GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Nils Lundkvist won the Borje Salming Award last season, given to the best Swedish-born defenseman in the SHL. The third of three first-round draft picks by the Rangers in 2018, Lundkvist had 14 goals and 18 assists in 52 games for Lulea in 2020-21, establishing career highs in games played, goals, points and average time on ice (21:24).
After all that, the time was right, he said, to leave Sweden and come to North America and play for the Rangers.
"I stayed home for (three) years now and it feels like I did what I can back home,’’ Lundkvist said Saturday, after the second day of the Rangers’ 2021 Prospect Development Camp. "Hopefully I can improve even more these weeks and show what a player I am, and hopefully make the team.’’
Most observers expect Lundkvist, 21, to be on the Rangers’ opening night roster, but there is a long way to go from now until the season opens Oct. 13 in Washington against the Capitals.
Five of the top six spots on defense are presumed to be set aside for 2021 Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Jacob Trouba, 2021 All-Rookie team performer K’Andre Miller, and free agent addition Patrik Nemeth. To earn the sixth spot, Lundkvist would have to beat out the likes of Libor Hajek, who played in 44 of the Rangers’ 56 games last season, free agent pickup Jarred Tinordi, and prospects Matthew Robertson, Braden Schneider and Zac Jones, who played 10 games last season.
If nothing else, the fact that Lundkvist is a righthanded shot should give him an advantage. Lindgren, Miller and Nemeth are lefthanded shots, while Fox and Trouba are righthanders. Having Lundkvist or Schneider – their second of two first-round picks in 2020 – as the sixth defenseman would allow the Rangers to have three lefties and three righties in the lineup.
As with all Europeans coming over to North America, Lundkvist will have to adjust to the smaller ice surface here. He said he has played on 200-by-85-foot North American rinks in some international competitions, but noticed even in just the week he’s been here (he arrived last Sunday) how much faster the game is on the smaller rink.
"If you compare it to the bigger ice surface, you’ve got a little bit less time,’’ he said. "But it's less ice to defend, too.’’
Lundkvist said he’s worked over the last three years to build up his body – he’s listed as 5-11, 187 – in order to better be able to withstand the more physical North American game.
"When I got drafted I was a little player, and maybe I struggled a little bit with defense,’’ he said. "But it feels like I improved that the last couple of seasons and stayed home, instead of being 18 when you come over (to North America). Now I'm 21, so I got older, I got bigger, I got stronger.’’
Rangers general manager Chris Drury was asked on Thursday if he thought Lundkvist was a favorite to earn a spot on the opening night roster.
"We're really excited at how good we think he is, and project him to be,’’ Drury said. "But we have to go through the process, and see how he performs, every step of the way.’’