How Calle Rosén went from an unknown to knocking on Maple Leafs door

Mike Babcock spoke after a bad loss to the Senators about his Maple Leafs feeling good coming out of training just to “get slapped.”

TORONTO – Calle Rosén skated so well as a kid that they called him “Coffey.” But what really set him apart from other young hockey players in southern Sweden was a healthy balance of determination and patience.

“He’s always known himself,” said Jacob Hedin, his Swedish-based agent with A.M.A. Sports.

On this side of the Atlantic, we are just getting acquainted with the undrafted 23-year-old defenceman who is believed to have an inside track on the vacant third-pairing job with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He’s a largely unknown quantity in North America.

Look back through the NHL Central Scouting rankings for the 2012 draft and his name isn’t even mentioned among the 120 European-based prospects. Rosén doesn’t recall doing any interviews with NHL teams at that time. He didn’t bother following along online as the late-round picks were made.

And he wasn’t the least bit discouraged by the apparent lack of interest.

“I didn’t pay that much attention to the draft,” said Rosén.

Imagine, then, how redeeming it must have felt after his Vaxjo Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs in 2016 and a NHL team – not the Maple Leafs – immediately called offering an entry-level contract?

Imagine that Rosén turned them down.

“I think they were pretty surprised,” said Hedin.

“I didn’t feel that it was the right time,” said Rosén. “I thought ‘Oh, I’ll stay in Sweden one [more] year and get even better.”’

His is a story about the value of sticking to the process and improving incrementally. It is also one about the unpredictably of cascading circumstances.

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Rosén was raised in Vaxjo, a modest city of about 65,000 people. He was a skilled hockey player who spent some time as a forward in his younger years, but didn’t attract a ton of attention – at least until Björn Liljander, the under-20 coach with the local team, saw him play.

“The first time I saw Calle he was like 13, 14 years old,” said Liljander. “When I was looking at him, I think his skating was similar to Paul Coffey. So I really jumped up and thought: ‘Whoa, who is that kid?’

“He was all over the ice, you know? From d-zone to the offensive zone, he really looked like a small Paul Coffey.”

Not only did Rosén end up playing some games with Vaxjo’s under-20 team during his 15-year-old season, but he was recruited to join Frolunda’s prestigious youth academy at age 16 after Liljander switched jobs.

In his first season there, they won a domestic gold together with the under-18 team.

Even though Rosén wasn’t yet on the radar for national team games with Tre Kronor, he was making progress. Other than some difficulty getting him to hit the net with his wicked shot – Liljander chuckles at the memory of urging him to keep the puck down in practice – he was a highly coachable teenager.

“All players, they dream about NHL,” said Liljander, now Frolunda’s assistant GM. “I see players every day. We have a lot of good players in the Frolunda academy system, but the best ones have that intensity in practice, they have the right focus, good concentration. They have passion.

“I think Calle had all those things that you need to have to be an elite player.”

As the years went along, he grew to be six feet and more than 170 pounds. He changed and, as Hedin correctly points out, the game changed.

There’s a greater deal of appreciation for a skilled defenceman who can skate and distribute the puck.

Rosén spent the past four seasons competing against men in Sweden’s pro leagues – two in the lower level Allsvenskan, and then two more in the SHL with his hometown Vaxjo Lakers. After scoring 19 points in 41 games last season, he was invited to travel to Germany for the IIHF World Hockey Championship before being the last defenceman cut by the eventual champions.

By then, a lot of NHL scouts had taken notice. His time had come.

“He’s a calm guy, you know?” said Liljander. “He just keeps on going. He wanted to become an elite player in Sweden at first, then he turned out to be a national team player and, yeah, he’s taking it step by step. He had his own hockey journey.”

There were 15 NHL teams knocking on the door in the spring. Hedin and Kurt Overhardt, his affiliate in North America, lined up the interested parties.

Rosén spoke directly to some general managers, including Lou Lamoriello, after the list of suitors was whittled down to a more manageable number. Mike Babcock made a strong impression as the only head coach to give him a call during the process.

There was a good rapport with the Leafs throughout – “No salesman’s bull—-,” according to Hedin – and Rosén went with his gut in making the final decision.

While he received no assurances of a NHL roster spot, he’s arrived in Toronto now to take one. Babcock applauded his performance in Monday’s pre-season opener at Ottawa and will eventually choose between Rosén, Andreas Borgman, Travis Dermott and holdover Martin Marincin for the left side of the bottom pairing.

After travelling the long, patient road to earn an opportunity like this one, there’s a sense of urgency in Rosén’s voice.

“I’m going into this camp thinking I’m ready to play,” he said. “That’s what I’m all in for. I don’t see the AHL right now. I just see an NHL spot for me. That’s what I’m aiming for.”