was also its youngest player, 21-year-old defenceman Emil Lilleberg.

That’s not because Lilleberg is an offensive defenceman. Last season playing for IK Oskarshamn in the Swedish Hockey League, he recorded no goals and seven assists in 47 regular-season games, and then had no points in 10 playoff games. Prior to that in the top Norwegian league, he had three goals in 94 games spread over three seasons. So what makes him so special?

“For me, the best part is blocking shots and making hits,” the 187 cm, 87 kg defensive defenceman said.

According to the coach of the Norwegian national team, what makes Lilleberg so valuable is his versatility.

“He’s pretty powerful and he sees the ice really well,” said Petter Thoresen, Norway’s head coach since 2016. “He’s good in defensive situations, especially the PK, but he also plays the puck very well.”

In Norway’s third game, a 3-2 loss to Latvia on Monday, Lilleberg saw a lot of minutes on the PK because Norway spent a lot of time shorthanded. With the score tied 1-1 at 26:49, the team was assessed two penalties – a minor and a major – on the same play.

Norway managed to escape that five minutes with only one goal against, which is not bad, all things considered. The goal, which came at 5-on-3, was a one-timer from the point from Nikolajs Jelisejevs over goaltender Henrik Haukeland’s glove that just missed two players in front – one of whom was Lilleberg.

“I think we played pretty good today. There were a lot of special teams,” said Lilleberg. “The problem was me, I didn’t block the shot on the PK, so that’s why we lost.”

“Nah, it was a difficult situation and a good shot,” Thoresen said when told of Lilleberg’s harsh self-assessment. “We handled the rest of the five minutes shorthanded, so he helped us there.”

Lilleberg’s role on the team this year has increased over last year in Riga, when he made his World Championship debut. The captain of last year’s team was veteran defenceman Jonas Holos, who like Lilleberg, comes from Sarpsborg.

“Jonas Holos is very good, so I look up to him,” said Lilleberg. “I learned a lot from him. How to play against the forwards coming in, the gaps, keeping control. Many things.”

Holos has played 102 World Championship games, which ranks third all-time for a Norwegian player. Lilleberg has now played nine games, but there are sure to be a whole lot more.

“I think he’s got a bright future,” said team captain Mathis Olimb, who after Monday’s game is up to 93 in that category. “He’s a big d-man with a lot of confidence. He plays with some edge in the defensive zone, so I think he’s going to be a huge guy for Team Norway in the future.”

Without a doubt, Lilleberg will be a fixture on the Norwegian blueline for years to come, but that’s not the extent of his potential. Last summer, shortly after appearing in his first World Championship, Lilleberg was taken in the fourth round of the NHL Entry Draft by the Arizona Coyotes.

“I was surprised, yeah,” Lilleberg admitted. “But it’s all good. I will try to make it there if I can. We’ll see. But it’s not going to change my plans. I’m not thinking about it on the ice.”

“He plays at a high level in Sweden and he’s going to be a great player,” said Thoresen. “I think, in a couple of years he’s going to be in the National Hockey League.”

Time will tell. Next season, Lilleberg will return to Oskarshamn for another season in Sweden. In the more immediate future, he is concentrating on Norway’s four remaining Group B games in Tampere. Though he would have liked more than two points to show for what they’ve done so far, and despite – or perhaps, because of – his high expectations for himself, he is optimistic.

“We have to keep playing the same way, getting pucks deep,” he said. “And I’ve got to play my game, which is giving hits, clearing the puck, keeping forwards away from our goalie and letting him see the shots.”