In North America, it’s rare for a player still within the age of playing junior hockey to have a significant role on the men’s team for international competition.
Norway isn’t in North America, and Mattias Nörstebö is no junior hockey player.
Very obvious geography lesson aside, Norway has a very talented, yet highly unrated prospect in Nörstebö. The 20-year-old defenseman left the Norwegian junior hockey system at the age of 16 after playing in the U19 league, three years younger than a good majority of the league’s stars. After putting on a clinic with the Rosenborg U17 team in 2010-2011, Nörstebö was given a big role with the U19 junior club, scoring 27 points in 26 games.
Nörstebö’s dominant play earned the youngster a contract with Brynäs in Sweden, finding himself with the U18 team in the J18 Elit league. 2012-2013, however, was the biggest of his young career. His skill saw him move through various ranks with the club, even taking part in a 17 game stint with the top men’s team, a big deal for a defenseman of his age. It was a fantastic year for the Norwegian blueliner, winning a gold medal with the U18 team by the time the season came to a close. Internationally, Nörstebö had a very successful campaign with Norway, taking the silver medal with the U18 team before securing his only international gold medal to date at the Division IA World Juniors in December.
In 2013-2014, Nörstebö’s success continued. After winning another medal at the U18 level, the 5’10” defenseman earned another 17 game stint in the Swedish Hockey League with Brynäs, playing a limited role on an experienced team. His play merited another chance with the U20 World Junior team, this time representing his country at the top division of the event. The tournament went very poorly as expected for the weak Norwegian squad, but Nörstebö was primarily used as a top defenseman on the team, playing against some of the top junior hockey players in the world. His play gave him a chance to play for the men’s national team for the first time in his career, skating in five exhibition games for Norway.
Nörstebö would finally get a chance to get a much longer stay in the pro ranks this past season. Aside from a 20 game run with Brynas, that saw the 19-year-0ld record his first pro point, an assist, Nörstebö also saw time with Mora in the Swedish second league, Allsvenskan. With Mora, Nörstebö showcased a bit more offensive power, scoring three goals and adding an extra four assists for seven points, his best total in a professional hockey league. Internationally, Nörstebö would return to the U20 team for the final time in December, scoring four goals from the point to lead all defenseman in scoring at the Division IA tournament. Unfortunately, Norway was unable to overcome Belarus in the end, who would grab the tenth and final spot in the 2016 World Juniors in Finland.
By then, Nörstebö had proven himself worthy at a shot with the Norwegian men’s team at the World Championships. Beating out fellow Allsvenskan defenseman Nicolai Bryhnisveen, Nörstebö was given a limited role to start off the tournament, despite looking solid in a few pre-tournament games beforehand. By the end of the tournament, Nörstebö was seeing time with Jonas Holøs on the top defensive pairing for Norway, catching the praise of many people unfamiliar with his play. By the end of the tournament, Nörstebö finished with three goals, trailing KHL legend Patrick Thoresen by just one goal for the top in team scoring once it was all said and done. His excellent effort was, for the most part, considered under-the-radar due to Norway’s weak result, but there was no question that Nörstebö proved to be one of the more impressive rookies at the top international event of the year.
Nörstebö is fast skater that uses his small stature to move swiftly around the ice. His speed transitioned perfectly into the Norwegian men’s team, allowing coach Roy Johansen to put Nörstebö on the ice in close situations. His shot is better than most defenseman he faces in Allsvenskan, as his keen accuracy will only continue to improve over time. When given better roles throughout the year, Nörstebö made good use of his opportunities, looking like a veteran almost every time he touched the ice. Despite his small size (5’10, 176 lbs) Nörstebö doesn’t tend to a lose a lot of battles against much bigger and more experienced opponents, using his high hockey sense to make smart plays and beat out some very solid players.
Heading into the draft at 20-years-old, Nörstebö is eligible for his final crack at the NHL Draft. With his success and maturity in professional hockey already, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give the budding young defenseman a look in the later rounds. Regardless if he’s chosen in one of the stronger draft classes in recent years or not, Nörstebö will return to Brynäs as the youngest defenseman, likely cracking the line-up full time. If he isn’t drafted into the NHL, you can expect to hear about Nörstebö at some point in the future, as a chance at an NHL deal in the future, especially with his development so far, isn’t out of the question.
Steven is a junior hockey reporter for the Oakville Blades of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, and also focuses on international hockey for his website, TheHockeyHouse.net. You can follow Steven on twitter @StevenEllisNHL.
Photo from Vegard Grøtt/NTB