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Prospect Film Room: A closer look at Vancouver Canucks prospect Tom Willander

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Photo credit:@terrierhockey on IG
Dave Hall
5 months ago
When covering prospects, the primary route is typically through short clips, which, by default, tend to drift towards goals and point production.
Often, it’s easy to lean towards the offensive aspects of one’s game, because, well, let’s be honest, what’s fun about holding a player to the outside and using effective gap control?
Case in point.
Realistically, it’s the clips of your prized prospect scoring a big goal or making a huge play that gets you amped up, thrilled, and downright excited to envision them doing just that while sporting your favourite NHL team’s jersey one day.
While that (offence) is all fine and dandy and makes up an important facet of a prospect’s development, it only tells part of the story.
This particular argument is especially true when dealing with defencemen.
Sure, it’s great to see clips of your future hopeful rearguard racking up points, but what other elements of their game are they bringing to the table that will help mould their potential as they progress into the pro levels?
Or, for the forward group, it’s always the classic question.
“How’s his five-on-five play”?
To gain a deeper understanding of a player’s abilities, it’s crucial to examine their performance with a little more substance.
Enter Prospect Film Room.
In this revived series, we will be selecting a prospect from within the Vancouver Canucks’ pool each week, and using moments from each shift to take a deeper dive into their strengths, weaknesses, and overall impact on the ice.
Oftentimes, a player will offer specific intricacies or tendencies that are hard to capture in five seconds.
Hopefully, this series will cater to those who want to see the bigger picture and use several examples to back it up.
Be sure to check out the Blackfish Prospect reports, where we will keep you covered on how the entire prospect system is progressing week-by-week.
But here, we are focusing on the other stuff.
For our first installment, we chose Tom Willander, the Canucks’ most recent first-round pick and one of the top prospects within their system.
The Stockholm native made the uncommon decision to cross the pond right out of his draft and join the Boston University Terriers of the NCAA.
This move to grab his development by the horns and adapt to the North American game is no small decision, and it’s truly an indication of his determination and poise.
Transitioning from the Swedish circuit is not as easy as you’d think. With such a large surface (in Europe), players are given much more time and space to make decisions and run routes.
That’s not even mentioning the increase in competition.
With that decision, before even suiting up for a game, he had this fan base hook-line and sinker.
The game we’ve chosen to kick this series off with will be the Terriers’ match against Notre Dame on October 21, which ended in an 8-2 victory.
No, that’s not why we chose this game. In fact, he only posted one secondary helper in the contest — which, by the way, was so secondary that I will not be including it in the package.
No, what we liked was his ice time.
Lane Hutson, one of the nation’s top defencemen, was nursing an injury that kept him out of the lineup for the weekend, allowing Willander to take on a more significant role and log substantial ice time.
With that, he was injected into the club’s top power play, while continuing his role on the penalty kill and the team’s third pair unit alongside fellow Canuck, Aiden Celebrini.
Alright, let’s check the tape.

Let’s talk defence

We are going to direct most of our attention and clips to this area of his game, as this has been one of the bigger questions from the fan base early on in his draft plus-one season.
First and foremost, Willander’s standout attribute is his exceptional skating ability.
This is without a doubt the oil that makes his entire engine run, and much like the mobile defencemen we see in the NHL today, allows him to be so effective at both ends of the ice.
Every time he takes the ice, his agility, quick acceleration, and nimble edge work keep you in awe.
While he did not display any exceptional coast-to-coast efforts in this game, do yourselves a favor and keep an eye on his footwork throughout these clips – it’s impressive stuff.
His transition from forward skating to backward is incredibly smooth, and he can do so without compromising speed. Getting caught flat-footed seems to be a rare occasion.
This mobility enables him to navigate and cover the ice in quick time and defend against opponents effectively.
He displays very good defensive positioning and is relentless at closing gaps and denying opponents the inside track – whether it’s using his body or an effective stick.
Honestly, as far as defending goes, this is his bread-and-butter, and he’s nearly an ace at keeping offenders to outside.
In the following clips, you’ll see each go to work, where he’s forced to quickly turn back and prevent his opposition from breaking through. Once in the zone, he effectively forces him to the outside, leaving a cut-in from the forward useless.
He’s #5 in all of these clips.
In addition to the body, he uses an extremely active stick and never lets his opposition get set.
Whether it’s separating the puck from sticks, intercepting passing lanes, or simply forcing the opposition to make quick and less-ideal decisions with the puck, he’s an absolute headache to deal with.
Here are several examples of that active stick in action.
 
