4B Exclusive – Catching up with Rangers prospect Nils Lundkvist

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Last November, Sweden played in the U20 Four Nations tournament in Hodonín, four hours north of Vienna. I drove up and attended the Sweden-Russia game with both Vitali Kravtsov and Nils Lundkvist on the ice.

An older gentleman approached me to ask about my sign, and if I had an extra copy for him to bring home to Sweden. It turns out that it was Nils Lundkvist’s grandfather! I told him I would trade the sign for an opportunity to meet his grandson after the game. We talked about the draft, and how Nils Lundkvist was the only player in the first round who did not have an agent at the time of the draft. Quite an interesting piece of information I did not expect to pick up at a junior tournament.

I even had the pleasure to talk at length with Gordie Clark, the Rangers’ head of scouting. Very interesting conversation about the team’s new strategy, which draft-eligible players in that game were interesting to follow (Dorofeyev is a name that came up). We discussed the draft, and how he was aware of the general opinion of Rangers fans on draft day who were not happy with the Kravtsov pick, but how, in his view, those fans had realized in the following months how good Kravtsov really is.

After the game, which Russia won 5-1, Nils’ grandfather told me to wait outside with him. We spoke about Nils, discussed the game and after 10-15 minutes, Nils Lundkvist walked up to me and said “My grandfather said my biggest fan was waiting for me outside. That must be you”. Such a nice kid and so down to earth. You can tell he was proud to represent his country. We discussed the travel from Lulea to Hodonín. Lundkvist flew from Lulea to Stockholm, from Stockholm to Bratislava and from there, the team traveled by bus to the small town for the tournament, which is played at an arena named after former New York Rangers forward Václav Nedomanský.

All in all it was a great experience, and last week I was wondering how he’s doing. I decided to reach out to Nils and asked if I could ask him some questions and catch up.

It’s been a great season for Lundkvist and his team Luleå, battling for the top spot in the regular season from day one. He was leading all U21 defensemen in points early on, despite only being 18-year-old. His first six points came in the first 15 games of the season, which is not bad for a kid who made the jump from the junior SuperElit (u20) to the professional league (SHL) halfway through the previous season. Lundkvist was selected as the best defenseman in SuperElit in 2017-18, despite splitting time and playing half the season for the big club in SHL.

“It is a big difference in playing against men, rather than playing against other juniors. In the SHL everything is much more structured, and players are stronger, faster and smarter than they are in juniors.”

It was a very hectic summer with the draft in Dallas, followed by the Rangers prospect camp, for the then 17-year-old. Players travel all the way to attend the draft and fans rarely realize what an emotional roller coaster it can be. Lundkvist was in Dallas with his family, waiting to hear his name called on Friday night. And as more and more picks were announced, the more nervous Lundkvist was. Until that moment where the Rangers were on the clock, and Gordie Clark announced the pick.

“It was a mix between happiness and relief after all the talk before the draft and sitting there waiting to hear your name being called. I also felt very honored to have been picked by such a legendary organization and to have been picked in the first round.”

The Rangers are a popular team in Sweden which is, in large part, thanks to Henrik Lundqvist, who has been with the team for almost 15 years now and was drafted almost 19 years ago. Michael Nylander, Carl Hagelin, Jesper Fast, Anton Strålman, Fredrik Claesson and many other Swedes have worn the Rangers blue since Nils Lundkvist was born.

“I knew they were one of the Original-Six teams and of many of the great players that have played for the Rangers over the years, and of course that Henrik Lundqvist was still playing for the Rangers.”

The draft was just the start for many prospects this summer. After hearing your name called, walking up to the stage to shake hands and put on the jersey, players are lined up for interviews, signing memorabilia and meeting up with NHL officials. What follows is a summer of travel, getting to know your potential future teammates and in some cases even public appearances on TV. One of Lundkvist’s fondest memories from last summer was the Rangers prospect camp.

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“It was a great opportunity to get to know the organization a little better and to find out what is expected of me for the future. It was also nice to meet some other guys that are in the same situation as me and also get a feel for the competition to see what needs to improve if I should be able to take a spot in the future.”

As of today, he has ten points this season, which ties him with Erik Karlsson as the seventh highest among U19 defensemen in a single season since 2000. Being one of the youngest players in the top professional Swedish league, Lundkvist knows he needs to work on his game and not take anything for granted. He is aware of both his strengths and weaknesses.

“My strengths would probably be my skating and how I see the ice and can predict plays. What I am working on improving the most is my shot and improving my overall physique.”

One familiar face on the Luleå for Ranger fans and prospect watchers is that of Robin Kovacs, the Rangers’ third-round draft pick in 2015. A year before Lundkvist was drafted, the Rangers terminated Kovacs’ contract and allowed him to go back to Sweden following some personal tragedy. Despite the contract termination, Robin Kovacs still looks back on his time with the Rangers organization with a good feeling.

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“We haven’t talked that much about this, but what I can hear from him he has had the same positive experience with the Rangers organization that I have.”

The last time Lundkvist traveled to North America was in December to represent his country at the World Junior Championships in Vancouver and Victoria. Playing in just five games due to Sweden’s surprise elimination in the quarterfinals at the hands of the Swiss, Nils Lundkvist had a goal and an assist.

Despite the early exit, he won’t look back with remorse or too much disappointment. Lundkvist is still eligible to represent the U20 team at next year’s WJC in the Czech Republic, where I am hoping to run into him again.

“It was a great experience and came at a good time for me, just in the middle of the regular season. It was great to be there to compete against some of the top players in the world that were born the same year as I was. It was a fun tournament even though we would have liked to have gone further in the playoffs.”

One of the last things I wanted to ask Nils was about his number. Even as a kid, I was fascinated by numbers and always wanted to know why a player picked a certain number, especially when it’s an unconventional number. Lundkvist has used the number 27 when playing for Luleå and Sweden earlier in the season, but at the World Juniors he was given number 9.

“I got the 27 when I came to Luleå Hockey as younger junior player and now it feels like it is “my” number. When I played for the national team I was just handed a number. It does not matter that much what number you play in, the important thing is getting the chance to play.”

It was great to catch up with one of the Rangers’ top prospects and I am planning to make the trip to Luleå next month to attend a home game and see Lundkvist live in action again before the season is over. His team is in second place in the SHL regular season, and they are projected to go far in the playoffs. Maybe the Rangers’ youngest prospect, who won’t turn 19 until July, can do what Lias Andersson did two years ago: win a championship in Sweden.