A few days before the NHL playoffs began, the Anaheim Ducks' sparkling rookie defenceman Hampus Lindholm was sitting alone in his locker stall. A crowd had formed around team captain Ryan Getzlaf; another was waiting for Teemu Selanne to emerge. Goaltending seemed to be on everybody's mind because the Ducks had three netminders on their roster, two of them rookies – and how can a team win a championship with so much inexperience at such a key position?
But then here is Lindholm, just 20, in his first full NHL season, playing with the poise of a veteran, and shunting a couple of other quality rearguards, Sami Vatanen and Luca Sbisa, to the press box.
Lindholm is part of a hard-to-explain wave of young Swedish defenceman taking the NHL by storm. At 20, he is playing on the top pair in Anaheim alongside François Beauchemin, just as Jonas Brodin has played on the top pair in Minnesota alongside Ryan Suter for the past two years.
The number also includes the Tampa Bay Lightning's Victor Hedman, who had a massive breakout season and emerged as a top-five scorer among defencemen this year; the Phoenix Coyotes' Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who edged out Keith Yandle as the team's most complete rearguard, and of course, the 2012 Norris Trophy winner, Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, who led all defencemen in scoring with 74 points.
Karlsson is the oldest of the bunch at 23; he went 15th overall in the 2008 entry draft. Hedman and Ekman-Larsson went second and sixth overall in 2009, respectively; Brodin went 10th overall in 2011 and Lindholm was taken sixth overall in 2012. Lindholm's selection there was considered a stretch by some teams, but he has proven with his poise that Anaheim's scouts saw something other teams didn't.
Defence is supposed to be the hardest position to learn in the NHL, and yet Lindholm and Brodin are making it look if not easy, then doable – and without a real long apprenticeship either.
Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau speaks of Lindholm's "great hockey IQ" and says it all starts there, with great vision and on-ice awareness.
"Sometimes, you never notice it in Swedes because they're a quieter group, but he's got a determination and a willingness and a want to be so good that I think it's improved his play immensely," Boudreau said. "Last year, he came into camp wanting to make the team. Unfortunately, he got hurt and almost missed the whole year, so it's great what he's doing now – and he's just going to get bigger and stronger. He's put on about seven pounds over the course of this year and he's just starting to reach into his man's body. He's going to be really good."
Hedman made perhaps the greatest strides this season after altering his condition program in the summer to work on quickness and explosiveness. Hedman also watched tapes of both Karlsson and the legendary Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom who, along with Borje Salming, are the greatest Swedish defencemen in history, to see if he can add some things to his game. Though Hedman has Chris Pronger's size, he actually models his game after the smooth-skating Scott Niedermayer, who happens to be the Ducks' assistant and who works with defencemen such as Lindholm.
Lidstrom influenced a generation of young Swedish players in the same way Patrick Roy once influenced a generation of young Quebec goalies and according to Hedman, "he was certainly one of my biggest influences growing up. It's tough to speak for other guys, but every Swedish defenceman looked up to Nick Lidstrom and the way he played the game, the way he leads, all the Cups and individual trophies as well. You watch him play and it makes you want to reach a high level."
But Lindholm also believes the Swedish development system has something to do with their collective evolution because it stresses tape-to-tape passing.
"I feel like back home, coming up from juniors, the big difference from playing over here, is they always want us to make a play with the puck," Lindholm said. "It's not often you see a young defenceman back home chipping the puck, glass and out.
"Sometimes, that can be a good play over here, but back home, you don't really do that. So coming over here, Swedes and Finns, we always want to move the puck and make a play, so it's a little bit different that way."
Hedman echoed those thoughts:
"You don't stand still on the blueline, you keep your feet moving all the time, they want you to keep your head up as much as you can and then try to make plays," he said. "Maybe that's the biggest key for us – don't be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are going to happen during the game, but the approach is go ahead and make plays."
Beauchemin, the nine-year veteran who spent five seasons apprenticing in the minors, was asked: Isn't playing defence supposed to be harder than Lindholm and his peers are making it look?
"It is really hard but these guys, I think it just has a lot to do with their personalities," Beauchemin said. "They are so calm. There's no panic in their games – and obviously, he's a great skater, which makes it a lot easier when you can skate and move the puck like he does.
"Skating is part of the new NHL. When you can skate and move the puck, it makes your forwards play with it a lot more in the offensive zone."
Though the Calder Trophy will go to the Colorado Avalanche's Nathan MacKinnon, Lindholm gets some votes because of his impact on a Ducks team that played without Sheldon Souray and Sbisa earlier this season, providing him with an opening.
"I was kind of lucky in the beginning of the season – we had a few injuries and I got a chance to show what I got," Lindholm said. "The coaches had some confidence in me and let me play. That's a big thing as a young guy – to have the coaches' trust. That makes me feel more comfortable out there – that they trust me."
"Just watching a guy like Hampus Lindholm go straight from the Swedish second league into the NHL and playing impressively and very well, I don't know what it is, but we have a great program back home," Hedman said. "I played with Erik [Karlsson] since we were 16.
"I played at world juniors in Pardubice, and since then they've been to the semi-finals, at the worst, in every single one. They're doing good things with the juniors."
The real irony may be that because of their puck-handling skills, the North American game, with its smaller ice size, actually plays into their favour.
"I like [the NHL game] because things happen faster," Lindholm said. "I would say for the fans, it's a more fun game because there are so many more scoring chances and every puck in front of the net is dangerous, every angled shot could be a good rebound. So I would say it's more fun that way. Of course, it's fun to play on the big ice too, but I would probably prefer the North American style."
In the meantime, Lindholm was looking forward to his first NHL playoffs, after the Ducks earned the top seed in the Pacific Division. They led the Dallas Stars 1-0 heading into Friday's second game of the best-of-seven Western Conference quarter-final.
"Playoffs [are] always a gamble," Lindholm said. "I've been in playoffs back home. I remember when we had some success, my team [Rogle], two years ago. We were the underdogs. We weren't supposed to win. If you win one big game and the team gets confidence, you can keep snowballing. You can keep rolling. In the playoffs, anything can happen."
With a file from Sean Gordon in Tampa
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