Published by hockeybuzz.com, 6-30-2018
The first thing I asked Malmo Redhawks assistant coach Martin Filander about defenseman Linus Lindstrand Cronholm was whether they spelled his last name with a 'K' or a 'C'. Not that it mattered too much, but the fact that there was some uncertainty showed that the fourth round draft pick by Buffalo was a bit obscure. At least to most hockey fans in North America. Filander replied with a chuckle, "for us it's a 'C' but I saw somewhere where it was a 'K' and I don't know where that came from." (A quick note, Cronholm said at Sabres development camp his family spelled it with a 'C' but the government spelled it with a 'K'.)
Filander was in a rather jovial mood when I talked to him this week as Sweden's soccer team just earned a berth in the World Cup Round of 16 with a 3-0 win over Mexico. That win coupled with a 2-0 loss by Germany sent Sweden to the next round while Germany, the defending champ, went home after the group stage for the first time in 80 years. Such a win for a nation of 10 million with less resources than most nations is huge and Filander was quick to point out that there's been an emphasis in Sweden to focus upon home grown talent and groom them for a future in sports or coaching or in the business world.
"In general, I think we know we can't afford to lose kids from sports," he told me, "we need to keep them in sports as long as possible and that way we get more sponsorship. Some of them will be the future leaders of our companies, some will be the future leaders of our teams as coaches and some of them will actually be the stars we need.
"That's kind of our mentality. Sometimes when we look at other countries with their enormous of talent and resources we may feel a little jealous about it," he continued, "but sometimes those countries might have the tendency to veer away from their path and try a new one if it doesn't work. We need to work with what we've got and actually develop everyone. It's a big difference in mentalities and possibilities."
On a grand scale, what they did in the soccer world worked beautifully this year and what they've been doing in hockey, especially with their defensemen, is being adopted by more and more NHL teams.
Sweden has been developing puck-moving defensemen who can navigate high pressure situations and get the puck to where it needs to go and NHL teams have been snatching up those type players at the draft. Those types of defensemen have always had their place in the NHL, but with the way the game has changed into a faster, more highly skilled game, teams are looking to fill as much of their d-corps as possible with players like that. A record 30 Swedish-born players were taken in the 2018 NHL Draft lead by defenseman Rasmus Dahlin who was taken first-overall by the Buffalo Sabres. Dahlin hit Sabres development camp this week and simply wowed a packed house at HarborCenter. Six Swedes were taken in the first round including Dahlin and four more defensemen while another eight Swedes were taken in round two (two d-men, five forwards and one goalie.)
Sabres head coach Phil Housley had a d-corps of puck-movers in Nashville and their play helped carry the Predators to the Stanley Cup Finals. Both he and general manager Jason Botterill are on the same page in that regard and are starting to transform their defense corps with Dahlin being a huge part of that process.
What the NHL is catching on to is a systemic change in how Sweden has been focusing on developing their players, especially defensemen. The 34 yr. old Filander grew up playing hockey in Sweden and watched the transition unfold before him. "It was more old school back when I played," he said, "everyone played a little bit the same. Stay at home d-men or defensive d-men played like, if you don't have a pass within one second, you chip it out.
"Nowadays it's more like, if you don't have a pass make sure they don't take it from you. You can't just give it away."
Talented players from 2018 Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning to Dahlin see the ice well in high-pressure situations and have the skill to do remarkable things from the back end. Yet other defensemen of all shapes and sizes aren't on their level and need to work with what they've got to get what they can out of their natural abilities. Regardless of what they come in with, they're expected to play that style and in the process make mistakes which is welcomed by the coaches.
"More and more in Sweden we focus upon having the patience and letting the players actually play," Filander explained. "We're pretty structured and we've got a lot of demands defensively, but with the puck offensively we want the guys to move the puck. We don't really like to chip it too much. We want them to challenge themselves and challenge the opponent, to make something happen rather than be afraid and give the puck away.
