When Adam Engström scored on September 8, it marked not only the first adult-level goal of his career, but also the first adult-level competition goal scored by a member of the Montreal Canadiens organization for the 2022-23 season. Since their seasons start earlier, it’s hardly unexpected for a European prospect to tally this icebreaker. However, what was surprising was that it was Engström, the 92nd overall pick in his draft-plus-one year, rather than Oliver Kapanen, a 64th overall pick in his draft-plus-two campaign, who lit the lamp first.
Setting aside the fact that the goal came as part of a 7-1 drubbing of Hungarian side Fehérvár AV19, the very presence of 19-year-old Engström in the senior side is a testament to a player who was almost a complete unknown on draft day. The Canadiens clearly noticed something in the 6’2” blue-liner, as did Rögle BK who acquired him from Djurgårdens IF during the off-season prior to the draft. Now, the rest of us will have an opportunity to see what they saw.
Engström’s name wasn’t supposed to be on the big board at the Bell Centre inside the top 100, and it arguably wouldn’t have shocked many if it had stayed off the board entirely. Of the 15 ranking lists used to compile Eyes On The Prize’s consensus draft rankings, the Järna native could only be found on a single one, Corey Pronman’s, that placed him 99th. Nonetheless, Engström confided to European Correspondent Patrik Bexell that he did expect to be selected. He even had an inkling that Montreal might have been interested, citing prior “good meetings” with members of the Habs organization. Still, the gravity of the situation caught up with the youngster in the moment: “I can’t really understand it … and that it was Montreal of all clubs that drafted me,” he told Bexell in a phone call immediately after the selection, still in a little bit of shock.
The young defenceman had a good 2021-22 campaign with Djurgården’s U20 team, finishing third of 10 teams in the North Division and advancing all the way to the final before losing to Linköping HC. The parent club, however, was much less fortunate. The 16-time winners of the Le Mat Trophy were relegated after finishing second-last in the regular season and then losing in a sweep to Timrå IK in the “play-out” round. The looming HockeyAllsvenskan demotion, combined with the fact that Djurgården only dressed him for a single game at the SHL level all season, encouraged Engström to seek greener pastures. When Rögle BK declared its interest, the young defender leapt at the opportunity. “I chose to go to Rögle BK because of their development program and the trust that Cam and Chris [Abbott] give young players,” Engström explained to Bexell.
Ängelholm, the home of Rögle BK, is night and day from the capital Stockholm. With a population of roughly 40,000, the tourism-driven town is perhaps best known for hosting the headquarters of Koenigsegg Automotive AB (as well as Patrik Bexell’s beloved Ostbutiken fromagerie). Similarly, Rögle BK, with zero SHL titles to their name, is a far cry from illustrious Djurgårdens IF. Indeed, prior to the 2015-16 season, Rögle had only spent seven seasons in the top flight since the creation of the Eliteserien (today’s SHL) in 1975. Yet Rögle has enjoyed an upswing as prominent as Djurgården’s downturn. They were third in the table when the 2019-20 SHL season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The next year, they did one position better, losing in the final to Växjö Lakers HC. Finally, in 2021-22, Rögle topped the regular season standings, and an upset defeat in the playoff semi-finals to eventual champions Färjestad BK was offset by Champions Hockey League victory — the club’s first major title in its history.
Much of Rögle’s success coincided with the arrival of two Canadian brothers, Chris and Cam Abbott, during the 2017-18 season. When the two took over, Rögle looked headed for the drop, with only 11 points in 18 games. With the Abbotts (Chris as general manager and Cam as head coach) in charge, the club amassed 50 points in the 34 remaining matches, finishing 11th out of 14 clubs in the table and avoiding the relegation series by a comfortable 10 points. The next season, Rögle made the SHL playoffs for the second time in team history and first time since 1993-94, setting the stage for their emergence as SHL powerhouses in 2019-20.
The Abbotts built their familiarity with Swedish hockey as players. Chris played nine years in the top flight, serving as captain for both Luleå HF and HV71 at points during his career, while Cam played six years before injury forced his retirement. Also, before joining Rögle, Cam served as the U20 coach for the Växjö Lakers, so he is no stranger to working with youth. Over the years, the likes of Nils Höglander, Dominik Bokk, Moritz Seider, and Marco Kasper have come through the halls of Ängelholm’s Catena Arena under the Abbotts’ watchful eyes. “I knew I wasn’t finished with the game,” Cam said in an interview with Bexell back in 2018. “I really enjoy spending the time with the kids, helping them get better and find their passion for hockey.”
The Abbotts have had their eye on Engström for some time, and Chris expressed no surprise that he was drafted so high. “From my perspective, scouting Sweden last year, I think he was arguably the best [undrafted 2003 birth year] defenceman in the country.” While this statement excludes many top prospects such as Lian Bichsel, Mattias Hävelid, and Calle Odelius, who were all born in 2004, it does include Simon Forsmark (consensus rank: 60th, drafted 101st) and Ludvig Jansson (consensus rank: 120th, drafted 125th), both ranked ahead of Engström by the scouting agencies but drafted after him. The Rögle general manager pulls no punches, agreeing with Bexell’s musing that Engström might actually be, at the moment, the most underrated player in the Habs’ farm system.
