Lekkerimaki hopes to be next in long line of Swedish Canucks stars

Watch as the Vancouver Canucks take forward Jonathan Lekkerimaki with the 15th overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.

There is a little bit of Elias Pettersson in the way Jonathan Lekkerimaki shoots the puck, which is understandable because the Vancouver Canucks star is an idol of the team’s newest draft pick.

The Canucks selected Lekkermaki from Swedish club Djurgardens with the 15th-overall pick of the National Hockey League draft Thursday in Montreal. And since Vancouver hadn’t had a first-round pick since 2019, the goal-scoring 17-year-old instantly becomes the Canucks’ top prospect.

A lot of draft projections – and the Canucks’ own draft list – had Lekkerimaki in the top-10. 

“Our scouts were pounding the table; they really wanted to pick him,” general manager Patrik Allvin said. “It was an easy decision. We’ve liked him the whole year. We like his ability to score goals. He’s a dynamic, offensive player that has scoring ability but also is able to make plays. He’s a lighter version maybe of Lucas Raymond and how he plays in Detroit. There’s a lot of similarities here with Jonathan.”

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Raymond, a fourth-overall pick in 2020, scored 23 goals and 57 points last season for the Red Wings and should have been a Calder Trophy finalist.

Raymond and Lekkerimaki are both five-foot-11 Swedes, and Allvin’s selection of the latter on Thursday added to the Canucks’ rich history involving Swedish players.

Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who will work with Lekkerimaki in their player-development roles with the Canucks, were just voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

Lekkerimaki is aware of the twins and the Canucks’ deep ties to his country, but Pettersson is the Vancouver player he has watched most closely as a teenager.

“They’ve had such good Swedes,” Lekkerimaki said. “I like Elias Pettersson, so it’s going to be fun. I watched him very much back in Sweden. I like his shot. He’s a big inspiration for me. I can’t talk, I’m so excited.”

At the junior level this season, Lekkerimaki had 20 goals in 26 games for Djurgardens and led the Under-18 world championship in scoring with five goals and 15 points, which included a goal and three assists in Sweden’s 6-4 win over the United States in the gold medal game in Germany two months ago.

Like Pettersson, Lekkerimaki has a quick release and can score from anywhere, whether it be a wrist shot or heavy slapper. But if comparing the two, people should tap the brakes a little.

Pettersson was a fifth-overall pick in 2017 after scoring 19 goals and 41 points for Timra in Sweden’s second-division professional league, then followed that with a dominant 56-point season for Vaxjo in the Swedish Hockey League. In call-ups to Djurgardens’ SHL team this season, Lekkerimaki had seven goals and nine points in 26 games.

But there is a similarity worth noting: both players faced questions about their build – Pettersson for being thin and Lekkerimaki, until recently, for being small and light. External doubts about Pettersson’s strength were a fiery motivator for him, and the 23-year-old has proven to everyone he is strong enough to star in the NHL. Now, the 170-pound Lekkerimaki must do the same as he develops.

“I think I need to be more competitive,” Lekkerimaki said. “I have to take some big steps, but I’m looking forward to being a top player. I think I have to be smarter and bigger, of course. But it takes time.”

He travelled to the draft from Stockholm with his parents, Peter and Ellinor, and his older sister, Mikaela. Peter runs his own construction company and Ellinor is a nurse.

“It is a childhood dream of his to be here today,” Mikaela told Sportsnet. “He has always had one goal and that is to become great at hockey. We’re just so proud. It’s been an amazing journey to see him at this point in his life today.”

Asked if her brother has been doubted on his journey, Mikaela said: “Absolutely, he has. People have said he’s been small for his age and that he had to grow muscles and stuff. And yeah, that has pushed him. He has always worked hard for this. He is prepared to do the work. He knows that nothing comes for free. He’s very dedicated.”

Remarkably, Lekkerimaki’s Canadian Hockey League junior rights belong to the Vancouver Giants, who claimed him last week in the import draft.

No decision has been made about where he will play next season, but it certainly helps the Canucks’ chances of getting him to Vancouver that they can offer all of their NHL resources, including guidance from the Sedins.

Allvin said Lekkerimaki will attend next week’s development camp in Vancouver.

One of the youngest players in the draft, he doesn’t turn 18 until July 24.

“We’re excited that our development (staff) is going to get a chance to work closer with him and get to know him even better,” Allvin said. “But we’re not going to force any decisions here. We haven’t talked about next year.

“All the hard work starts right now. Getting drafted is great, but then you realize how hard it is to get to the next level. We’re going to help him and support him, but I think he’s an extremely driven kid. He understands what areas of his game he needs to improve on in order to take the next step.”

The Canucks have five more picks Friday in the second day of the draft, missing only the second-round selection sent to the Arizona Coyotes last summer in the blockbuster trade for Conor Garland and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

Allvin insisted the team did not come close Thursday to making any trades involving J.T. Miller or anyone else. He said “the status is the same” and that he feels no urgency to make a decision soon on Miller, the Canucks’ leading scorer who is going into the final year of his contract, and may prove unaffordable in Vancouver on his next one.

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