After a long abscence from nearly the entire planet due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sports are beginning to return. The NBA players have entered the Orlando, Florida-based bubble designed for their imminent playoffs, and the league was pleased to report zero positive cases out of all of their tests for COVID-19. Major League Baseball has gotten underway with their shortened 60-game season on July 23, and the NHL expanded playoffs are set to resume on August 1, with players based in bubbles in the “hub cities” of Edmonton and Toronto. Meanwhile, halfway across the world, the return to play of a league all but unknown to North American audiences may determine the future of the NHL- the Swedish Hockey League, home to some of the most promising prospects in the 2020 NHL Draft, and among the only ones to see new playing time between now and the draft.
From the beginning, Sweden’s approach to combating COVID-19 has been among the most controversial in the western world. The country did not institute a lockdown as most other European countries did, merely banning gatherings of 50 or more people and taking a few other measures, but otherwise being relatively unrestrictive. Tackling the broader debate over the effectiveness of Sweden’s response to the virus is for another article, on a different date and written more in depth than today- but what is for certain is that Sweden’s hockey leagues, including its highest, the SHL, will return to play this fall, which may have a significant ripple effect on decisions that will need to be made by GMs in the NHL.
The Swedish Elite League, Sweden’s top tier of professional men’s hockey, is home to two of the top prospects that will be selected in the upcoming 2020 NHL Draft, currently scheduled to take place in October. These two are Lucas Raymond, of Gothenburg-based Frolunda, and Alexander Holtz, of Stockholm’s Djurgardens. Both play the wing, with Raymond playing the left and Holtz the right. Their styles contrast each other- Raymond is considered a passer and playmaker first, Holtz more of a shooter and goal-scoring artist. But both of their talents speak for themselves.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of their abilities thus far is that both have made their way into the top Swedish league for men at unprecedented ages. Raymond took the ice for Frolunda for the first time in 2018, at just sixteen years of age, while Holtz, who is two months older, debuted for Durgardens at seventeen. While neither have put up dominant numbers “playing against men” the way that higher ranked prospect Tim Stutzle of Germany did playing for Adler Mannheim of the German league, this is not an indictment of Holtz or Raymond, as the Swedish Elite League is considered to have much higher across the board quality of play than its German counterpart.
All NHL scouts and draft analysts know the fact about the difference in quality between the leagues, but this nevertheless likely plays into the fact that the consensus for this draft is that Stutzle is a better prospect than both Raymond and Holtz. In the rankings compiled by veteran NHL writer Bob MacKenzie (which reflect a consensus among the league scouts and front office executives with whom MacKenzie has spoken), Stutzle ranked second among all prospects, while Raymond placed at sixth and Holtz down at ninth.
When playing against competition closer to their own age, Raymond and Holtz have dominated. When Holtz played in the J20 SuperElit, Sweden’s top junior league, he scored thirty goals in thirty-eight games, winning the scoring title for the league with ease. At the 2020 World Junior Championships (which took place before COVID-19 shut down junior hockey worldwide), Raymond was one of the standout players for Sweden at seventeen years old, assembling an impressive highlight reel of plays, despite the fact that seventeen year olds are still considered young for the tournament. Holtz similarly impressed in a small sample size, scoring three goals and five points in seven games.
As Bob MacKenzie pointed out in his draft rankings article, NHL teams are starved for film on their draft prospects, with much less to work with than they would normally have. Unlike the NHL, which will resume on August 1, the Swedish Elite League’s 2019–20 season was canceled outright due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and no champion was crowned. This deprived Holtz and Raymond of further chances to see what they could do against top level adult competition. The NHL Draft Combine was also canceled, depriving NHL teams of the ability to have them (or any other prospects) work out for them in person.
However, one advantage that the Swedish prospects have is that, due the relative lack of a lockdown in their home country, they were still able to practice regularly on ice while many of their counterparts around the world were not. When the Swedish Elite League resumes, hopefully this will ensure that Holtz, Raymond and their peers are exactly the right combination of well rested and well practiced to perform at their highest possible level.
If one or both of Holtz and Raymond come out of the gate firing on all cylinders when Swedish hockey returns, it could updend the calculus of teams in the NHL Draft. Neither of them is likely to do well enough to unseat the consensus no.1 prospect, Canadian left winger Alexis Lafreniere. But it might not be out of the question that Raymond challenge Stutzle or MacKenzie’s third ranked talent Quinton Byfield, neither of whom will see much if any ice time for months to come (the German league was postponed until December). This draft, although considered to be rich with offensive talent, was always going to be tough to evaluate due to the cancelations caused by COVID-19. But the comparatively early return of hockey in Sweden could provide its greatest young talents with a unique opportunity to stand out against the field.