Senators may start seeing return on investment in Wikstrand

Ornskoldsvik is a Swedish town of just 30,000 that has also produced some of the biggest names in Swedish hockey. What's the secret of the world's greatest hockey factory?

LONDON, Ont. — The village of Furudal, Sweden is more than 6,000 kilometres from here. The lifestyle gap is pretty significant, too.

Just ask promising Ottawa Senators prospect Mikael Wikstrand what you’d see if you arrived in his hometown.

“Not much,” Wikstrand said Friday. “It’s like one store — one market you could maybe call it — and one rink. That’s pretty much it.”

It was there where the 21-year-old defenceman started working towards his dream of playing in the NHL. It is here in North America where he will have to take the final steps towards turning that dream into reality.

The journey will likely include some time in Binghamton, N.Y., where Ottawa’s American Hockey League team is based, and that’s a reality Wikstrand is slowing warming to.

He jumped from Frolunda to Farjestad over the summer with hopes of playing closer to home, but the Senators don’t plan on loaning him back to the Swedish Elite League this season even if he’s cut from the NHL team during training camp.

Assistant general manager Randy Lee believes the best place for Wikstrand to develop is on the smaller North American ice and noted that the player has been paid a signing bonus and is under the organization’s control as part of his entry-level contract.

“We’ve invested in him,” Lee said.

It might not be too long before Ottawa starts to see a return on its investment.

In fact, a recent injury setback for Chris Phillips has opened a roster spot at left defence and Wikstrand is among the small handful being seriously considered to assume it. His audition gets underway this weekend during the annual rookie tournament at Budweiser Gardens.

The offensive-minded defenceman represents found money for the Senators organization after being selected 196th overall in 2012. That left him only 16 picks from being passed over entirely and made for a long couple days while he waited patiently to hear his name called.

“I was pretty nervous at the end of the draft,” said Wikstrand.

However, it didn’t take long for him to start turning heads. He had a standout performance the following year at the world junior championship and went from the second division in Sweden to the top one partway through the season.

That required a move to Gothenburg, the country’s second-largest city, and Wikstrand says it was a big adjustment.

Lee spoke with the player every week last year and hopes the presence of other Swedes in the organization, including AHLer Fredrik Claesson, will help ease his transition this time around.

The Senators are a budget-conscious team and know that they need to find some diamonds in the rough to stay competitive. You need only look at the impact Mark Stone (sixth-rounder, 2010), Andrew Hammond (unsigned college free agent) and Mike Hoffman (fifth-rounder, 2009) had last year.

Wikstrand could be another big find.

“Most of the time what we’ll do [late in the draft] is we’ll take fliers on guys who have a dimension — his dimension is he had skill and hockey sense,” said assistant GM Pierre Dorion. “We just figured with those two qualities, even though he wasn’t the most imposing guy [physically], he was someone we felt we could work with in his development.”

That process will continue in the coming months as they try to make Wikstrand as comfortable as possible on this side of the Atlantic.

The player was diplomatic when asked about his preferred destination if he fails to make the big club this fall — “I’m hoping for both Bingo and Sweden,” he said — but should keep in mind that he can only get called up midway through the year from the former and not the latter.

And, ultimately, he wants to be skating at Canadian Tire Centre as soon as possible.

“Everybody wants to play here in the big show,” said Wikstrand. “It was my dream since I was a little kid.”

He’s getting closer.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.