Patrik Sundström: The First Successful Swedish New Jersey Devil

Swedish players have recently become very prevelant on the Devils.  The team added two last summer in Johan Hedberg and Henrik Tallinder; their last three first round picks in the NHL Draft were all Swedes: Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Josefson, and Adam Larsson; and Alexander Urbom made his NHL debut last season.  The last game of the season had 5 Swedes playing in the same game.  It's possible for it to be 6, depending on how Urbom and Larsson do in training camp.  This is a surprising development considering the New Jersey Devils franchise has only had 19 Swedes in their entire history (and Larsson will make it 20 soon enough).  This fact along with being partially inspired from yesterday's post about Stephane Richer, I want to talk about the first Swede who made a real impact on the New Jersey Devils franchise: Patrik Sundström.   

I have to emphasize that Sundström was not the first New Jersey Devil who was born in Sweden.  You'd have to go all the way back to the days of the Colorado Rockies for the franchise's first Swede. The first would be goaltender Hardy Åström.  He's most famous for being the butt of a Don Cherry anecdote, as described here by Joe Pelletier at Goaltending Legends. That said, his numbers - found here at Hockey-Reference - were horrific, even by 1980s standards. If he had an impact, it was seemingly against the team.  Åström wasn't the only Swede brought onto the Rockies.  Per Hockey-Reference, Colorado signed wingers Christer Kellgren and Peter Gustavsson right from Västra Frölunda of the SEL in May 1981.  Both forwards spent much of their time in the minors in Fort Worth of the CHL; as they only played in a handful of NHL games in the 81-82 season. They both returned to Sweden in 1982 and remained there for the rest of their careers.  A few years and a move to New Jersey later, the franchise drafted 26-year old center Anders Carlsson of Södertälje SK in the fourth round of the 1986 Draft. Given that he's already developed, they brought him over to the NHL immediately. He hung around the Devils for three seasons, which easily put him ahead of Kellgren and Gustavsson in terms of Swedish Devils.  Plus, he wasn't a sieve, so he definitely was ahead of Åström.  However, he didn't make a big impact in the NHL, he wasn't productive, and so in 1989, he went back to Sweden.

As nobody says, the fifth time is the charm, and the Devils got their first very successful Swedish-born player in Patrik Sundström - the franchise's fifth Swedish player.  He was acquired from Vancouver in 1987 and have a solid five-season tenure with the Devils in those pre-Lemaire days of the Lamoriello Era.  He would go on to become the most successful player to have worn #17 before Petr Sykora, second most in Devils games played among Swedes, and the highest scoring Swedish Devil until this day.   Let's look back at his time in New Jersey after the jump.

Before New Jersey, There Was Vancouver

According to Hockey-Reference, Sundström was drafted in the ninth round of the 1980 NHL Draft by the Vancouver Canucks.  While he didn't light up the scoresheet with IF Björklöven Umeå as an 18-year old, he was playing in the SEL regularly at such a young age.  The Canucks' late-round selection blossomed for club and country (especially for countr) for the next two years, while serving out his military term.  He came to Canada for the 1982-83 season and had a solid 23-23-46 rookie season.

In 1983-84, Sundström made a permanent mark on the Canucks.  He had a monster year, setting personal bests in goals (38), assists (53), points (91), and shots on net (216).  In his five seasons with the Canucks, this season stands out the most.  His biggest highlight, as described here at the Canucks' official website, Sundström set a team-record of 7 points in one game on February 29, 1982.  While he never hit those highs again, he was still a productive forward and a big factor in Vancouver's offense for the next three seasons. According to this entry at Canucks Legends by Joe Pelletier, the 6'1" 200 pound center skated smoothly, had an offensive mind for making plays, and was willing to use his body intelligently rather than to rack up needless PIMs.  No wonder the Canucks ranked Sundström the 16th best Canuck in their team's history.

It's also no wonder that the Devils wanted a player like Sundström.  The Devils, at the time, were still searching for their first playoff berth in New Jersey and could use help at center.   They wanted him so much that Lou Lamoriello, in one of his earliest trades, offered goaltender Kirk McLean, forward Greg Adams, and the team's second round pick in the 1988 NHL Draft.  Vancouver jumped on that deal, sending Sundström to New Jersey along with their second and fourth round picks in 1988.  

