GREENBURGH, NY-Nils Lundkvist won the Borje Salming Award last season, awarded to the best Swedish-born defender in the SHL. Lundkvist, the third of three drafts in the first round of Rangers 2018, had 14 goals and 18 assists in 52 games for Luleå 2020-21, which determined career height in games played, goals, points and average time on ice (21:24).
After all that, it was the right time, he said, to leave Sweden and come to North America and play for Rangers.
“I stayed at home for (three) years now and it feels like I did what I can at home,” Lundkvist said on Saturday after the second day of 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 at Rangers’ opening night, but there is still a long way to go before the season opens on October 13 in Washington against the capitals.
Five of the top six places in the defense are assumed to be set aside for the 2021 Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Jacob Trouba, the 2021 All-Rookie team player K’Andre Miller, and the free agent addition Patrik Nemeth. To earn sixth place, Lundkvist would need to knock out the likes of Libor Hajek, who played in 44 of Rangers’ 56 games last season, free agent 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 right-wing shot should give him an advantage. Lindgren, Miller and Nemeth are left-wingers, while Fox and Trouba are right-wingers. With Lundkvist or Schneider — their second of two picks in the first round 2020 — as the sixth defender would allow the Rangers to have three left and three right in the lineup.
As with all Europeans who come over to North America, Lundkvist must adapt to the smaller ice surface here. He said he has played on 200-on-85-foot North American rinks in some international competitions, but already noticed during the week he has been here (he arrived on Sunday) how much faster the game is on the smaller track.
“If you compare it to the larger ice surface, you have a little less time,” he said. “But there is also less ice to defend.”
Lundkvist said he has worked for the past three years to build his body — he is listed as 5-11, 187 — to better withstand the more physical North American game.
“When I was drafted, I was a small player, and I might have struggled a bit with the defense,” he said. “But it feels like I’ve improved the last two 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 place on opening night.
“We are really happy with how good we think he is and project him to be,” said Drury. “But we have to go through the process and see how he performs, every step of the way.”