Could Larsson be better than Lidstrom?

Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson is already making his case to become the top-ranked prospect for the 2011 NHL draft.
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Nicklas Lidstrom was two years into his National Hockey League career when Adam Larsson was born.

This week, Lidstrom is preparing to begin his 19th season and adding to his resume that should start with “greatest ever Swedish-born NHL defenceman”.

As for Larsson, who doesn’t turn 18 until next month, he’s being touted as the heir apparent to the current king of the Tre Kronor blue line.

“He’s much better now than Lidstrom was at the same age,” Tommy Boustedt, the Swedish hockey federation’s national director of development, said in a phone interview from Sweden. “If he hadn’t played for our under-18 team in April he would have played on our men’s national team in May, he’s that good.

“I think he will be, in the end, one of the best defenders our country has ever produced.”

Pretty high praise considering the country has produced a gifted class of blueliners that started when Hockey Hall of Famer Borje Salming joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1973 and has continued with the likes of Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Ulf Samuelsson, Kjell Samuelsson, Lidstrom, Matthias Ohlund and most recently, highly-touted Tampa Bay Lightning sophomore Victor Hedman.

But Boustedt isn’t alone in throwing bouquets in the direction of Larsson. E.J. McGuire, director of the NHL’s Central Scouting Service, says that while he’s only seen Larsson play on a few occasions, his CSS scouts in Europe have nothing but praise for the young defender in their assessment reports.

“He certainly comes with great credentials,” said McGuire. “He’s dominant, he has great hockey sense—all the platitudes that a defenceman could be showered with he’s getting from them (the European scouts).”

Larsson is already into his third season with his hometown team—Skelleftea AIK—in the Swedish Elite League and has two assists in seven games this year. Last season, the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder finished with four goals and 13 assists in 49 regular season games and set a league scoring record for defencemen under the age of 18.

“With his size and his playing ability he’ll be playing in the NHL for sure,” said Boustedt, a long-time head coach in the Sweden’s top league. “He’s a very cool guy on the ice and he has a lot of self-confidence; he’ll be a top pick in the draft, I’m sure about that.”

McGuire says the fact that Larsson is already playing against men will make him an attractive commodity to NHL teams looking for a young defenceman who is more battle ready. But he adds there still might be an adjustment to playing on the smaller ice surface and living in North America.

“Larsson is already playing against men and that helps,” said McGuire. “He saw significant ice time last year and has shown he’s able to overcome (playing against bigger, stronger opponents) last year and to this point, this year.”

He’s already pegged among the top-rated defenceman for the 2011 NHL draft in St. Paul, Minn., and is a potential top pick along with Sean Couturier of the QMJHL’s Drummondville Voltiguers and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels.

At a quick glance, it brings back memories of the battle between Hedman and John Tavares for the No. 1 selection in 2009. Tavares ended up being taken by the New York Islanders with the top selection after a season-long discussion over who was the better prospect.

“I’m sure it will be a neat debate,” said McGuire of who will go first overall. “By that time there probably won’t be a stick-out number one North American, so in a political sense the vote might be divided by a couple of real good North Americans, and who knows? Maybe Adam Larsson will sneak in as the number one overall.”

Boustedt says Larsson’s biggest asset might be his maturity and the ability to stay calm under pressure. At the 2010 world under-18 championship in Belarus in April, Larsson was named the top defenceman of the tournament as Sweden won a silver medal after losing 3-1 to the United States.

“He’s already like a grown-up, very mature,” said Boustedt. “For him to be that big, he’s very skilled with the puck and he reads the game very well. He’s a pretty offensive defender to be that size.”

And Larsson has good hockey pedigree to boot. His father, Robert, was drafted by the L.A. Kings in the sixth-round in 1988 (112th overall) and patrolled the blue line for Skelleftea AIK in both the Elite League and Division I for close to 10 seasons. Larsson’s older brother, Hampus, is a forward currently playing Division I hockey with Björklöven.

“He’s from Skelleftea and that’s the closest you can come to Canada in Sweden in terms of hockey interest,” said Boustedt of the northern Swedish city. “There’s only hockey in Skelleftea.”

Sunaya Sapurji is the Jr. Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
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Updated Friday, Oct 8, 2010