Viktor Svedberg stands 6-foot-9. A pair of skates puts him at about 7 feet tall. So every time he walked off the ice and into the Blackhawks dressing room at the United Center last spring as a Black Ace, he had to duck under the doorway to get in. But of all the new amenities and creature comforts worked into the redesigned Hawks dressing room, a taller door wasn’t one of them. Svedberg’s still ducking.
“It’s OK,” he said. “I have to bend down everywhere, anyway.”
No, Svedberg doesn’t mind one bit. In fact, he hopes to be ducking under that doorway all season.
Svedberg and his fellow Swede Erik Gustafsson appear to be the last two men vying for the Hawks’ seventh defenseman spot, with Michal Rozsival not expected to be ready by opening night on Oct. 7. The two young Swedes leapt a massive hurdle over the past few days, as quality NHL veterans Jan Hejda and Lubomir Visnovsky were cut from camp. Salary-cap concerns likely played a role in that decision, but so did the play of Gustafsson and Svedberg, who quickly have climbed the depth chart since last spring.
“It’s getting closer and closer,” said Gustafsson, a fourth-round pick by Edmonton in 2012 who signed with the Hawks on April 30. “You see guys going off the team. I’m nervous every morning I wake up, that I’m going to get a call that I got sent down. I’m just excited to be here.”
While neither Gustafsson nor Svedberg was high on the radar entering camp — Hejda, Visnovsky and prospect Ville Pokka seemed to have the early edge — it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the last two standing are Swedes. The Hawks have been raiding Sweden for defense for years. Johnny Oduya is in Dallas now, but the Hawks still have Niklas Hjalmarsson and David Rundblad on the blue line. Throw in Marcus Kruger as a defensive-minded forward, and you start sensing a pattern.
Gustafsson said the impact of great Swedish blue-liners such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Erik Karlsson and even Borje Salming has helped inspire young Swedes to play defense. But as Svedberg quickly pointed out, “We still had Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg, too. They just seem to like us here, and I”m happy it’s that way. I think our game suits American hockey.”
There’s still a learning curve for the two, but Hjalmarsson and Rundblad have made that easier. They’ve reminded the 24-year-old Svedberg and the 23-year-old Gustafsson that the Hawks want everything hard — quick, emphatic passes through the neutral zone, and slap shots from the point. No time for stick-handling and soft passes, no use in tepid wrist shots.
In fact, the constant among Hawks defensemen isn’t that they’re Swedes. It’s that they’re slick with the puck and smart in their own end. The Swedish thing is just a coincidence, according to Joel Quenneville.
“I don’t particularly care where they’re from,” Quenneville said. “We know how important that position is. And in today’s game, you have to have some type of ability with the puck. And I think those guys are starting to make more of a push to becoming regular NHLers because of the way they play with the puck.”
Hawks general manager Stan Bowman is very high on Gustafsson, but Svedberg has played three preseason games, and Gustafsson just one. So it’s hard to tell who has the upper hand. But the mere fact that they’re the ones dueling it out for what appears to be the last blue line position open has both players excited.
“I’m just really happy to be here, to get the chance to show what I’ve got,” Svedberg said. “‘I’m trying not to speculate and think too much about [the roster]. I just have to keep playing my game and play as well as I can, and hopefully I can stay as long as possible.”