By Samuel Drummer (@Dummer_Coleman)
September 10, 2021
The ice is fresh in Hovet Arena located in the Johanneshov district of Stockholm, Sweden early in the J20 Nationell Norra season.
Three young forwards jump over the boards together for Djurgårdens IF J20 against Brynäs IF in the first of many matches together and did not look back.
A line of 17-year-old prospects slicing through the Brynäs defense like a hot knife through butter to the tune of a 7-1 win.
Since that contest where they accounted for five of their team’s seven goals, the “LOO” line of Jonathan Lekkirimäki, Noah Östlund, and Liam Öhgren have shown that they are here to dominate.
NHL scouts received the message as well.
The zone entry of the players is usually smooth and creative, they can all drive a play when needed, and while Lekkirimäki has clearly been the top goal scorer of the three, though they all seem to be able to put points on the board.
The chemistry between the players has been on display in almost every J20 game they play together. It’s not only their zone entries that keeps opposing players stuck on their toes, but how they seamlessly work together to create offensive chance after chance.
“All three are really humble, they love the game, they love to be at the rink, they love to practice, they’re interested in asking questions and want to get better every day. I would say humble is the right word for all three of them. No stress, never talking about ‘when is it my time to go out’ or anything like that. They’re out having fun and working hard every day. So, their focus is good.” said Michael Holmqvist, head coach of Djurgårdens J20 squad.
While watching the three players together, you are often left wondering why they are not a line in the SHL instead. Yes, Ostlund could probably work on his shot a little and put on a few pounds, but his other skills could carry him through until he does so. There may be times that a puck skips over a stick, or they make a bad connection, but in the end, the boys are miles beyond the J20 competition so far.
Lekkirimäki is a 5’11, 172lb centerman, still a young kid in the J20 league but he’s showing that his age won’t stop him from being one of the best players on the ice. His shot may not be the cannon of some bigger, older players, but his timing and placement are ballooning his stat lines.
“Lekkirimäki is the most shifty (of the three). He can deke an opponent and has a strong shot” says Holmqvist.
Lekkirimäki seems to be taking his strong showing at the Hlinka Tournament this summer and using it as a springboard to this season. The goal total he is amassing so far is something special in its own right. But, when you throw in his positional IQ and ability to rush an offensive zone with his linemates, you’re left with a player with a high level offensive ceiling.
His defense could use a little more focus as it usually can with most offensively gifted players. His effort is there, his legs move, and he always seems willing to rush back in a defensive play. His ability to break up a play or take away space by playing the body is the defensive area he should really look to improve.
Frölunda hockey club scout, Tommy Enroth, provided this analysis. “Lekkirimäki is a wizard with the puck. I literally haven’t seen a better stick handler than him. I grew up playing with Linus Klasen, and Lekkirimäki is as good of a stick handler as him. Phenomenal shot and he is a threat anytime he has the puck. He is a good skater, not amazing, but he’s got great edgework so he is really slippery for the opposing team to defend against.”
DraftPro scout Matt Hnatiuk was just as hyped up over the skill he’s seen so far in the young forward,
“He has a smooth, full stride that gets him to an impressive top speed. He is able to stickhandle in a phone booth, spin around a defender and maintain control the entire time. He has an accurate laser of a shot. His release is exceptional, and the puck leaves his stick as soon as it touches.”
Standing at 5’10” and tipping the scales at only 163lbs, Noah Östlund has become a surprising playmaker in the J20. His vision of the ice and ability to thread the needle with his puck distribution is just as good or better than any other player in the league. Östlund may not be the guy you look towards to fire home the game-winning goal late in a game, but he sure is one of the guys you want feeding the pass.
“Noah is a very humble and clever centerman. He always makes his friends (linemates) better because he is always looking to distribute the puck to make plays. He plays so simple and smart. He makes space for his friends.” Holmqvist says about Östlund.
His smaller stature and quick feet allow him to slide through and around defenses and he’s become fairly adept at drawing in an opposing player before setting up a pass. His size is likely his biggest downfall as he can be bullied off the puck in the dirty areas, along with his need to work on more of a scoring touch. Still being young, Östlund has time to develop and become a lethal offensive threat, much like a Brayden Point or Mitch Marner type of player in the NHL.
Enroth had some positive words to say about Östlund as well, “Noah Östlund is really skilled as well. He is more of a playmaker and can pass the puck as well as anybody in the Swedish junior leagues. He is also a good skater with great mechanics and edgework. The downside is that he is on the smaller side and lacks some strength physically.”
