BUFFALO – At first glance, Sabres prospect Mats Lindgren’s junior season might look a bit underwhelming.
Yes, Lindgren scored a career-high 11 goals for the Red Deer Rebels. But his assist total dropped from 39 to 23 and his point total fell from 44 to 34.
Lindgren’s known as an offensive defenseman, and in his first junior season after the Sabres drafted him, he hardly posted eye-popping numbers.
Still, Lindgren, 18, has developed into a more well-rounded player over the last year in the Western Hockey League.
The Sabres and Rebels, who acquired him from the Kamloops Blazers last summer, believe in order for him to succeed at the pro level someday, he had to start enhancing his defensive skills.
“The biggest thing I was concentrating on this year was getting better in the defensive zone,” Lindgren said following last Wednesday’s session of development camp at LECOM Harborcenter. “Obviously, my numbers weren’t as high as last year, but I think I was really focused on just getting better in the areas that I need to improve on. I think the offensive side is always there.”
The youngster embraced the challenge of evolving into a two-way threat, said Mike Egener, the Rebels’ assistant coach in charge of the defense.
“He certainly was coachable in that aspect and showed a real willingness to want to get better at it,” Egener said. “… Mats certainly didn’t show any ego or didn’t show any unwillingness to want to get better in that area. I think that’s the neat thing about him, is he wants to get better at everything, whether it’s on the ice, off the ice. He just seems like he’s really inquisitive and interested in improving in all areas.”
Naturally, Lindgren, a fourth-round pick in 2022, 106th overall, experienced some growing pains.
“It was after Christmas almost, it seemed last year where it kind of began to almost like click for him and habitually happen, and it almost seemed like he wasn’t thinking as much out on the ice, just allowed himself to play a real solid two-way game,” Egener said.
So what has Lindgren focused on adding to his repertoire? Egener said the Rebels have stressed that he engages opponents coming out of corners and around the net-front area.
“It can be anywhere from the gaps to reading the play to allow yourself to have a good gap, right?” he said. “Reading the play properly and seeing where it’s developing and where it’s going and what kind of numbers you have coming at you, can you get up more? Can you challenge earlier?”
Lindgren has also worked to improve his stick defending and to become a more physical presence. That doesn’t always mean thumping an opponent. Sometimes it might be adding a counter hit during a puck retrieval.
The youngster, whose father, Mats, a former forward who played 387 NHL games, said he has packed on 11 pounds this offseason. The Sabres listed him at 6-foot and 184 pounds on the camp roster.
In maturing into a sturdier defenseman, Lindgren said he doesn’t think he’s “taking away anything from the offensive side.”
“They let me kind of do my thing there,” said Lindgren, whose skating and ability to move the puck rank as top assets. “I just got to try to pick the right time to do it. … They’ve kind of let me play however I want offensively. But it’s making sure I’m focusing on that defensive side.”
Egener believes Lindgren’s skating will allow him to play defense in pro hockey. He said the Vancouver native possesses an “advanced skill set” that “can change a game.”
“He knows he can ramp it up even more and provide even more offense without sacrificing the defensive side of things,” he said.
Lindgren’s talents, of course, might mesh well someday with the fast, aggressive style the Sabres play.
“Having Don Granato as my coach hopefully one day, it’s amazing,” he said. “The way they play is pretty exciting.”