Though Swedish hockey players had made their way over to the NHL before, it wasn’t until Borje Salming arrived in the 1970s that we started to see Swedish hockey players arrive en masse in the NHL. Since that time there have been an ever increasing number of Swedish hockey stars crossing to match their talent against players from the best hockey nations in the best hockey league in the world. With each passing year more and more Swedish hockey players can be found among the NHL’s elite. Here are my picks for the best Swedish hockey players of all time.
10 – Henrik Zetterberg
Though he is still building his resume this Red Wings’ superstar has already done enough to make his way onto this list. One of the biggest NHL draft steals of all time Zetterberg was nabbed by the Detroit Red Wings in the 7th round – 210th overall – in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. Since then Zetterberg has made opposing General Managers curse their scouting staffs. He was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner the last time the Wings won the cup in 2008 and has averaged nearly a point a game during his NHL career to date. Now 34 years of age he shows little sign of slowing down. Look for him to jump up this list before the dust settles on his career.
9 – Markus Naslund
Nazzy had a respectable 52 points in 66 games the year he was traded from the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Vancouver Canucks for Alex Stojanov, it what was one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history. It took Naslund a few years to really hit his stride in Vancouver, but once he found his game and his confidence he quickly rose to superstar status, and for a few years was the most dominant player in the game, taking the Lester B. Pearson award in 2003 after a brilliant 104 point campaign.
8 – Pelle Lindbergh
This acrobatic goalie was on his way to NHL superstardom when he was tragically killed in an automobile accident. He played only 3 full seasons with the Flyers, but in the 1984-85 campaign he racked up 40 wins, and captured the Vezina trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender, the first European goalie in league history to do so. One can only wonder what this great keeper would have accomplished had he been able to enjoy a full NHL career.
7 – Mats Naslund
Yes, there was another Naslund racking up points in the NHL long before Markus came along. Mats Naslund lit up opposing teams for 8 seasons as a member of the Montreal Canadiens, racking up huge point totals, despite his tiny 5’7″ 161 lb frame. He twice broke the 40 goal mark, including in the 1985-86 season when he had 110 points, and helped the club win the Stanley Cup that year. Like so many other Swedish born players who come to North America he decided to return to Sweden while still at the peak of his career. After 4 years back home he returned for one more brief crack at the NHL, signing with the Boston Bruins, but played only 34 games that year before calling it a career.
6 – Daniel Alfredsson
Number 6 on the list was once public enemy number one in Toronto. Daniel Alfredsson, former captain of the Ottawa Senators, is now in the twilight of his career, but in his prime he was a force to be reckoned with. In the 2006-07 campaign he put the Senators on his back, leading them all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. He has been a consistent scoring threat throughout his career, piling up over 400 goals and 1,100 points to date. His accomplishments aren’t just limited to the NHL though. He has played for the Swedish international team in more than a dozen different tournaments, including the 2006 Olympics where he was an alternate captain on the Swedish team that captured the Olympic gold medal.
5 – Kent Nilsson
“The Magic Man” starts off the top half of the list of the top 10 Swedish hockey players of all time with a little style. This crafty Swede truly had magic hands and was one of the most dynamic offensive players the NHL has ever seen. He took a different route to the NHL than most Swedish born players. He joined the NHL’s rival league, the WHA, playing for the Winnipeg Jets for 2 seasons, scoring more than 100 points both years. When the WHA folded he was claimed by the Atlanta Flames, who later became the Calgary Flames. Nilsson lit it up for the Flames, twice getting over 100 points, including an incredible 131 point campaign that still stands as a team record to this day. Nilsson would later go on to stints with the North Stars and Oilers, capturing a Stanley Cup ring in 1987 before returning to Europe.
4 – Borje Salming
This imposing looking Swede was the first true Swedish NHL superstar, and is an icon in his home country. He joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1973-74 season and quickly became one of the league’s most dominant offensive defensemen. He played for than 1,100 games during his NHL career, racking up 787 career points. His number 21 is one of a select few jerseys to be retired by this legendary franchise. People reading and wondering why this guy didn’t win any Norris trophies during his Hall of Fame career have to remember that a couple of guys named Orr and Robinson were playing at a pretty high level themselves at this time. Had Salming entered the league in a different era no doubt he would have earned his fair share of individual hardware.
3 – Mats Sundin
It was tough to put Sundin at number 3 on the list of the top 10 Swedish hockey players of all time. This hulking Swedish forward was a consistently dominant player at both the NHL and International level. As a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs he has been the longest serving European captain in NHL history, and though he was unable to lead them to Stanley Cup glory he is the Leaf’s all time leader in both goals and points, impressive achievements considering how long that franchise has been around. In all Sundin amassed 564 goals and 1,349 points in the NHL, and captured an Olympic gold medal as part of the Swedish national team in the 2006 Olympics.
2 – Peter Forsberg
Before there was Alexander the Great there was Peter the Great, and this slick stickhandling Swede was among the most talented players the league has ever seen. Few players in NHL history could dominate with the puck down low like Foppa could when he was in his prime. Not only did he have incredible hands, but he didn’t shy away from the physical side of the game either, smashing opponents to the ice during fierce puck battles. Unfortunately, this physical style of play led to an injury plagued career, which kept Forsberg from putting up even more incredible numbers. Still, his career stats aren’t anything to sneeze at. He notched 885 points and was a whopping +238 in just 708 NHL games. He was even better in the playoffs, pouring in 171 career playoff points, the most by a Swedish born player,and earned 2 Stanley Cup rings along the way.
1 – Nicklas Lidstrom
There is only one logical choice for the number 1 spot on the list of the top 10 Swedish hockey players of all time. Nicklas Lidstrom was a machine for the Detroit Red Wings, almost never making a mistake while quietly dominating at both ends of the ice. He helped his Detroit Red Wings win 4 Stanley Cups over his time with the club, including 2008 when he became the first European captain to lead his team to the cup. He won 7 Norris trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman. Only Bobby Orr won more. He finished his NHL career with 1,142 points, the most by a Swedish born defenseman. He has a Conn Smythe, a World Championship gold medal, and an Olympic gold medal. I could go on and on, but you get the point. Nicklas Lidstrom is simply the greatest Swedish hockey player of all time.
Featured image by Håkan Dahlström