Helge Grans was all geared up to compete for his home country of Sweden in the 2022 World Junior Championships last winter. But, just like seemingly everything else over the past two years, COVID-19 delayed that opportunity.
Grans did appear in two games with the Sweden national team in December, recording three power play assists in a pair of victories over Russia and Slovakia before the tournament was abruptly canceled. It was a small sample size, but Grans looked to be in line for a major role on the blueline, playing big minutes against top offensive prospects from other countries while helping to run the team’s power play unit, which had early success.
Now, with his first pro season in North America behind him, which consisted of 56 regular season games and five postseason contests in the AHL with the Ontario Reign, Grans is back with Team Sweden and ready to compete when the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship opens again on Tuesday in Edmonton.
“It was very sad that it ended like it did, but I’m happy to get an opportunity to play it again and it’s going be very fun to do it,” Grans said of the oddly-timed postponement. “I’m preparing my best. I’m skating a lot and just have to keep working on everything.”
The 2020 second-round NHL Draft selection is one of three LA Kings prospects representing his country in the showcase, along with Finnish forwards Samuel Helenius and Kasper Simontaival. While Grans is the lone player with Kings ties on Sweden this year, there have been plenty of others in the past. To name a few from recent years, Lias Andersson, Tobias Bjornfot, Samuel Fagemo, Carl Grundstrom, Adrian Kempe and Jacob Moverare have all represented Tre Kronor at the WJC.
Bjornfot recently joked that he wouldn’t offer any advice, since his team was eliminated in the quarterfinals. Grans explained that while he hasn’t been in daily contact with too many of his teammates in the months leading up to the rescheduled event, he has great familiarity with a lot of them from previous tournaments and is looking forward to being reunited.
“I have some good friends there and it’s going to be very fun,” the 20-year-old said. “Some guys have been on the team for under-16, under-17, under-18, and all the way up and some are even from my district in Sweden, we’ve played together since we were 14 and 15.”
Hailing from the town of Ljungby, Grans grew up playing forward before switching to the back end about five years ago after getting some advice from his father and two brothers, who all played professionally in their home country. His 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame has always impressed scouts, now the young pro is working to round out his game.
The last calendar year has been a whirlwind of new experiences for Grans, who first arrived in Southern California last September to participate in Rookie Camp and the 2021 Rookie Faceoff, where he played two exhibition games in Arizona with the team’s other prospects. He then participated in NHL training camp for the first time before he was assigned to Ontario for the start of the AHL campaign.
At first, the plan was to ease the young blueliner into game action while undergoing consistent work and tutelage with Sean O’Donnell and Matt Greene from the Kings Development Staff. That strategy was quickly derailed, however, when the big club lost Drew Doughty and Sean Walker in the opening month of the season. Grans was pushed into an every-night role with the Reign, very much an on-the-job training for the righty.
He continued in that role for the remainder of the season, posting 24 points on seven goals and 17 assists, including five power play points (1-4-5). Just two months after the campaign ended, with a year of experience under his belt, Grans was back at Toyota Sports Performance Center for his first experience with Development Camp.
“Development Camp was a very good week for everybody to come and learn a lot,” Grans said. “The coaches have a lot of experience to teach us and it was a lot of the stuff we were doing during the year. Repeating that stuff and keep working on getting better.”
In addition to the development staff, Grans credits fellow blueliner Cameron Gaunce, who he was paired with for much of the season, as someone that made a big impact on his game and helped him learn quickly.
“We played many games together and he taught me a lot,” Grans said. “If we’re doing something bad on the ice, he would tell me what to focus on and how we can get better. He was a great mentor last year and it was very fun to play with him.”
Gaunce is returning to Ontario for the 2022-23 season, his third with the Reign, and Grans will be happy to see him.
“That for sure makes an impact on the team,” said Grans. “Having a vet like him, he’s such a great guy both on and off the ice. It’s going to be great to have him.”
With the help of his development coaches and teammates pushing him to new heights last year, Grans expects to have even more confidence next week in Edmonton when he goes up against opponents his own age. That goes twice when considering he’s practiced and played in more than 60 games on an NHL-sized ice surface, which this year’s tournament will be held on.
“I would say [playing on] the small rink may make me a little bit more experienced,” Grans said. “I like the small ice. Of course, in the beginning, there’s some differences, how to play without the puck and with the puck. But I mean, the guys on the team in Ontario, those guys helped me a lot and then OD and Greener as well. They told me how to play defensively and it’s been good. It’s going be a great hockey tournament with many great players. But the small rink as a Swede may be a good thing for me.”
As a rookie to the North American style of play, he felt his game improved the most on the defensive side of the puck after he worked hard to learn more about playing a shutdown role at the AHL level.
“The defensive part on how to control and how to play defense more, I think that would be what I learned most and improved my game on,” he added. “That’s what I worked a lot on last year and I’m going to keep working on it this year.”
The tournament will be an opportunity for Grans to jumpstart his next season, where he hopes to make a bigger impact in the AHL and start to compete for a look at the highest level. Grans and Team Sweden kick off their tournament on August 10 against Switzerland, with a tournament preview to follow next week.