(Hey, everyone. Dan here. Thanks to Patrik and Mitch for this great work and for keeping us posted on Islanders prospects overseas. This was all them with a tiny bit of editing from me. Enjoy.)
After a successful World Junior Championship in 2016, where he led Team Sweden to a semifinal in which they lost to eventual winners Finland, many in Sweden were surprised when goaltender Linus Söderström was sent down to the second tier Allsvenskan league by his club Djurgården.
It was obvious that Djurgården had other plans than to keep the young goaltender around as the team let his contract run out after the season was over. Söderström was in contact with a few teams, and chose HV71 after a visit to the club and hearing what they had to offer. During the 2016 offseason, the 20-year-old took the daring step of revealing that he has Asperger Syndrome, standing up for people with the disorder and showing that it doesn’t have to be a hindrance. He spoke bravely about his own experience and how hockey had helped him, but also how he had been bullied of opposing teams players through out the career.
This makes things even more remarkable in regards to his success with HV71, a new team in a new city, far away from the stability that many think is needed for people with Aspergers.
It’s unclear if HV71 knew the diamond in the rough they were getting in Söderström and how little polish he would eventually need. Fredrik Pettersson-Wentzel was the team’s starter and was supposed to be the teacher to Söderström’s protege. But sometime after Christmas, the student had surpassed the teacher and Söderström took the ice in more games than not, finishing the regular season with 22 games played (compared to Pettersson-Wentzel’s 30).
Söderström finished with a 1.34 GAA and a save percentage of .943, incredible numbers for goalkeeper that young. Söderström points to the fact that while he knew he had food allergy and had always controlled it, it had returned before Christmas hence why he didn't get that many games before then. The club set him up with a dietitian and after a new dietary plan, Söderström no longer felt ill and really took control of the crease.
Come playoff time, many still thought that Pettersson-Wentzel would be the go-to goalie for a team that did not finish first in the regular season. But when the first game came around, it was Söderström that stood in net. Although he started off the quarterfinal with a huge mistake...
...He had earned the trust of his coach Johan Lindblom (a former player of HV71 himself) and kept it with a stellar performances as HV71 swept Färjestad. Söderström guarded the net for all of his team’s games during the playoffs, only dropping one game in the semifinal series against Malmö, and then standing tall in the seventh game of the finals, which HV won 2-1 in OT over Brynäs.
In an emotional interview on the ice directly after Game 7, Söderström was quoted saying “It feels so good to win, especially to win against Brynäs who has had players [chirping] me for my diagnosis during the series.”
When asked about Söderström’s comment, Brynäs captain Jacob Blomqvist said that things said on the ice should not be revealed, drawing comparisons with Milan Lucic after the Boston - Montreal series a few seasons ago. But Blomqvist also said it was disrespectful and distanced himself and the club from what had been said. Brynäs reacted with disbelief at first, but after investigating the claim further, they found that one player had in fact done just that. The club apologized profusely, while still keeping the name of the player a secret, and said they will also have awareness training for the players.
This speaks to the strength that Söderström possesses, not only coming up big in playoffs and a finals Game 7 that went to overtime, but to stand tall against “sledging” and cheap shots of that caliber. It means that Söderström can handle most things thrown at him.
After the season that Söderström had, it was no surprise that the New York Islanders signed him to an entry level deal. There has been speculation about Söderström going across the Atlantic to claim a spot on the Islanders as soon as possible, but he himself is of a different mind set.
"I have always felt that the worst mistake I can do is to go across to early, because if you aren’t ready you have to start form scratch all over again,” he told Aftonbladet.se. “I'd rather take a year or two more in SHL, you must still remember that I have only done one good season at this level, you have to be able to do it year up on year.”
"Linus is so driven, goal-oriented and focused. And he keeps that focus during a whole game. That’s his main strength.” said Lukas Vejdemo, a Montreal Canadiens prospect and longtime friend of Söderström since playing on Djurgården junior teams together. “He has the size, but also his lateral movement is exceptional and he reads the game so well. I am not at all surprised about his success, after having played with him for so long I know how good he is and how good he will be.”
Söderström has gone from being discarded by Djurgården to one of the main reasons HV71 won the LeMat trophy this season. It's a huge step for the young goaltender, but he stands with his feet firmly on the ground and while there is no doubt that NHL is his main goal, he seems smart enough to take it in steps and make sure that he is ready for the next one before he takes it. I expect him to stay in SHL for at least another year, making sure he knows he can handle thing both on and off the ice in a new city before he makes a move to the New York Islanders.