KINGSTON, R.I. — When it comes to bringing young European players over to North America, the Rangers likely learned their lesson with Lias Andersson and Kaapo Kakko.
More so with Andersson, the No. 7-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, who was expected to immediately leave his home in Sweden to play in New York. The then-teenager struggled mightily — on and off the ice — before he requested a trade and was ultimately dealt to the Kings last October. Kakko wasn’t nearly as lost as Andersson was his rookie year, but at 19, the Finnish right winger certainly had to adjust to living in a new country away from his family.
The Rangers have seemingly made every effort to ensure defenseman Nils Lundkvist has a different experience.
After making Lundkvist the No. 28-overall draft pick in 2018, the Blueshirts allowed Lundkvist to marinate in the Swedish Hockey League for four seasons. Lundkvist ended up posting over 30 points in each of his past two seasons with Lulea HF. He also won the Salming Trophy, awarded annually to the top defenseman in the SHL.
Now, Lundkvist is 21 and appears to be ready to play in the NHL. Additionally, the Rangers lost a few third-pair defensemen candidates like Jack Johnson and Brendan Smith. The player is ripe, the timing is right and the need is there.
To further ensure Lundkvist acclimated properly, the Blueshirts brought in a veteran defenseman who also happens to be Swedish: Patrik Nemeth. The Rangers signed Nemeth to a three-year deal, which carries a cap hit of $2.5 million, in July with the expectation that the 29-year-old could help Lundkvist transition to the NHL.
“It’s a lot of new things, it’s not just on the ice, it’s off the ice too,” Nemeth said Monday after practice at the University of Rhode Island’s Boss Ice Arena of how he has helped Lundkvist. “I think when I got over, I was fortunate to have some older Swedes, too. Swedes must be good guys. [Guys] who just give you the details of the game and that helps you off the ice with a lot of the new things that are going on. Just trying to be nice to him.”
While head coach Gerard Gallant has maintained the last spot next to Nemeth on the third-defensive pairing is still up for grabs, Lundkvist has taken a bulk of the reps in that position through training camp. Gallant said Nemeth has been everything the team expected him to be when it signed him this summer, but the coach noted that he isn’t deciding who takes that spot based on who has the best chemistry with Nemeth.
Nemeth, however, plays a reliable, simple and shutdown defensive game that could complement Lundkvist’s skill and offensive abilities.
“I like guys that are jumping up the rush,” Nemeth said. “I like going after first touches in the D-zone so guys like Nils can jump in the play and bring their [skill] because his skating ability and his hockey IQ up the ice is very good, so he can use that more.”
During his first-ever interview on MSG in between periods of the Rangers’ preseason-opening loss to the Islanders on Sept. 26, Lundkvist said Nemeth was “taking care of him.”
The Rangers certainly hope so.