In retrospect, it's clear Vancouver got the better end of the deal.  McLean became a mainstay in net for 10 seasons, Adams turned out to be a solid secondary scorer for 8 seasons, and the picks didn't turn out to be much.  Yet, the Devils did get a solid player in Sundström alone.

Patrik Sundström: 1987 - 1992

Patrik_sundstrom_regseason_stats

Patrik_sundstrom_playoff_stats

Unlike Gustavsson, Kellgren, and Carlsson before him, Sundström did not have to acclimate to the NHL.  This was clearly shown in his first season as a Devil, where he was actually productive.  After a fine 86-87 season where he shot at 20.6%, he regressed in terms of shooting and primarily served in a playmaking role.  Still, fans could appreciate what #17 brought to the table.  While the points dropped, he still finished fifth in team scoring. 

What really endeared him to fans was his amazing performance during the Devils' Cinderella playoff run in 1988.  Amid his 20 points in 18 games, which took the Boston Bruins to the limit in the Eastern Conference Finals; Sundström managed to have one of the greatest single-game performances in hockey history.  He set a NHL record on April 22, 1988 against the Washington Capitals with 3 goals and 5 assists in a 10-4 win.  Yes, 8 points in one playoff game.  Only one player has tied that - Mario Lemieux, who scored 5 times and put up 3 assists in a playoff game in 1989.  Adam Proteau of The Hockey News listed Sundström's game as the second best NHL playoff game of all time.  The dude was on fire.  There's not a lot of video of Sundström online, but here's a quick one of the three goals he did score.  Note that two of them were backhands and he burned Scott Stevens (!) on the second one.

Moving on,

He certainly bounced back in the following two seasons.  According to his profile at Hockey Draft Central, he suffered from three injuries in the 1988-89 season: a strained lower back at the beginning of the season, a bruised right thigh around Christmas, and a bruised left knee in March.  The injuries only kept him out, they didn't hold back his offense.  He put up 69 points in 65 games, shot the puck more, and racked up nearly as many power play goals as even strength goals.  While the Devils weren't good and missed the playoffs, Sundström was a bright spot for the season.  This April 2, 1989 article New York Times by Alex Yannis highlights how Sundström was a complete player for the team: running the power play, centering a scoring line, and doing work on the PK.   As an example of his effect on his teammates, the end of this Robin Finn article in the New York Times has a young Brendan Shanahan crediting his linemates for making the game simpler, allowing him to grow into the NHL. Those linemates? John MacLean and Patrik Sundström.  Despite the injuries and the lack of team success, Sundström received his second Viking Award, which goes to the best Swedish player in North America as voted on by other Swedes.   The profile at Hockey Draft Central also credits him with being the Players' Player and the team's MVP in 88-89, which further shows how important Sundström was to the team.

Sundström had a healthier and more productive 89-90 season.  For a second straight season, he had a point-per-game rate higher than one and put up over 25 goals.  It seemed to be more of the same from the Swedish center, though without the additional awards.  If you don't mind going through 20 minutes of highlights, you should check out this video of a Capitals-Devils game from 1990, where you can see Sundström go to work along with some other Devils at the time.  It's a good snapshot of what the Devils and hockey in general was like in that time period. Speaking of, there's another long one of a Devils-Rangers game from 1988, which also featured Sundström on the scorer's sheet.  

The Devils, as a whole, performed better than they did in 88-89 and returned to the playoffs.  The Capitals knocked them out in 6 games and Sundström only put up one goal and three assists in the series.  Not bad, but not exceptional either.  

Unfortunately, that season would be the last of the good ones from Sundström.  Like the rest of the team in the 1990-91 season, Sundström was plagued with inconsistency. He shot less than usual, the plays he made weren't necessarily leading to goals, and so his numbers suffered.  As evidence of his importance on the team, he was cited in this Alex Yannis article from February 22, 1991 of the New York Times about the team's struggles.

Sundstrom perhaps expressed best the feelings of the majority of the Devils that every player is trying to do too much instead of concentrating on specific duties.

"Instead of concentrating on your own job," Sundstrom said, "you try to cover up for other people, try to do too much, and it doesn't work. Sometimes we also try to be too fancy instead of doing things simple, like shooting when the shot is there."

As a brief aside, that article noted that fans were chanting for Lou to be fired.  Thank goodness that didn't happen!

