The Chicago Blackhawks are going to have a lot of Swedish defensemen in training camp next fall. No matter how this roster shakes out over the summer, the recent signing of top prospect Gustav Forsling only adds to the supply of blue liners who will be able to reminisce with Niklas Hjalmarsson about the serene Swedish countryside next season.
During the Hawks' playoff run this spring, the team had four Swedish defensemen on its roster: Hjalmarsson, Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg and David Rundblad. That's already over half of the team's defensive corps, and next season, there's a good chance little will change.
All four of the players listed above are also signed for the 2016-17 season, and they'll be joined in camp by several new young Swedes who will be battling for playing time. The top of the defense will once again by anchored by the Canadian one-two punch of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, plus a sprinkling of good ol' American boy Trevor van Riemsdyk, but there's a decent chance the rest of the blue liners hail from Sweden.
Beyond Hjalmarsson, Gustafsson, Svedberg and Rundblad, the Hawks will have Forsling, 2013 second-round pick Carl Dahlstrom and 2013 fourth-round pick Robin Norell in camp. All three players recently signed entry-level contracts and could still be joined by Robin Press, a 2013 seventh-round pick who hasn't yet signed. Overall, there will be at least seven Swedish defensemen competing at Notre Dame to make the Hawks in September, and possibly more.
Forsling is the big name there, and for good reason as one of Chicago's best prospects. The 19-year-old has broken out since being acquired from Vancouver in exchange for Adam Clendening in January 2015 and potentially looks like one of GM Stan Bowman's most shrewd additions. He's spent the past two seasons playing for Linköping HC in Sweden's top league and recorded 21 points (six goals, 15 assists) in 48 games during the 2015-16 season.
The Hawks' success in uncovering talented players like Forsling, Gustafsson and the draft picks is a testament to their commitment to having a presence in the country. The Hawks have consistently scouted and drafted from Sweden over the past decade, and last year, the team held a minicamp with Djurgårdens Hockey Club in Stockholm that saw the Swedish team's coaches working together with the Blackhawks' player development staff.
Now we're beginning to see the fruits of that labor, and obviously the gold standard here is Hjalmarsson. The star defenseman was drafted by the Hawks in the fourth round of the 2005 NHL Draft and developed into an top player over the years. Chicago hasn't quite had another breakthrough like that with a Swedish defenseman since then, but the team continues to mine the area with draft picks like Dahlstrom, Norell, Press and Klas Dahlbeck (traded for Antoine Vermette), smart signings like Gustafsson and trade acquisitions like Forsling.
It's hard to say just how likely Forsling is to make the Hawks out of camp, especially considering he doesn't turn 20 years old until June and plays a more offensive game. It remains to be seen how he'll adjust to Chicago's style of play in his jump to North America, but it's worth noting that he's performed well at times for Sweden internationally, including appearances at the 2015 and 2016 World Junior Championships.
And even if Forsling isn't quite ready yet and returns to Europe -- his contract includes a loan clause if he fails to make the NHL roster out of camp -- there will be many Swedes around to potentially take his place. Last season, the Hawks invited 21 defensemen to training camp, but only four were Swedish. Already, it seems likely that at least seven will be Swedes this time around, and we've only accounted for a portion of the invitees. Depending on some offseason moves, we could be looking at nearly half of the Hawks' defensemen under contract being Swedish next season.
At least Hjalmarsson will have friends to join him at Tre Kronor.