It didn't take Plymouth Whalers forward Rickard Rakell very long to understand the battle required to score goals in North America.
"Getting dirty is what it takes to score a goal here," Rakell told NHL.com. "You can't get too fancy. You have to play a smart game and I really like that."
Let's put it this way. If Rakell were a baseball player, his uniform would be caked in dirt and covered in grass stains because he'd probably be the one diving for fly balls in the outfield or dropping to one knee to control a grounder. As a hockey player, his jersey usually is the one with all the colorful scuff marks.
You kind of get the feeling Rakell could turn out to be a player similar to Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins -- a player who performs bigger than his frame, is willing to battle, offers decent speed and is a pain in the neck to play against. Depending on where he's chosen, he also might be the steal of the 2011 Entry Draft at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., on June 24-25.
After dominating the Swedish Under-18 Allsvenskan league in 2009-10 with 13 goals and 12 assists in 12 games, Rakell proved to be an energetic playmaker for the Plymouth Whalers in the Ontario Hockey League. He wasn't overly physical, but certainly didn't shy from the contact, either.
"I think it was a good season … I came here without much expectations and it took a little while for me to adjust to the game, but I started getting confidence in myself and do new things out there and it worked out really well for me," Rakell said. "I'm disappointed how the season ended with an injury, but there's not much you could do about that."
A high ankle sprain in February limited Rakell to 49 games in his first season in North America, but the 18-year-old native of Sollentuna, Sweden, still managed 19 goals, 43 points and a plus-14 rating in the regular season. He was limited to just one playoff game, but had healed enough by the NHL Scouting Combine to perform every element of the fitness testing.
Rakell said he's been on the ice since June 1, and said his ankle, "feels 100 percent right now … my workouts haven't been limited and everything is normal. The Combine proved to me that there's not a big difference between the top guy projected to go in the Draft and me. All you have to do is hard work. I'm there, I just know it."
According to NHL Central Scouting, Rakell's strengths include his ability to play a strong defensive game, his work ethic and his exceptionally quick feet.
"He's a good energy guy with a good work ethic and hustle," Central Scouting's Al Jensen told NHL.com. "He forechecks hard, he bangs and is very responsible defensively. I think in the NHL he could be a good second-line player. I really like his upside. He's one of those guys who the coach can throw out there and know what you're going to get. He has great balance and good skills and is physical. I can see him having an impact in the League two or three years down the road."
Rakell, who has a strong grasp of the English language, is No. 30 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the draft. Being pegged as a possible first-round candidate is something he said he would consider an honor.
"It's very exciting," Rakell said. "I always knew what I can do when I came over here. But people's eyes open for me and they saw me. I'm just happy to get the ice time in Plymouth and the coaching staff believes so much in me. The Team Sweden coaching staff believed in me, too (during the 2011 World Junior Championship) and gave me a chance to show what I got."
Rakell drew more attention during the WJC, when an injury to top prospect Gabriel Landeskog opened more ice time for him, and he had 3 assists in five games.
"I came back (from WJC) with bigger confidence than ever and I felt like I could do anything out there," he said. "I wish I could take that feeling with me to the next season. I took pride in playing physical, especially in the World Juniors. I couldn't get any further back on the bench then I already was, so I wasn't afraid to do any mistakes. I just gave it 100 percent and it really made results."
"I think (Toews) plays a two-way game like myself … you can use me in every type of situation -- the power play, the penalty kill -- and I think I'm a goal-scorer, too," he said. "On the smaller rink, it took a little while for me. You don't have as much time in the offensive zone to get a shot away. It's much more fun, you can out-do one guy in the corner and you have a scoring opportunity."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale