Baffling. Undeniably so. Rationalize this any way you want this is just strange. He could be a player but, Lord….I’m waiting for the the other shoe to drop.
This quote sums up the reaction of most Senators fans to the 2010 draft day trade that saw David Rundblad join the organization. And it was undeniably baffling -- the team had drafted Erik Karlsson, Patrick Wiercioch, and Jared Cowen in the early rounds for the past two years. Meanwhile, fans were still reeling from the dramatic fallout due to Dany Heatley's trade demands.
Offense, not defense, was needed. Rundblad represented a luxury pick at a position where the team already had depth. There were legitimate questions about just where he fit in the team's plans.
Then Rundblad went out and put up 50 points (11G, 39A) in 55 games for his Swedish team, Skellefteå AIK of the Elitserien. That number was the second-most for a defenseman in the Elitserien ever, and earned him the Salming Trophy -- the Elitserien's equivalent of the Norris Trophy. Rundblad had instantly become Ottawa's best prospect.
It is largely on the strength of that season (his previous best, 13 points, had been achieved just the year before) that Sens fans are now dismayed at his early departure. But what did that season really tell us about Rundblad's potential? Was it an indication of an emerging superstar or a portent of future filled with unrealized expectations?
Just who set the record for points by a defenseman in the Elitserien, anyway?
For the purposes of this article, I will be throwing out any argument that Rundblad's outstanding 2010-11 season was statistically anomalous. This is primarily because I believe that players are more than their statistics -- if everyone performed like their statistics, then there would never be any breakout players or busts -- yet every year sees plenty of exactly that. There's an equal chance that Rundblad's season was either a breakout or anomalous, so it's a waste of energy to debate it. Time will answer the question for us.
With that out of the way, the answer to the question is, of course, David Petrasek.
Haven't heard of him? Neither had I. Petrasek set the record the year before Rundblad sniffed it, in the 2009-10 season for badass team HV71. His 53 points (15G, 38A) in 52 games are outstanding for a defenseman in any league (except maybe the QMJHL) and surely distinguish him as a top prospect you'll be hearing about soon, right?
Petrasek was a 1998 selection by the Detroit Red Wings -- a team with a well-documented Swedish connection. They took him in the 8th round, 226th overall. He never played in North America. In fact, his record-setting season may not have even been good enough to keep HV71's interest: he played the 2010-11 season for the Minsk Dynamo of the KHL. His record wasn't even good enough to earn him the Salming Trophy. That went to Magnus Johansson, of the far less cool Linköpings HC.
The Salming Trophy winners
This trophy, named after Börje Salming (and if you don't know who that is, take the time to click that link. Even though he was a dirty Maple Leaf, he was a mega-badass) is relatively new in the Elitserien, first being awarded during the 2007-08 season. That means there have only been three other players, besides Rundblad, who have received it. Let's compare:
2007-08: Mikko Luoma
Louma was a 6th round selection (181st overall) of the Edmonton Oilers in 2002. His Salming Trophy came for a 35-point (10G, 25A) season with the awesome HV71. He played in 49 games that season. Obviously, he was playing in the Elitserien five years after he was drafted, and that's not an encouraging sign.
In fact, he lasted just one year in the Oilers' system, playing 65 games for the AHL's Toronto Roadrunners in 2003-04. In those games, he manged just 26 points -- four goals and 22 assists. He also appeared in three games for Edmonton, recording an assist. After that, he returned to the Elitserien, where he has remained.
2008-09: Marcus Ragnarsson
Rangarsson may go by the more awesome name "Magnus" in Sweden. Anyway, he was a 5th round selection (99th overall) for the San Jose Sharks in 1992. Rangarsson played in the NHL for 10 years, and was a Sharks representative at the 2001 All Star Game. His highest point total, 39 (8G, 31A) came in his first year with the Sharks. He returned to Sweden during the lockout (BETTMAN SUCKS) and stayed there.
During his Salming-winning season, he scored 37 points (12G, 25A) in 49 games for the silly Djurgårdens IF. He was forced to retire due to injury a few years later.
2009-10: Magnus Johansson
Johansson was undrafted. However, he did sign a one-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007. His four assists in 18 games got him traded to the Florida Panthers for a draft pick, though which one is not readily apparent. In Florida, he notched 10 assists in 27 games. His contract up, he signed with Atlant Moscow of the KHL.
Suffice it to say, that's not a very impressive track record of NHL success. Rangarsson is the only player who had an NHL career that lasted longer than one year.
Rundblad's 50 points were the third-most in the Elitserien last year. On a whim, I decided to check on his competition: How many other top Elitserien scorers had been drafted by NHL teams?
Joakim Lindström - 2nd round, 41st overall by Columbus in 2002. Never caught on, traded to Anaheim, waived and claimed by Chicago (but re-claimed by Anaheim instead, so Chicago never got him) then traded to Phoenix, then headed to the KHL. Signed a one-year deal with Colorado this season, but was waived by the team in November. Currently playing for Skellefteå AIK.
Mikko Lehtonen - 3rd round, 83rd overall by Boston in 2005. Played two years for Providence, Boston's AHL affiliate, and then returned to Sweden. His rights were traded to Minnesota, but he's currently playing in the KHL.
Martin Thörnberg - Undrafted.
Byron Ritchie - 7th round, 165th overall by Hartford(!) in 1995. Bounced all over the place, and currently playing in a Swiss league. Harbors a strong dislike for francophones.
Niklas Andersson - 4th round, 68th overall by Quebec in 1989. He played for a lot of NHL teams, but only one (the Islanders) kept him for more than one year, and he spent most of his time in that organization playing for their IHL (you read that right) team.
Linus Videlll - 7th round, 204th overall by Colorado in 2003. Has never played for any North American team.
Per-Åge Skrøder - Undrafted.
Pär Arlbrandt - Undrafted.
Jaroslav Hlinka - Undrafted, but played one year for Colorado in 2007. Currently playing for nerd squad Linköpings HC.
The pedigree of Salming Trophy winners and Elitserien scoring leaders is questionable at best. Only one player of the thirteen examined in either category has had a meaningful NHL career. That certainly takes some of the shine off of Rundblad's accomplishments.
Does this mean that Runblad is destined to be a bust? Of course not. Of the players we have looked at, he easily has the highest draft grade. Two teams were willing to use a first round selection on him and Phoenix was willing to give up their own first round player for him. That's a pretty strong endorsement of his potential.
But for those thinking that Rundblad's breakout Elitserien season was an indication of a surefire top offensive defenseman, think again. It seems clear that success in the Elitserien is by no means a quality predictor of success in the NHL. And those who feel that Rundblad was an overpayment for another prospect like Kyle Turris need to accept the reality that objectively, Rundblad is not quite the sure thing the hype of his great 2010-11 season made him out to be.