Getting back to Sundström, what also drove him to have such a down season was injuries.  He's battled through them to some degree throughout his career, but they really started to mount in this season.  According to his profile at Hockey Draft Central, he missed training camp due to a surgery to remove a bone spur in one of his toes and a pulled groin. That prevented him from getting off to a good start. It didn't end well, as a pulled groin in late March kept him on the shelf until the playoffs and a separated shoulder limited him to only 2 appearances and no points in a 4-3 first round loss to Pittsburgh.  User Cherno77 has a good FanPost describing that series in case you're interested.

Sundström's fifth and final season in New Jersey was even more shortlived.  While he appeared in 71 games in 90-91 despite the injuries; the ones he suffered in 91-92 were more severe.  He hurt his back at the start of the season and re-aggravated it in November according to his profile at Hockey Draft Central.  A certain cause of a very slow start to his season. That would be minor compared to what happened in the end of December.  He was held out on December 30 due to a bruise, but as reported in February 1992 in the NY Times by Alex Yannis, the real injury was that they found calcium deposits in his thigh. That would be it for Sundström's season.  He was a free agent in 1992 and opted to return to Sweden to play out his career. His final game as a Devil was on December 29, 1991, per his game-log at Hockey-Reference.

After New Jersey

Sundström did return to Sweden to play for his original club one last time: IF Björklöven Umeå.  At the time, they were in Sweden's second division. According to Hockey-Reference,  Sundström put up 16 goals and 27 assists in the regular season and 3 goals and 5 assists in 9 games (not just one!) in the playoffs, which saw the club get promoted to the SEL.   According to HockeyDB, he played one more season with the club in the SEL, playing 16 games before calling it a career.

The only connection the Devils would have with Sundström since then was in 2005, when the Devils drafted his son, Alexander, in the seventh round. He didn't turn out like his father did, though.  Alexander Sundström has remained in Sweden his entire career and it seems incredibly unlikely that he'll come to North America to play in the NHL.

Overall

It's a shame that his NHL career essentially ended with a major injury.  If he didn't get calcium deposits in his leg, maybe he could have bounced back in 1991-92, signed with the Devils, and perhaps stuck around a little longer as Lemaire arrived on the scene two seasons later.  Though I am heartened to learn that he was able to be a major contributor for his club team in Sweden after 1992 and didn't play too long afterward.  There's something to be said about knowing when to take a step back and stop before further significant injury.  

Still, Devils fans can't complain too loudly about what he did in New Jersey.  Sundström currently ranks 24th among all time scorers on the New Jersey Devils with 246 points (86 goals, 140 assists) in 305 games.  No Swede has since put up more points as a Devil; and only Tommy Albelin has played in more seasons and games than Sundström.   As explained prior to the jump, Sundström really was the first successful Swedish player for the New Jersey franchise.  He didn't just have a cup of coffee or hung around for three seasons.  Sundström did quite well for the four relatively healthy seasons he did have in New Jersey.   He played in all situations and bolstered the center position behind Kirk Muller. Sure, Vancouver can claim victory in the trade, but the Devils did quite alright by it.   but he gave many Devils fans plenty of warm memories, well set-up plays, some sweet goal.  His highest achievements came on April 22, 1988.  His 88-89 season was great in spite of injuries and the team missing the playoffs. 

I don't think he gets remembered as fondly by some fans because he didn't go on to have a solid-to-great career after New Jersey and that he was a solid player in a time where the team wasn't close to being a Stanley Cup contender.  From 1993-94 on, the Devils making the playoffs was just expected and it happened regularly, save for two seasons. That wasn't the case in the late 1980s. As time goes on, that gets harder to recall.

As it turned out, the performances of Sundström and Albelin didn't drive the Devils to pick up Swedish players when they felt it was necessary. We can't say they were trailblazers, since they weren't the first either.  It wouldn't be until the 2000s when the Devils started putting more Swedish players on their roster; though many were only for a short period of time.  This current influx seems to be more of a case of coincidence, rather than the continuation of any tradition or trend.  Nevertheless, while Sundström wasn't the first Swede and it's a real stretch to say he made a big impact on future Devils teams or that he changed people's minds about Swedish players.  Simply, he was very good for the Devils from 1987 through 1992 (last season excepted), the first successful Swedish New Jersey Devil. That's how he should be remembered.

What do you remember the most about Patrik Sundström?  Would you agree that he served a big role from 1987 through 1991? Were you surprised to learn that the Canucks value him as much as they do? Do you value Sundström's contributions more than Tommy Albelin, who played longer though wasn't as significant?  Please share your answers and other thoughts about Sundström in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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