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What the 2020-21 SHL season could hold for Mattias Norlinder and Cole Caufield

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Patrik Bexell talks about what the Canadiens prospects could face in their first SHL season and what we should expect from a development perspective.

NHL: JUN 26 Canadiens Development Camp Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Even before the bubble, the 2020-21 SHL season was on the radar for Montreal Canadiens fans eagerly anticipating Mattias Norlinder’s first season in the top-flight of a professional league. That focus has intensified tenfold with the rumours that Cole Caufield may join Norlinder in the Norden. While nothing is set in stone yet, the thought that Caufield might play professional hockey in 2020 has set off considerable speculation on what that might look like.

Naturally, whenever Habs fans have questions concerning European hockey, and Swedish hockey in particular, Eyes On The Prize’s European correspondent, Patrik Bexell, should be the first person to turn to.

In our discussion, we talk about what the on- and off-ice experience could look like for the two Habs prospects this coming season.

When talking about prospects, quality of competition and usage are the two main factors. Last season, we saw Alexander Romanov’s ice time bounce up and down. Is there a risk of that happening for Norlinder or Caufield?

For Norlinder, there’s no risk. Quite the opposite. As I’ve noted before, Norlinder is already getting time on the power play, and Rasmus Dahlin didn’t get that [when he started for Frölunda]. This isn’t to say that Norlinder will be better than Dahlin (laughs); of course, Dahlin was drafted first overall and is 99% certain to be the better player. But by putting Norlinder on the PP, you can already see how much [head coach Roger] Rönnberg trusts him.

But going further than that, in Sweden, in the SHL, there’s a need to play your kids, because the roster turnover is so high from year to year. Teams are constantly losing more experienced players to North America — the NHL and the AHL — and other European leagues that can pay higher salaries like the NLA and KHL. So teams need to bring these young guys in and play them — test them — to get some level of stability and to find out whether the kids are good enough for crunch time, whether that’s a playoff chase, a playoff run, or a bid to stave off relegation.

Rönnberg said to me once that he compared his role as a coach to that of a gardener. His job is to look after these players for nine months [during the season], tend to them, nurture them, and so forth. Once the playoffs arrive, it’s time to harvest, and that will be where he reaps the rewards. So I think he and Frölunda understand that they have to play these guys and give them the chance to succeed. We saw how Caufield struggled at last year’s World Juniors when they deployed him differently. I think in Sweden, we’re much more inclined to put players [like Caufield and Norlinder] in the top two lines, top two pairings.

Compared to Norlinder, who’s played pro hockey, Cole Caufield is more of an unknown quality in Sweden. Will that affect how he’s regarded?

Yes, that’s true, but you can look at [Rögle BK winger] Nils Höglander. He was picked about a round after Caufield in the same draft. He’s not particularly tall, but he’s played on the second line in Rögle for the last two years [under head coach Cam and general manager Chris Abbott]. This goes back to Rögle wanting to make a statement. They lost Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin [to the Toronto Marlies] because the Toronto Maple Leafs thought they weren’t good enough at development. They’re certainly not going to bring Caufield over to play checking minutes on a fourth line, because that doesn’t help that narrative.

NHL teams certainly have preferences about what teams their prospects play for or what teams they loan their players out to. Usually, they prefer teams that are perennial contenders and/or have a history of player development. Rögle wants to prove that they’re one of these teams. They’ve already succeeded with Dominik Bokk and Höglander, so now they want to show that they can take a North American player and know what to do with him. They want to demonstrate that they have the North American background [with the Abbotts] but also have the Swedish approach where the emphasis is on development. Above all, they want NHL teams to be able to trust them with their players for two to three years, because without that source of talent, Rögle will never contend for the title.

Two or three years ago [when they first arrived], Chris and Cam Abbott told me that they wanted to make Rögle BK a championship-calibre team in five or six years ... and I almost laughed right in their faces. [Editor’s note: at the time, Rögle BK had only been up in the SHL for two seasons and had finished 11th and 13th out of 14.] But thanks to that attitude, Rögle finished third last season.

As such, I can only see them bringing in Caufield to help him succeed. The team already has Höglander the trickster. Add Caufield the sniper, give them a defensively responsible centre, and you’re set — I’m 99% sure that this will be Caufield’s line. Now, at the beginning, his ice time will depend on his fitness level — a lack of fitness seems to have been what brought down [Raphael] Lavoie — but as long as Caufield lives up to his end of the bargain, the Abbotts won’t hold him back.

How much leash will Norlinder and Caufield have?

To start, Norlinder will have a huge leash. When I interviewed Rönnberg, he said he was going to keep Norlinder [in a consistent spot in the lineup], pat him on the back when he succeeds, and protect him when he falls. There was a time when Rönnberg was coaching Dahlin, and everyone was asking about ice-time, deployment, and whether or not the kid was too risky. I remember Rönnberg just said something akin to “as long as he ends up +1, he’s done more good than bad.” That’s a really good perspective, because let’s face it, Norlinder — and Caufield — are still kids playing in a men’s league. They’re going to screw up, they’re going to get outmuscled, but as long as they do more good than bad, they’ll be alright.

Honestly, that’s the way most Swedish coaches are. Now, as for Cam and Chris — and I really see them as a unit more or less — they’re naturally a little bit more Canadian in mentality, but you can see how they managed Höglander and how they managed Bokk, who didn’t work out in Växjö but worked out great with Rögle. You can look at how they developed Samuel Johannesson, who came in last year and started slowly, but by the end of the season, they had to extend the press section at the arena in Ängelholm because there were too many scouts there watching him.

