Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-9-2018
The Buffalo Sabres are about to bring two Swedish defensemen into the fold soon. Anyone who's been following the upcoming NHL Draft knows the name Rasmus Dahlin and there probably isn't a soul in the hockey world that would bet against Buffalo drafting him with the first overall pick. The 18 yr. old Frolunda defensemen is manna from heaven for a distressed Sabres blueline that's was in need of an influx of top-notch talent.
And Dahlin certainly has those talents.
But there's another defenseman who played in the same league as Dahlin that should be headed Buffalo's way as well. HV71 defenseman Lawrence Pilut of the Swedish Hockey League is said to have reached a deal with the Sabres and will likely be headed to Buffalo after the World Championships in Denmark conclude.
Pilut (pronounced, pilot, as in airline) just completed his fourth full season in the Sweden's top pro league with career totals of 15 goals and 71 points in 191 games. He capped off a breakout 2017-18 season where he lead all SHL defensemen in points (38) and assists (30) by winning the Borje Salming Trophy as SHL Defenseman of the Year. He's one of three undrafted players in the last 10 years to win that distinction.
Back in January, hockey insider Elliotte Friedman brought Pilut and a few other Swedes to our attention saying that there were plenty of scouts over there mining for free agent talent. The teams he mentioned were Boston, Calgary, Chicago, Nashville, Vancouver and the NY Rangers while also saying there were "likely more."
The Sabres, apparently, fell into that "likely more" category and although nothing is official as of yet, there's a good possibility that Pilut will be in the fold.
Outside of YouTube highlights and what we've read about Pilut, there's not much known about the 5'11 179 lb. native of Tingsyrd, Sweden so I went to the man who coached him for the past three years to find out what makes Pilut tick, HV71 coach Johan Lindbom.
Lindbom played four years for HV71 before heading to North America to join the team that drafted him in the 5th round (134th overall) of the 1997 NHL Draft, the NY Rangers. "I was a late bloomer," coach Lindbom told me, "I was drafted when I was 26 yrs. old." He called it a "once in a lifetime opportunity" to play in the NHL and headed over to North America. After an injury early in his first pro season Lindbom found himself on a Rangers team that had Wayne Gretzky, Pat LaFontaine, Alexei Kovalev, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and a host of other big names. Lindbom only played 38 games for the Rangers that season but scored a goal and added three assists before injuries took their toll. He headed back to Sweden for a few more seasons before back issues forced him off the ice then began coaching in 2009 with a J20 team. Lindbom was named head coach for HV71 July 24, 2015 and just received a two year extension last Fall.
Pilut had just completed his first full season for HV71 when Lindbom was tabbed for the job, but the coach was already familiar with the d-man. "I had followed him before I got the coaching job," Lindbom told me. "We're from nearly the same place in Sweden. Larry (as the team called him) was very talented at a young age. Maybe a little too small from the beginning but he's a fighter. He takes his hockey very seriously. He practices very hard and that's what makes him successful."
Pilut finished that rookie campaign in 2014-15 with 11 points (3+8) in 48 games and was a plus-12. In August he underwent shoulder surgery that sidelined him for six months. In his first year under Lindbom, Pilut was limited to six points in 21 regular season games then in 2016-17 he put up almost identical numbers to his rookie campaign (48 games, 3 goals, 9 assists) and last season he enjoyed a breakout year culminating with the Salming Trophy.
Throughout the interview with Lindbom, used one word repeatedly when talking about Pilut--smart--something which comes in handy for a 5'11" defenseman playing against some larger competition as well as some faster competition on a large ice surface. Pilut had to develop those smarts as Lindbom used him in all situations. "He's not the toughest, he's not the strongest in front of the net," said the coach, "but he reads the play really well."
As an excellent skating, mobile defenseman who has plenty of chutzpah to jump into the play at any time, Coach Lindbom also said he had to reign in Pilut and remind him that he is a defenseman. "He's over-enthusiastic," is how the coach put it, "he wants to be involved in the play all the time. He had to learn to do the right things.