Abbott is effusive when describing what attracted him to Engström. “Similar to [William] Wallinder (32nd overall pick in 2020), we want players that have the ambition to try and do more, try and be more impactful at such a young age,” he said. Furthermore, Abbott doesn’t like it when the word “irresponsible” is attached to prospects: “If they’re trying to make plays too often, I think that’s better than not trying to make any plays at all.” To Chris, Engström really made leaps and bounds in his game in the second half of the season: “I’m really happy to have him come down. He’s just an awesome kid. Very curious, very hardworking. He’s got the right attitude and the right approach and loves working with the coaching staff. I think he’s going to take every opportunity he gets to show what he can do.”
Coach Cam concurs. “We want guys that don’t cut any corners. That want to learn the game and improve their skill set. [Adam] is a mature kid who loves to be around the rink. The guy just takes joy in being a hockey player.”
Getting more specific about his strengths, Abbott cites Engström’s dynamism and attention to detail. “Offensively, he can use either deception or his legs to open some ice for himself. He can do this because he’s got very good skating technique. He’s also a smart player who knows when to take risks and when not to, and a lot of that comes from how much he scans and shoulder-checks to maintain good awareness of where players are on the ice.”
The impression that Engström has left on the Abbotts is similar to what North American prospects writer Hadi Kalakeche sees on his screen. Kalakeche did one of the first deep-dive film studies of Engström after his selection by the Canadiens. “Making that video, I saw a player who manages the game really well. When he has the puck on his stick, he’s very dynamic, and he does a great job of making the right choices when he has the play in front of him.” Like the Abbotts, Kalakeche sees Engström as more of a cerebral player rather than a physical one: “Despite his size, he uses his hands to defend rather than his body, and he takes advantage of angles and agility to defend. What really makes his game tick is his mindset and the way that he sees the game. You can’t teach that, and I think that’s the type of player that Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton are looking for going forward.”
One thing that really stuck out for Kalakeche was Chris Abbott’s statement that Engström, in their opinion, was probably the best 2003 birth year defenceman in Sweden. “That’s high praise for a third-rounder. You’re talking about a player who was [overshadowed on his own team] by a bunch of first-rounders in Odelius, [Jonathan] Lekkerimäki, [Liam] Öhgren, and [Noah] Östlund,” Kalakeche explains. “So when I scouted Djurgårdens, I was focusing on these guys. But when I went back [to the same film] and focused on Engström, I just have to say kudos to the Habs’ scouting team.”
Kalakeche was also happy to hear that the Rögle braintrust emphasized ambition. “It’s really important that [the Abbotts] are not scared of risky defencemen, because any team that’s scared of risk is not going to like Engström. This shows me that Rögle is probably the best place for Engström to develop his game.”
In contrast to North American hockey leagues, European leagues offer prospects more flexibility, allowing players to move up and down age tiers at will in order to find the most ideal fit. “The benefit of a multi-tiered system like Sweden’s is that a player can take what they learned at the men’s level and directly see what difference that makes [at the U20 level],” Kalakeche observes. “Even if something doesn’t work at the men’s level, a player can take that knowledge and apply it at the U20 level, get better, get more ice time, and more ice time translates to more room for growth.”
The two-tiered system also allows coaches and managers to control the amount of adversity that their players are facing. “Players should be put into situations where they face adversity, but not so much adversity where they think that they’re not improving,” Kalakeche notes. “Looking at Xavier Simoneau as an example, his short stature has been both a source of adversity and an impetus for adaptation. With Engström, things will be a little bit different since his adversity will change — he won’t face the same challenges at the SHL, AHL, and NHL levels. But adaptability is the common thread here, and it’s something that you can train, that you can learn.”
The Abbotts fully intend to take advantage of the system. “Our approach is not to put pressure on these guys, and just to let them play and hopefully thrive,” says Chris. “It’s best to let these guys develop at different stages at different times. Sometimes you get guys who sign their pro contracts during their last Junior year, or those who are ready a bit faster like [Kasper] was.”
“We don’t bring guys in to fail,” Cam adds, highlighting that the system lets them get the best of both worlds and doesn’t force them to only stick U20-eligible players at the end of an SHL bench.
The proof would appear to be in the pudding. Bexell points out that the Abbotts are currently using Engström as both a seventh defenceman for SHL games and a full-time regular with the U20 team when scheduling permits. On September 17, Engström played 7:48 in an SHL game against Brynäs IF. Fifteen minutes after that game ended, he was on the ice again, this time skating on the top pairing for the U20 squad against Linköping HC. With the senior team not playing again until September 22, Engström suited up for the U20 team again the next day, scoring a goal in a 2-1 victory over HV71.
Right now, Engström is still riding a wave of excitement fueled by both his move to Ängelholm and his selection by the Canadiens. Catching up with Bexell after practice, the youngster was in high spirits.
The season thus far?
“Amazing. It’s been fun to play my first SHL game and also to be with the U20 squad.”
Thoughts on Montreal’s developmental camp?
“It was amazing to see the facilities and the practices over there. It was an amazing experience that I will take with me for this season.”
First impressions of Rögle’s training facilities?
“We can train as much as we want here, so it’s amazing to always have ice available.”
Introduction to video coaching?
“Of course, I’m not spending too much time with video, but they like to show footage and highlight details and things like that. It’s amazing.”
Engström’s ambition shines through when asked about his goals and expectations for the year. He downplayed the idea that the upcoming campaign would be evaluated based on the development of his game rather than concrete results. “I want to take steps forward this season, so that I can have a chance to go to the NHL.”
The NHL may still be several years away, but in Engström’s mind, the journey has well and truly begun, and there may be no better place to take those first steps than Angel Island.
This article is an adaptation of Habsent Minded episode 5.21. For the full conversations with Hadi Kalakeche, Chris and Cam Abbott, and Adam Engström, please use the link below.