Now, the leash might depend on the opponent. You saw that with Romanov. He got to play a lot against weaker opposition, but he sat when they played SKA Saint Petersburg, and so forth. That said, the weaker opponents in Sweden offer more competition because of the promotion/relegation system. Rather than tanking, the weaker teams do all they can and acquire players in order to stay in the top flight. It’s not like young players can be sheltered against them.

After the Habs acquired and signed Joel Edmundson, there was a lot of conversation around the importance of balanced defensive partnerships. Who is Norlinder playing with at Frölunda?

He’s playing with Jens Olsson, who ... well, you can’t really compare Jens Olsson with [Norlinder’s partner with MODO Hockey last season] Tobias Enström. One has played 800 games in the NHL, and one hasn’t. The similarity though between the two pairings is that Norlinder will play with an experienced guy who has more defensive stay-at-home tendencies than he does. That will benefit Norlinder and give him the security to create plays and break opposition defences.

Rönnberg has said that he wants to keep this pairing together because he likes putting an old guy with a young guy. The old guys can teach the young guys all sorts of things — tricks on the ice, professionalism, how to eat, how to spend your spare time, and so on. Conversely, the young guys will keep the old guys on their toes because they have all this energy and enthusiasm, so the old guys will have to rededicate themselves and train harder in order to keep up.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, are there unique scheduling and logistic challenges for both the SHL season and Champions Hockey League tournament?

Well, practice schedules are the same, and the game schedules are more or less the same. Teams have been allowed to push back certain home dates to after October 1 because that’s when they expect the Swedish government to allow fans back into arenas. The clubs desperately need those gate revenues. As an example, if the entire season were to be played without fans, Frölunda would lose 25 to 30 million kronor, which is roughly 50% of the club’s liquid capital reserves. As a result, while it’s hardly anything like the NHL’s “West coast road trip,” Swedish teams are taking buses more than they did before in order to save money.

For the teams that qualified, the CHL is more important than ever. Prize money is a big factor. Last year’s winner received 3 million kronor; this year, I think it’s up to 4.5 million. That’s enough to support a top-line player. More games also means more potential home matches and gate revenues. The CHL will be particularly interesting for Norlinder because Frölunda wants to win this tournament. They’ve won it four times in six years and essentially consider it theirs. Rönnberg typically likes to rest some of his older players for these non-league competitions, so Norlinder might see his role elevated, especially earlier on against weaker opposition. That said, the format has changed so that there’s no more round-robin, so we’ll have to see how that affects lineup decisions.

With all that, what are your expectations for Caufield (if he signs) and Norlinder?

If he signs with Rögle, I would expect him to first take a week or two to get into game shape. That means missing three to four games. After that, through the rest of the season, I think if he hits 0.3, 0.4 points per game, that would be a success. Over an approximately 50-game season, that would translate to roughly 20 points.

We have to temper our expectations. You have to realize that the top SHL teams are on par with the top AHL teams. I’ve asked North American pros who have played in both who would win, and the answer was always “whoever adapted to the rink size faster.” If we look at under-20 players last season, Nils Lundkvist (who had a ridiculous year) led the way with 13 goals, Bokk scored 11, Alexander Holtz nine, and so on. We think of these guys as top prospects, so if Caufield is in that vicinity, I think he’ll be just fine.

Points aside though, it’ll be tremendously beneficial for Caufield to work alongside and learn from peers and coaches who understand the challenges of being a smaller player. Neither Höglander nor head coach Cam Abbott are particularly tall individuals, and Abbott enjoyed a fairly solid playing career in Sweden. More than that, people say — as a compliment — that Cam works harder as a coach than he did as a player. He thinks hockey for 25 hours each day, always looking for things to prove. Heck, he asks me for input every time I see him: “Hey Patrik, you teach 16-year-old kids for a living, how do you connect with them? How do you get through to them?”

My expectations for Norlinder are higher. He’s playing on the power play from the get-go, and that’ll be massive [for point production]. If he gets to the same points totals as we just talked about for Caufield, I think it’ll be a success. Again, beyond points, I honestly expect him to be challenging for a spot on the top pairing by spring. But even if he doesn’t, players coming from HockeyAllsvenskan usually start on the third pairing and don’t get power-play time. So he’s already ahead of the curve. Even if he stays on the second pairing the whole year, I can’t call that a setback.

Lastly, is there any chance at all that Norlinder might play for the Habs next year?

I wouldn’t do it.

Let him settle down first [at this new level]. I’ve talked about the example of Artturi Lehkonen before and whether he should have gone over [to North America] after his so-so first year with Frölunda, but look at how that second year turned out. It’s also about physicality, especially for a defenceman. Stay home, get stronger, get better, so you can skip the AHL step. It’s less travel, fewer games that are more spread out, and Sweden’s training facilities are not worse than the AHL’s.

I was talking with Dahlin last summer, and he was looking at Frölunda’s off-season summer training program because it prepared him so well. According to him, the NHL pre-season training he received with the Buffalo Sabres wasn’t half as tough. Similarly, Frölunda has a skating coach, they have a shooting coach, they have everything already sorted out here. I know everyone is clamouring to see him and Romanov together, but do you want Norlinder now, perhaps not at his full potential, or do you want to wait?