Head Scout for Draft Pro Hockey, Jared Brown, had some good words to say about Östlund as well. He doesn’t seem to be quite as high-up on the charts as his linemates, but Brown still believes he will be a solid NHL player one day.
“I think Ostlund has a real good chance at becoming an NHLer and play anywhere in the lineup due to his insane work ethic and ability to play a quick pace game. I see a lot of Matthew Beniers in him.”
“He brings an energetic, high tempo style of game. Constantly keeps himself involved in the play. He has outstanding hockey intelligence. He is smart in all three zones and reliable defensively. He’s a fast, quick, and agile skater with powerful movements through his edges. He has skilled hands with speed. Östlund’s skill level maybe isn’t as dynamic as some of the higher 2022 draft-eligible prospects as he doesn’t impose as a shooting/scoring threat.”
Finally, the second, but far from inferior “O” of this line; Liam Öhgren. Öhgren has taken this season as a challenge to show his worth to the world. He is certainly doing so effectively with his play. At 6’1 and 187lbs, Öhgren is unquestionably the one with close to NHL-ready size. His over one point per game average at the Hlinka tournament this summer was just a prequel to what he was planning this season.
A well-balanced skater and scorer, Öhgren is showing that he may be the most NHL ready of the three of them. All three players have high offensive ceilings and NHL potential. But, if any of them were to make a high impact on an NHL team next season, my bet would be on Öhgren.
“Liam is a very strong skater. It’s a strength in his game. He can drive through opponents and use that skating to open up for his teammates. He also has a very good shot.” said Brown.
His size, skating ability, and scoring touch make him a gem of a prospect to watch this season. Toss his responsible hockey mindset into the mix and he should be circled on just about every scouting report list for the next few months. If he continues to develop the way he has been, it would be difficult to see Öhgren waiting to be called past the first round.
Enroth continued his analysis of the trio and raved the most about Liam Öhgren, he is very high on the player and believes he could easily find his way into a first-round position.
“Liam Öhgren has started the season the best of the three. He has good size, skates well, and takes responsibility all over the ice. He is a rather “complete” player at this age, and he can do it all. Great physique, great stickhandler, great skater, and good vision of the ice. I’ve been really impressed by his play so far this season and if he continues, I think he’s going first round this summer.”
DraftPro scout Joseph Peter’s also loves what he’s seen so far from the young Öhgren, “He displays his quick instincts and offensive prowess on the man advantage. Steady feet, quick hands, and a shot in a split second. He likes to play an offensive-minded game. He has excellent edgework for quick pivots to back away from the pressure. He is sneaky with anticipation.”
Brown added, “The thing I like most about his game is his teammate utilization all over the ice and how smart of a puck distributor he is. Plays with a relentless attack too, where he can dig pucks out and set up his skilled linemates”
The kids came into this season hot. After toying around with making the full-time step last season, it seems all three of the young Swede’s decided it was best to light it up together, as a trio and an almost unstoppable offensive force.
“Noah and Liam were up with me a little bit last year. So, we knew for sure we had some great players in our system. Lekkerimäki was only up for one game before we shut the league down, so I didn’t know very much about him.” said Holmqvist. “It’s great to have them on the team, it’s huge, their talented players that love hockey. They come here every day and just love the game and want to get better everyday. That’s the main thing that we do. Of course, it’s fun to win, but our job is to develop the players and I think we’ve been doing a good job at this.”
“We have a system, of course, without and with the puck. We have some stuff we want to follow, but mostly with these kinds of players, I let them live free in the system. Mostly focus on things without the puck. They’re so skilled because they’ve been playing their whole lives with the puck. So, it’s the things without the puck we focus on.” Holmqvist stated, explaining that he feels that he needs to let the kids have a little fun with the puck, but understanding they still have some work to do without it.
When it came to whether Holmqvist thought they had a chance at making the NHL one day, he felt it was still a little early to say for sure but seemed to believe that they all had a great shot at it.
“It’s always up to them. If they can continue to work, keeping focus like their doing right now, then they have a great chance to play in the NHL. If I look at these three, I put them at the same level and mindset as William Eklund and Aleksander Holtz. They’re the same kind of player, leveling I would way that I mean. They love the game and want to get better. So, I think there’s a chance, but one step at a time and patience. It’s going to be good.”
In the end, these kids sure are making it interesting in Sweden. And scouts should be jumping at the chance to get looks at what these guys can bring to the table.
Photo credits: Mats Högberg & Josefin Andersson, DIF Hockey