By Erica Whyte
After making some tweaks to their roster this summer, the Rochester Americans have spent the better portion of the first month of the 2018-19 season sitting atop the American Hockey League’s North Division. With points in nine of their last 10 games, and tallying only one regulation loss since opening weekend, the Amerks look well on their way to being Calder Cup contenders. And that’s in no small part due to the contributions from two of last season’s top performers in the Swedish Hockey League: Victor Olofsson and Lawrence Pilut.
Making up two-thirds of the Amerks top three point-producers so far this season (Zach Redmond takes the top spot), these two “rookies” are no strangers to success when it comes to the stat sheet. Olofsson, a 23-year-old first-year AHLer, led the SHL with 27 goals last season, and Pilut was named the 2017-18 Defenseman of the Year as the league’s top scoring blueliner.
Although fans across pro hockey have seen high-skilled, point-producing forwards like Olofsson hailing from Sweden for some time now, the dynamic, playmaking offensive-defenseman like Pilut are a new generation of Swedish blueliners: the ultimate two-way players.
“Sweden really put a spotlight on the offensive aspect of the game,” said Amerks assistant coach Gord Dineen, who primarily oversees the development the team’s defensive corps. "I think they went through a down period maybe 10 or 15 years ago, but from what I’ve read and what I’ve heard, they really wanted to make a change in the way they were developing their defensemen. And I think it’s been really effective, in what we’re seeing come out of there. Some of the best defensemen in the league and throughout North America are from Sweden.
In fact, three of the top six scoring NHL defensemen to finish last season (John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars, Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Erik Karlsson formerly of the Ottawa Senators and now with the San Jose Sharks) all hailed from Sweden, a country whose population is only slightly larger than that of New York City.
According to teammate and fellow Swede Rasmus Asplund, a key component of Pilut and other Swedish defensemen’s offensive abilities are, in part, due to the environment they are raised playing in.
“That's the style Swedish defensemen have nowadays because of the way they play growing up,” said Asplund, a second-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2016 who has one assist and a plus-seven on-ice rating through his first 14 games of the season in Rochester. “You’re allowed to make mistakes, you’re allowed to dangle somebody and join the rush, and I think that’s helped (Pilut’s) development.”
Asplund added that the emergence of point-producing Swedish defensemen isn’t solely due to the positive reinforcement from coaches to be creative and jump into the play, but also the actual size of the rink and playing surface itself.
“The big rinks that we grew up playing on back home helped, too. You’re always encouraged to be offensive, even as a defenseman.”
Defensive ability, combined with the skill and prowess to jump into plays, and the speed to make it back down the ice in time to protect their own end are all qualities found in Pilut.
"He's a very intelligent player,” said Amerks head coach Chris Taylor of the 22-year-old. "He’s one of those guys that can escape when in danger, and when he gets out of position he can also recover really well. He’s a player that we count on for a lot of minutes, and his hockey smarts are off the charts.”
"He’s improving every day. And he’s coming to work like he wants to be in the NHL – not like he should be in the NHL. He wants to be in the NHL and there’s a big difference. He works hard for it.”
And although Pilut tops the leaderboard for assists in the AHL, ranks second for points amongst all blueliners, and has the fourth-highest plus/minus in the league all in his first month playing pro hockey on this side of the ocean, he insists that the stat sheet is the last thing he’s looking at.
“I just wanted to come out and try to adapt to the game in North America as much as possible and keep improving on it,” said Pilut. “Of course, it’s a confidence booster to get points and everything, but the main focus is just to play good out there and help out the team.”
The Amerks embark on their first three-in-three of the young season on Friday, Nov. 16 when they visit the Springfield Thunderbirds at MassMutual Center. Rochester’s three-game swing through the Atlantic Division continues with a Saturday night matchup against the Providence Bruins before closing out the New England trip on Sunday at 3:00 p.m. in Hartford against the Wolf Pack. All three games will be carried live on The Sports Leader AM 950/95.7 FM ESPN Rochester as well as AHLTV.