On Tuesday night, Jonatan Berggren netted a career-high four assists in a 5-3 win over the Cleveland Monsters in the AHL. The 21-year-old has been scoring at an alarming rate; through 30 games, he has 27 points, just two points shy of the team’s lead. To outsiders, this came as a bit of a shock. Typically, European players struggle with transitioning to North American ice due to their smaller rinks. Berggren, however, appears to have taken it in stride. It seems like Red Wings fans are treated to a new highlight reel-worthy play every week.
But what brought Berggren to this point — and when should fans expect the forward’s NHL debut?
A battle with adversity
Selected 33rd overall in the 2018 NHL Draft, Berggren earned high praise for his puck control, pass delivery, and vision. Many publications projected Berggren to go quickly in the first round. One specifically projected that Berggren would be drafted as early as 20th overall. The fact that he fell was a surprise — and it was one that then-general manager Ken Holland couldn’t pass up.
At first, things didn’t go as planned for Berggren. Back and shoulder injuries shortened his two seasons after the draft, limiting him to just 40 games and 15 points in that span. Many, including Berggren himself, were nervous about his production and history. Nobody could have predicted how the 2020-21 season would turn out; fortunately, it worked out for the better of everyone involved. With 45 points in 49 games, Berggren became the first player since Elias Pettersson to score over 40 points at age 20 or younger.
Considering how things have turned out for Pettersson, it seems like Berggren is in good company.
“He’s a guy who’s faced a lot of adversity with injuries the last couple years,” Director of Player Scouting Shawn Horcoff said in an interview with NHL.com. “These aren’t injuries that are easy to come back from. To his credit, going through that, it’s done two things - it’s made him realize what he needs to work on, and it’s also given him time to work on those deficiencies.”
Going for it in Grand Rapids
A European ice rink is more than five yards wider than a North American rink. Making plays in the AHL is much harder than it is in, say, Sweden. Detroit’s younger European signees in the past like Oliwer Kaski, Matthias Brome, and Libor Sulak have often been caught off guard by this transition. Despite their dominant European seasons, these players struggled to make an impact on North American ice. Berggren, noting the challenges, has paid it no mind. Here’s a quote from his interview with Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News:
“It’s difficult, you have much less space and time,” Berggren said Friday. “But I like it, too. You need to be 100 percent ready all the time when you have the puck. I like to make hard plays and give my teammates good spots to score.
“I like it when it’s pretty tight and it’s harder out there on the ice. I like when it’s smaller ice.”
Berggren has leaned into the new challenge, and it appears it’s paid off. With 27 points in 30 games, Berggren is second on the Griffins in scoring and 18th in the AHL. He’s one of three rookies in the top 20 AHL scorers this season. In his last five games, Berggren has seven points (one goal, six assists).
What to expect (and when to expect it)
With so much excitement surrounding Berggren, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: when is he joining the Red Wings? The problem isn’t with Berggren — it’s with the lineup itself. In order for Berggren to succeed at the professional level, he needs ample ice time with talented linemates. The top-six appears all but cemented, with Dylan Larkin and Lucas Raymond on the top line and the Guelph line of Tyler Bertuzzi, Robby Fabbri, and Pius Suter on the second. Larkin’s left wing is currently occupied by Vladislav Namestnikov, but this will likely change when Jakub Vrana returns from his injury.
A spot could be made for Berggren, but it would likely require a trade. Earlier this week, the Red Wings claimed Tampa Bay Lightning forward Gemel Smith off the waivers. This all but locks in Gemel with his brother Givani Smith in the lineup for the foreseeable future. The third line, despite its incredibly inconsistent cast, doesn’t look ready to welcome a new guest. Sure, benching Adam Erne may put a spark to his game. But pairing Berggren with a snakebit Filip Zadina and a shaky Michael Rasmussen doesn’t bode well for the forward’s development path.
Wait and see
It might be best to let Berggren play out a full season in Grand Rapids, similar to how Moritz Seider did during his rookie year. Namestnikov and Sam Gagner’s contracts end after this season, opening a spot on the middle-six and bottom-six, respectively. Of the two, Namestnikov appears the more likely trade candidate. A 29-year-old depth forward scoring at a 40+ point pace is an intriguing depth get for any would-be contender. Other forwards, like Vrana, Fabbri, and even Bertuzzi may obtain their fair share of suitors come trade deadline time.
If Berggren is truly the top-six player he’s been in every other league, he needs the ice time and linemates to prove it. Dumping him on the third or fourth line with limited minutes will only harm his development, not help it. Playing top minutes against the AHL’s best is better right now than it is to force him into an unfamiliar system.
One way or another Jonatan Berggren will suit up in the NHL. Whether it’s after the trade deadline this season or at the start of next, his scoring pace, vision, and battle with adversity make Berggren one of the top up-and-comers with the Red Wings.