"He wanted to be involved all over the ice but we told him you start with defense then you take the next step."
Lindbom said that he'd seen better and better results through those seasons coaching Pilut and that "next step" would allow for the 22 yr. old to score a career highs in goals (8) and assist (30) with his 38 points surpassing the total of his previous seasons combined. He also was a plus-13 on the year which put him at a plus-46 in 191 games over five SHL seasons.
Sweden has been getting a lot of attention lately for the number of players who not only have made the transition to the NHL, but who have had an impact in the league. In a piece about Dahlin by Sportsnet's Gare Joyce, a portion was devoted to the SHL and their resurgence after rather dark period. When talking about Dahlin, former WHL and NHL'er Anders Hedberg, told Joyce that "Dahlin is a prospect who couldn’t have emerged from the SHL or national programs 20 years ago."
“After Peter Forsberg," continued Hedberg, "there was a period of 10 years or so when we produced very few players in Sweden — Henrik Lundqvist, Henrik Zetterberg, the Sedins, but really very few. We didn’t develop the skill players because of the game that was played here… [was] very conservative, so negative; no risks, no speed, safe, possession hockey without imagination or creativity."
Hedberg talked about the 1-3-1, defense-first system which he said "was terrible for development" and said the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation began to rethink the game. "We had to let them play and not hold them back," he told Joyce with the writer saying that "the unintended by-product of these changes has been an unprecedented emergence of players along the blueline."
Along with those changes came the work necessary for development. Former Sabres defenseman Mike Weber played briefly in Sweden and was a teammate of Dahlin's on Frolunda. He was interviewed by the morning guys at WGR550 Radio and said that the training that Swedes go through is very involved. "A typical day over there for the pro team," said Weber, "is an hour to two hour morning workout. Then you have an hour video session, then an hour on ice session, you get off the ice, you flood and you go back on for another on-ice session for an hour of five-on-five play. Then you get off, more video then go back on the ice for 45 minutes of just skill work. That's what he's coming from."
When asked about that regimen Lindbom simply said Sweden provided a "good hockey education" for their players and that's it's a great place to train and to prepare young players to play the game. "Sweden is one of the best places in the world for hockey education," he said while also acknowledging that the schedule differences in the NHL and SHL allow for those more intense regiments. "We only play 52 games. We practice more and we're not on the road like the NHL teams but we have much more intense gameplans for most of the teams here."
That's what Pilut will be coming from. What he's heading into at pro level in North America is a lot of travel with a smaller rink yet his skating, smarts, positioning and gap control should allow for a good transition. Although no one in Buffalo (or Rochester) should expect Pilut to be the second coming of Erik Karlsson, he has a lot of positives and the skills he has should fit rather nicely in the NHL with the way it's played today.
The Sabres head into the off season with the top pick in the draft and are said to have reached an agreement with an award-winning SHL defenseman. Should all come to fruition and both Dahlin and Pilut end up in the fold, that Sabres defense, considered one of the worst in the league, is well on it's way to seeing better days. And for a distressed fan-base, it couldn't have come at a better time.
I also asked Lindbom about Rasmus Dahlin and Victor Olofsson, both of whom played for Frolunda against his HV71 team.
As for Dahlin, Lindbom called him a "one-of-a-kind."
"He's so young, so talented, so mature. He's a very offensive defenseman who needs to work on his defense, but he has a great future." And when asked how he game-planned for Dahlin, Lindbom answered with a chuckle, "don't look at the puck."
Frolunda had one of the best powerplays in the SHL and Olofsson, who lead the league in goals (27) was a big part of that success with a league-leading 14 powerplay goals. "He's a good sniper, a real good shot," said Lindbom. "He plays on the right side of the powerplay and he scores a lot from that position [on the half-wall]. We had to cut off that side. When the puck goes over to Victor, we always have to be in the shooting lane to stop his shot."
Olofsson won the Håkan Loob Trophy as the leading goal-scorer in the SHL and was signed to his two-year entry-level deal on April 24, 2018.