"There's more focus on using the skill to develop. Even in the game you're allowed to make mistakes as long as you work hard. You're allowed to make mistakes to help yourself get better."
That goes for everyone including a stay-at-home, defensive defenseman like Cronholm who, at 17 yrs. old, already has an NHL frame at 6'1" 172 lbs. with plenty of room to add strength and muscle.
Cronholm was taken 117th overall last weekend by Buffalo and very little is known about him outside of Sweden. Even Sabres scout Jan-Axel Alavaara and others covering Swedish hockey didn't know much about the player until he hit the radar playing in the junior ranks this year. Filander called him a late-bloomer saying that Cronholm caught the eyes of many teams scouts who asked about him later in the season. "He was one of those kids who you don't think have it but all of a sudden it clicks," he said.
What was clicking for Cronholm was that he was beginning to be successful outside of his physical, shot-blocking, net-clearing, old-school defensive-defenseman type game to where he showed "the ability to move the puck and make good outlets," said Filander.
When playing against his peers, Cronholm did quite well as evidenced by his 16 points (6+10) in 18 games at the J16 level, but he did struggle some in J20 this season with a six points (all assists) and a minus-10 rating. When injuries devastated Malmo's SHL team in the playoffs, Filander gave the 17 yr. old an opportunity to show what he had to offer against men and the kid acquitted himself well. Filander said that Cronholm showed no fear, dove right in and did everything that was asked of him without even blinking.
The two games that Cronholm played in the playoffs for Malmo were about giving him a feel for what it's like to play against the best players in the country, but he actually started making an impression on Filander at his first day of practice with the big club during the season. "He was almost running our top guys," said the coach. "He didn't really care and we kind of like that attitude and we want that competition in practice. We don't care who you are, if you're there, you're there to contribute and if you want to contribute you need to compete. He showed that side."
Filander kept seeing that same attitude whenever Cronholm came back up from his J20 team for practices. He also noticed that the young defenseman was beginning to get a handle on moving the puck out of his own end and circled back when he talked about Cronholm needing to work on that aspect of the game despite being a defensive defenseman.
"I think over time with the stay-at-home-defenseman, that name is going to change a little bit, "said the coach, "because you'll need to be able to do all things on the ice to be able to contribute the way that teams want. Even if you're third d-pair you've still got to be able to move the puck and you've got to be able to skate with the most skilled guys in the league or else you're going to end up in trouble.
"Staying home at the post and boxing people out isn't going to be enough when you face guys full speed more or less all the time. I think that's going to push the defensive side more towards being more fluid and a little better reader of game then maybe you had to be before."
There's a lot of growth ahead for Cronholm both physically and with his game. Filander thinks Cronholm's playing weight might be in around 215 lbs., which will make for a pretty big defenseman, and he sees a lot of positives in the young defenseman's puck-moving abilities. "Normally when they're big and tough they lack that side of the game," said Filander. "I know he's got a ways to go on that, but he should have the ability with the way he moves his feet, the way he can protect the puck. It shouldn't be a huge issue to make him a pretty good outlet guy too."
Filander drew a comparison, in style, to Edmonton Oilers 6'3" 213 lb. defenseman Adam Larsson even though the fourth-overall pick in has much more talent to work with. Nobody expects Cronholm to be a scorer, but he may be able to contribute in a defensive way while not crippling a more skilled d-partner which is how Filander sees Larsson's game in a top-pairing/top-four role.
The Sabres have themselves a bit of a project in Cronholm and it may take every bit of the four years they own his rights to see just how he fits into their future. He has NHL size, the temperament of a rugged defenseman and the attitude to dive in and do what it takes to get the job done. In the next four years Cronholm will be playing a system where he'll be challenged by his coaches and the players he plays against something that should prepare him well for the NHL and the way it's played today.
Where this all leads is up in the air, especially when it comes to drafting a 17 yr. old but for future reference and in case there was any doubt, it's Cronholm with a 'C'.