 
If there was one area in his game that could use some work, it’s bulking up. At 6-foot-1, he’s not small, per se, but it’s something to make note of as he jumps up the ranks.
While he may not employ an overly imposing game and doesn’t normally deliver bone-crushing hits, he remains aggressive and assertive. He does not shy away from a battle, whether that at the net front, mid-ice, or in the corners.
In these clips, you will see him stick close to his check, not allowing them to gain any edge in position.
Here, while battling at the net front, he blocks the shot and instantly continues to battle, before injecting himself in the shooting lane, denying the possible point shot.
Shortly after, you will see him use his active stick to break up a potential goal and clear the crease.
All-in-all, in our early views on him, his defensive prowess as a young defenceman is marked by a well-rounded skill set.
While you will see a few mistakes here in there, perhaps with a bobbled puck, or a failed outlet, his play is sound and relatively mistake-free.
His exceptional skating, active stick work, and impressive defensive awareness are all just a part of an all-around package that is offering very promising habits as he adjusts to the new climate on North American ice surface.

What about the offence?

In this game, Willander didn’t get many high-quality scoring chances, despite registering four shots on the net.
Of course, as we saw from his debut game where he grabbed his first NCAA goal, the kid can rip it.
Much like we saw from his defensive game, most of his offensive success stems from incredible edge work and mobility.
Picture Quinn Hughes, who’s able to make quick cuts and shimmy shakes to open up lanes to fool defenders and eventually maneuver around.
Well, he’s a bit of a 2.0 version. The right-handed version.
If there was one clip from this particular game, it’s probably this one. Here, you’ll see him make a quick punch back, takes a bump, and still manages to thread a pass.
 
Speaking of passing, Willander does a great job at keeping his head up, scanning the ice, and making quick and strong passes.
Being able to scan the play beforehand will be a strong asset as he jumps up the ranks, as transition and breakouts are one of the more crucial “must haves” to cut it at the NHL level- and he’s got it.
Here are some crisp plays he made, mostly from the man advantage.
In other games, we have seen strong transition outlets and good skating shifts, which will be featured in future installments.
As far as shooting goes, he has an accurate shot that he can snap off quick. His ability to get pucks through traffic is probably what’s most encouraging, as he knows when to take the extra second, or make the subtle pump to out wait defenders.
As mentioned, he did have four shots in this game, all on the man-advantage.
Just to give you an idea of what he can do, here they are.
 
Overall, although just a few weeks into our viewings, Willander is giving off very impressive vibes.
Yes, we started with the crème of the crop, and things are not always to be this positive.
However, so far, there just have not been many areas of his game that have stood out as concerning. He really just seems to be “pretty good” in most areas, and elite within the skating department.
With just three points over five games, his point production has yet to show its face, which, has actually been the one factor keeping him from ranking as a top-paired upside prospect.
However, as you can over these clips, he is providing much more substance than production and is displaying good habits and a very solid foundation to become a future NHL’er.
If he can find a way to start making these plays count and tack on point production to his repertoire…
Fans should get premium views on him over the holidays, as he is essentially a shoo-in to rack up minutes with the national team, as Team Sweden is set to host this year’s World Junior Championships. If his early Collegiate debut is any indication, he should be a top-performing defender.
Please let us know if you’d like to see more of these articles in the comments. If you took something from it, we will be continuing on, delivering a new prospect each week!

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