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European Prospect Report: Joni Ikonen struggling with transition to Liiga

A weekly report on how the Montreal Canadiens’ overseas prospects are faring.

Johan Rylander

Each week throughout the season, we’ll be bringing you a report on the Montreal Canadiens prospects playing in Europe. It’s early into the season for most of the players this project will cover, but this is how they’ve performed so far.

Joni Ikonen, KalPa, Liiga (Finland)

The transition from Frölunda U20s (and Frölunda’s SHL team) to Finland and Liiga team KalPa has been tougher than Ikonen probably expected.

Having started — on paper — on KalPa’s first line, Ikonen has struggled in some ways, which was to be expected. The young rookie has been outmuscled in some situations, has had difficulty in the faceoff circle, and his minutes have not added up to what one would expect from a first-line player.

Still, when he gets his game under control, he can makes things happen. Like this:

It is too early to draw any big conclusions from his tenure in Liiga; let’s remember that last year Ikonen played 10 games in the SHL and three games in the Champions Hockey League with Frölunda for zero points and a combined +/-0 rating. To expect Ikonen to arrive in a men’s league and perform at a high level directly from the start is not realistic.

Still, it will be interesting to see how he steps up after having acclimated himself to the Finnish league as the season goes on.

Lukas Vejdemo, Djurgården, SHL (Sweden)

Vejdemo has had a few busy weeks after the development camp in Montreal. While he participated in an exhibition game against NHL players in Stockholm (a game Djurgården lost 6-4 to the Stockholm All-Stars), he has focused on the SHL, and took on a heavy training load before the season began.

Djurgården is without a spot in this year’s CHL tournament, so Vejdemo’s main focus has been on getting ready for the SHL season and helping his team improve on the 10th place it finished in last season.

The summer has benefited him in many ways. He points to his skating when he speaks with Eyes On The Prize, but the biggest change might be that he now weighs in at 89 kg (about 196 lbs.).

When asked about his chances for the season, he gave an honest response.

“I need to play very well to move up the lineup. The centres ahead of me are really strong. I feel good. I am looking forward to playing for real again.”

What has been obvious from the first few games is that Vejdemo takes more responsibilities with moving the puck up the ice, as shown in this attack that generated an assist in the opening game of the SHL season:

You can see his strong skating here. The fact that it is Vejdemo that is in front of the net ready to pounce on a possible rebound when the shot comes from Jonathan Davidsson (Columbus Blue Jackets) speaks of an attitude that should benefit Vejdemo during the coming season.

Arvid Henrikson, Örebro U-20, SuperElite South, Sweden

Unconfirmed reports have it that it was Christer Rockström (and the Canadiens) who helped Henrikson change teams this summer, which suggests a belief within the organization in Henrikson’s skills.

Still, at least two teams higher up in the SHL hierarchy bypassed Henrikson when having the chance to sign him. He will now reunite with his coach from his AIK-18 days, Jörgen Hägg.

“It was under his tutelage that I improved the most over the last years, so it is good to be back with him,” he said of the move.

Henrikson also sees an opportunity to get some minutes with the top club.

“With the [roster] in Örebro, I might be able to push my way into the lineup and get a few SHL games this year.” The team has since strengthened its defence corps, but there will still be chances for Henrikson when injuries starts to take a toll on the regular lineup.

He has played on Örebro’s U20 team so far, and over two games has managed an assist. What Henrikson really needs to improve upon is his playmaking ability, which is the cornerstone of a good defender in today’s game.

Max Friberg, Frölunda, SHL (Sweden)

Friberg started out on a line with Victor Olofsson (Buffalo Sabres) and Christoffer Ehn (Detroit Red Wings). While the whole Frölunda team seemed to struggle against the defensive prowess of Mora in the first game of the season, Friberg’s energy stood out.

He has taken another step this summer. His physique is top notch, and he has the trust of the coaches to take an offensive role, getting his special-teams time on the power play rather than being one of the main penalty-killing options as he was in the AHL last season.

That power play unit has been on fire to start the season for Frölunda. It is clear to everyone that Friberg has benefited the team so far. The question is whether Frölunda, a team that has the outspoken wish to be the closest team to the NHL standard outside of North America’s top league, can help Friberg to get another shot at the NHL.