Photo credit:Photo courtesy Rögle BK
There’s a very real possibility that the Canucks’ will draft RD Tom Willander
8 months ago
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Welcome back to our series here at CanucksArmy where we examine players who could be available for the Vancouver Canucks with the 11th pick in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.
We’ve previously broken down Swedish right-shot defenceman Axel Sandin Pellikka; last season’s youngest NCAA player, BC’s own, Matthew Wood; Bo Horvat comparable, Slovakian centre Dalibor Dvorský; draft long shot Matvei Michkov; OHLer Calum Ritchie; the fastest skater of the draft, USNTDP centre Oliver Moore; Russian LD Dmitri Simashev; Canuck favourite David Reinbacher; number one OHL pick Quentin Musty, and Brandon Wheat King captain Nate Danielson. Today, we’ll be looking at draft “riser” RD Tom Willander: another player the Canucks took out to dinner during the NHL combine.
Tom Willander, who will undoubtedly get mistaken for William Nylander at some point, is a right-handed defenceman for Rögle BK J20 in Sweden’s junior-hockey league, J20 Nationell. In 39 games this season, Willander put up 25 points (4 G, 31 A) in 39 games. He also slotted in for two games with Rögle BK, a pro team a part of the SHL, but didn’t record a point.
The Stockholm, Sweden defenceman impressed this season in international competition: winning silver at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, bronze at the World Junior A Challenge and a spot on the tournament’s All-Star team, and a silver medal at the U18 World Junior Championships, where he had the most goals (3) fot a defenseman. Willander’s very familiar with two players also floating around that 11th spot for the Canucks: defenceman Axel-Sandin Pellikka, who he played with for team Sweden, and Slovakian centre Dalibor Dvorsky, who he played with for three seasons from 2018–2022.
Although playing exclusively in Sweden, Willander actually represented Canada, more specifically, Alberta, at the Brick Hockey tournament for the most skilled nine and 10-year-olds: what a fun little factoid! He’ll also be trading in his time in Sweden to play for Boston University next season in the NCAA. When’s the last time you remember a Swedish defenceman switching over to the NCAA after years of playing only in Sweden? In a media interview during the NHL combine, he said the teammates he’s most looking forward to playing with were 2022 Montreal Canadien draft pick Lane Hutson, and Macklin Celebrini, next year’s supposed number one selection. In that same interview, he said he was interviewed by 30 NHL teams and was asked by Montreal what animal he is. To that, he said a wolf.
What the scouts are saying
Craig Button, TSN: “Tom Willander equals robust. That’s the way he plays the game. He does that in every single area of the game: defensively around his net, and certainly offensively. When I watch Tom Willander play, I see kind of a combination of Charlie McAvoy, Rasmus Andersson. Maybe not high-end offensive ability, but the ability to contribute in an elite fashion in every single area of the game. Those types of players drive play on your backend.”
Harman Dayal, The Athletic: “You can understand why Willander’s two-way skill set as a right-shot defender could appeal to the Canucks. He doesn’t have the highest upside as he lacks dynamic skill, playmaking and creativity, but it’s difficult to find RD that can skate, defend hard and move pucks well while also boasting above-average size, which will make him a coveted player.”
Lassi Alanen, Elite Prospects: “Some missed passing plays, lacking accuracy under pressure, but the raw skating ability was enough for him to create off the rush against weaker competition. A couple of really impressive moments of edgework near the point, too. At the moment, he doesn’t quite have the sense or the instincts to take full advantage of the tools, but with the right development staff, it should be teachable to a level where he can play in the NHL. The defensive projection remains a top-4 worthy given the skating, the physicality and the motor.”
David St-Louis, Elite Prospects: “It’s Willander’s motor that is his greatest asset. He’s hyper-energetic, hyper-pacey. He breaks the opposition through his work rate and mobility — by moving his feet so quickly that they can’t keep up. It’s not a translatable recipe, however. Willander will need to develop better offensive instincts. He makes the right plays, but it’s just that the base of his offensive game is using his tools to create an advantage and then find a way to leverage.”
Rankings (per Elite Prospects)
Not everyone is quite as keen on Willander as Craig Button is, clearly. Even scouts that have Willander as a first-round selection agree that he’s not a top 10 selection and is much closer to the top 20, and then some. While there are discrepancies there, nearly half of scouts don’t think Willander is a first-round selection at all. But as we know, scouts don’t necessarily represent how a team feels about a player, and it’s well known that the Canucks really like Willander, which doesn’t come as a surprise since the Canucks have drafted quite a few European-born players in the first round as of late, including last year’s selection.
Tom Willander is a great defenceman, but he’s not a Quinn Hughes. That’s not or good bad thing, per se, but he’s not going to generate the same sense of offence as a Quinn Hughes-type player, and he doesn’t have the instincts to craft plays on the fly. Willander doesn’t really shoot at all, he’s looking to make a play for his team. Set them up, gain control and possession of the puck at the top of the point, and dish to the flanks. His passes under pressure aren’t great, and that reflects in his statistics.
However, Willander has the skills to develop into a more offensive player. I don’t think his bar will ever lean more toward offensive than defence, but he certainly has all the workable skills necessary to mold that aspect of his game. He’s got a fantastic motor and great skating. Willander just has to move outside of making the simple, conservative plays of passing it off to his partners or quickly moving it to his forwards for them to start the breakout, when he is more than capable, with his skating, to do that on his own. Defensively, he takes control. He’s smart, he’s rangy, he’s physically strong at 6’1, 179 lbs, and will get stronger the more weight he puts on, and he gaps up well. Scouts want to see the same sort of awareness and instincts he showcases on defence to appear on the other half of the ice.
Playing in the NCAA may bring these attributes out of him or will keep him static at the point if he defers to those high-skilled forwards like Hutson and Celebrini to work their magic on the ice. For the sake of his own improvement, he will need to be more than just the feeder for these guys in the defensive zone. He’s got to find them in their sweet spots and evade pressure to create space for them out there because they’ll be mobbed by attackers. But before the Canucks can see what he’ll make out of the NCAA, they have to decide if he’s who they want come June 28. And there’s a very real chance that he is.
What would your reaction be if the Canucks drafted Tom Willander? Let us know in the comments below
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