Lundkvist says hes ready to be NHL defenseman with Rangers

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Nils Lundkvist said he’s prepared to play for the New York Rangers after being talked about as part of their future for three years.

Lundkvist, selected by New York in the first round (No. 28) of the 2018 NHL Draft, is the favorite to be the Rangers’ third right-handed defenseman behind Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba when they begin the season Oct. 13 at the Washington Capitals.

“We’re having exhibition games, we’re having a tryout, and it wouldn’t surprise me if at the end of it he’s standing there on our team,” Rangers general manager Chris Drury said. “We’re certainly excited.”

Lundkvist’s path from northern Sweden to New York City required patience and growth.

The 21-year-old said there were conversations the past two years about leaving home to start his pro career in North America, but it was decided it was best for his development to remain with Lulea in the Swedish Hockey League.

“It’s a big step just coming here and move overseas too,” Lundkvist said this month at Rangers development camp. “With the COVID situation last year, I think it was a good decision to play back home again.”

Lundkvist delivered by winning the Salming Trophy as the top Sweden-born defenseman in the SHL last season, scoring 32 points (14 goals, 18 assists) in 52 games.

Lundkvist also played for Sweden in the 2021 IIHF World Championship and had five assists in three games before an injury sidelined him for the rest of the tournament.

“It feels like I’ve done what I can back home,” Lundkvist said. “The only thing missing is we didn’t win with our team, but it feels like I’m prepared for this.”

Video: Mike Rupp on Rangers prospect Nils Lundkvist

There’s already a blueprint for Lundkvist on the Rangers blue line.

The comparisons between Fox (5-foot-11, 181 pounds) and Lundkvist (5-11, 187) are natural because of their size, mobility, intelligence, instincts, offensive upside and defensive strengths. Fox won the Norris Trophy voted as the best defenseman in the NHL last season after he finished second at his position with 47 points (five goals, 42 assists), one fewer than Tyson Barrie of the Edmonton Oilers.

“He is smart and he has a great stick like Adam,” Rangers director of player development Jed Ortmeyer said of Lundkvist. “He reads the play well. He knows when to jump in offensively. He’s got a heavy shot and an accurate shot. He scored a lot of goals for his team in Sweden from the point. He can generate offense for his team but he can also play against other team’s top lines and shut them down. I think the overall game that Adam Fox has, the way he thinks, there could be some similarities there for sure, but we’ll see when the puck drops.”

Ortmeyer said the Rangers won’t put pressure on Lundkvist to be like Fox, but they also didn’t put pressure on Fox to become a Norris Trophy winner in his second NHL season. It happened organically.

The Rangers believe Lundkvist similarly could develop into a top NHL defenseman, especially now that he’s had time to mature mentally and physically, developing his upper-body strength to match his already-powerful lower body, Ortmeyer said.

Lundkvist has gained 15 pounds since New York drafted him three years ago.

“Our scouts from the [NHL Scouting] Combine identified how powerful and explosive he was in the lower half, just his legs being so strong, and that translated to his skating,” Ortmeyer said. “But now you see him over the last couple years the strength that he’s put on his upper body has enhanced his lower body and his netfront play, being able to push guys out. That’s one of the things that excites me, seeing him grow the last couple of years.”

That maturation, along with his elite play in the SHL, put Lundkvist on Sweden’s radar for the World Championship.

“He’s stronger now and his game is steadier now,” Sweden national team coach Johan Garpenlov said. “He’s an offensive defenseman but he doesn’t make as many mistakes as he used to make trying to do too much with the puck. He’s so smart, he reads the play well, he’s strong on the puck. He’s good with the first pass from his own end. He joins the play well. I think he’s ready to play in the NHL.”

Arguably the toughest adjustment Lundkvist will face is playing on the smaller NHL ice, which is 15 feet narrower than that of the SHL.

“You’ve got a little less time, but it’s lesser ice to defend too,” Lundkvist said. “It’s more intense and you have to make quicker decisions.”

Garpenlov said he expects Lundkvist’s adjustment to be quick because of his hockey IQ.

“When you understand the game better, you know when you do things at the right time,” Garpenlov said. “But when you’re young, you have to try things. You have to explore and feel, and that’s what he’s been doing.”

The time has come for Lundqvist to do it in the NHL.

“It’s a big opportunity to be here,” Lundkvist said.

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