When Sweden won the world junior hockey championship for the first time in 30 years, Gabriel Landeskog should have been envious.
After all, the 19-year-old from Stockholm would have been a key part of that team in January had he not been playing for the Colorado Avalanche.
So was he jealous? Nope. Not the slightest.
“I have a lot friends on that team and I am so happy for them,” Landeskog said in Winnipeg, before the Avalanche lost 5-1 to the Jets at the MTS Centre last Sunday. “But at the same time, this is a dream. This is where I want to be and I wouldn’t trade it in for anything to be honest with you.”
Neither would the Avalanche.
Since being selected second overall by Colorado last summer in the NHL entry draft, Landeskog has become a franchise cornerstone and helped keep the Avs (29-27-4) in the hunt for a playoff position.
Head coach Joe Sacco didn’t even wait the available nine regular-season games to tell Landeskog he’d made the team. Sacco put him on the squad right after the preseason. And for good reason.
While a handful of other teenaged rookies also stuck with their teams – such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers), Adam Larsson (New Jersey Devils) and Sean Couturier (Philadelphia Flyers) – it can be argued none have been as critical to their club as Landeskog.
“The only thing I need to tell you about him, that I tell other people, is look at the situations that he plays in,” Sacco said. “He plays on arguably our top line. He plays on the first power-play unit. He plays on penalty killing. He plays on 4-on-4 situations. He plays when we’re up a goal late in games, he plays when we are down a goal late in games.”
Not surprisingly, Landeskog averages 18 minutes 25 seconds per game in ice time, more than any other rookie forward. He also has 15 goals and 33 points, ranking him tied for second and fourth, respectively, among rookies. And he’s a plus-14, which also ties him for second among rookies.
But that’s not all. Landeskog leads all rookies in shots (190), and he has 154 hits, putting him in the top three.
“He just does everything well,” Sacco said. “We have a lot of trust in the young player. And he’s gained that trust for himself.”
During the game last Sunday, Landeskog was the only bright spot for the Avalanche. He scored Colorado’s lone goal on a power play and, while he finished the game minus-1, he played nearly 20 minutes and led the team in shots.
“I played against him in junior,” Jets forward Alexander Burmistrov said. “He doesn’t play like a Swede. He plays like a Canadian.”
As a child, the 6-foot-1, 204-pound Landeskog dreamed of playing in the NHL. He learned English from a young age as preparation, and bypassed the Swedish professional leagues to head to the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL at 16.
It may have been a stretch for some teenagers, but not Landeskog. Even then he projected an ease and confidence far beyond his years. He spent two years with the Rangers, becoming the club’s first European captain and scoring 36 goals in his last season, despite playing in only 53 games because of an injury.
The Avalanche wasted no time selecting Landeskog last summer, right after Edmonton took Nugent-Hopkins with the first pick. He quickly found his place on a young Denver team, which includes mainstays such as Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly, who are both 21.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” said Landeskog, who speaks easily with reporters and without a trace of a Swedish accent. “I’m just trying to find some open ice and keep a smile on my face and things usually work out.”
He credits his father, Tony, a former professional player in Sweden, for much of his hockey acumen, adding, his father, who is in the insurance business, stays up late to watch his son play on television. “I fly him over once in a while,” Landeskog said.
He had no idea what to expect in his first NHL season, but Landeskog is grateful for the extended ice time, saying it has helped him improve his game in several areas, such as penalty killing. “Being out there in critical situations is when you learn the most. You learn a lot from your mistakes, too. And, not to hang myself out there, but I’ve been doing a lot of mistakes especially early in the year, and you learn from some of those.”
Landeskog also knows he’ll have to work even harder this summer to avoid any second-year lapse.
“You always want to stay on top,” he said. “You always know that there’s younger players, rookies, coming up in the league and they want to get better and take your spot. So you got to make sure you are working harder.”