Photo Credit – Elvira Holmström
With almost exactly seven months until the NHL draft the race to be number one pick is completely up in the air. It could be several different players, and even when draft day is upon us it seems doubtful at this venture that there will be a clear-cut number one. What is clear-cut, however, is who is the best player in terms of level right now.
Naturally, the NHL draft is not about picking the player who is the best at the moment of the draft, but instead who will be the best 5-10 years down the line. However, while other potential top picks are holding their own in the NCAA, looking good in junior leagues, or struggling to make an impact in pro leagues, the man from Stockholm’s leafy southern outskirts is excelling in the world’s third best league.
The SHL is not an easy place for teenagers to make a name for themselves. It is filled with ex-NHLers, international players, and the cream of Swedish prospects. If a player is simply holding their own in a bottom-line or bottom-pairing role that is often enough to mark them out as a first round talent. Eklund is not just holding his own. Eklund is making an argument for being one of the best forwards in the league. On a team with ex-NHLers Niclas Bergfors, Tom Wandell and Jacob Josefson, as well as top prospects such as Alexander Holtz and Dominik Bokk, it is Eklund who has arguably shone brightest after 22 games.
Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz were both top seven picks in the 2020 NHL draft, and are more than six months older than William Eklund. Neither have been quite as good as him this season.
But it is not just versus his peers and team-mates that Eklund has dazzled. With 0.37 G/GP and 0.74 P/GP so far this season the nimble winger is within touching distance of history. The league was founded in 1975, and in the previous 45 seasons there has only been one draft eligible player who has finished the year with better numbers than Eklund is on pace for.
That man was Daniel Sedin, with 0.84 (42 points in 50 games). The only other men to breach the 0.65 P/GP barrier as a first time draft eligible? Peter Forsberg (0.74) and Henrik Sedin (0.69). That is pretty good company to keep, nestled amongst three Hockey Hall of Famers.
Some might say that Eklund’s start to the year is a flash-in-the-pan. But he has always been good, just slept on before this season. Last year he had 1.16 P/GP in SuperElit/J20 Nationell, and played better hockey than 2020 second round picks Daniel Torgersson and Theodor Niederbach. Zion Nybeck was the only u-18 year old player in the league clearly better. He has also been a stand-out on Sweden’s u-16, u-17 and u-18 teams, despite often being one of the youngest players.
D.O.B – October 12, 2002
Nationality – Sweden
Draft Eligibility – 2021
Height – 5’10
Weight –172 lbs
Position – Left Wing/Center
Handedness – Left
Eklund’s Style Of Play
Now you know how well William Eklund has performed… how about his skill-set?
Skating is more important than ever in today’s NHL. One of the areas that has been criticized about Eklund by many is his ability in that area, especially given his size. It must be said that he is not the fastest skater. However, he is very strong down low, and has good edges and agility. Despite not having blazing speed you will almost never see him caught up ice, or beaten to a puck though. Why? Because he has five feet of ice on virtually everyone else between his ears.
Eklund is the highest IQ player in this draft. He already understands coverages better than most NHL top six forwards. The Stockholm native seems to know what defensemen are going to do before they themselves make a decision. As a result he manages to get completely free around the slot, near the crease, behind the net, and in the circles more often than seems plausible. With the puck on his stick he puts his brain-power to use as well. He turns players inside out regularly on the cycle, not through outrageous moves, but by cutting back on himself at the very moments his marker least expects him to, leaving them out of position and with Eklund free to walk in towards goal.
His vision is also high-end. It is not rare to see him make a pass without so much as looking at his line-mate, and it land flush on tape for a prime scoring chance. Combine this with a beautiful passing touch and he can freeze defenses before they compute what is happening to give line-mates high-end opportunities with regularity.
When it comes to his shot the young Swede relies on an extremely quick release on both his snap-shot and wrister. He does not have the heaviest or most accurate shot, but with the positions he manages to get to almost every shift it is rare that when the puck comes to him he is not in a dangerous shot location. The result this season has been that he leads his team in goals. Now, his 18.9% shooting will almost certainly come down as the year goes on, but this high percentage is also driven by his shot locations.
However, there is certainly room for improvement in his shot selection and execution. He does not always catch his wristers clean, and as a result a higher percentage than you would like either hit skates and shins. Eklund also sometimes fails to lift his shots when he wants to. If he can get stronger, and in turn add more velocity to his shot, and be more consistent when he does shoot, he could certainly be a 30+ goal-scorer at the NHL level… with two-thirds of them coming on tap-ins, deflections and uncontested shots from the slot.
Eklund’s “skill” sometimes gets denigrated. The reason for this? Probably that he is not overly flashy. If Sidney Crosby is the “King of the Grinders” then William Eklund is one of the Princes. His style of play, combined with his high IQ, means that he rarely “needs” to pull a rabbit out of the hat and make a wonder-play. He gets space almost every shift with ease. In turn there is no need to try and deke a defensemen out of their jock. Eklund does have good hand-eye coordination though, and when he needs to can throw a feint or deke to get around a defenseman. He is also very good at tipping pucks in close as well as positioning his blade perfectly for re-directions.
As has been eluded to, an apt nickname for William Eklund would be “Oscar”. Why? Because like his muppet counterpart Mr. Grouch, William loves getting his nose in to the dirty areas. If you let him he would probably set up camp and spend his down-time two feet to the right of the home end goal-post at Hovet Arena. Despite being a smaller player he really does relish mixing it up, both with and without the puck. He will take a hit to make a play as well as engage around the net and along the boards.
His father Christian was a cult hero for Djurgården as a bottom-six winger. William Eklund has inherited his Dad’s heart. He never gives up on a play, even if every-one on ice left it for dead a long time before. As would be expected, therefore, his forechecking is relentless, and he causes turnovers regularly with a very active stick.
Eklund is already a good 200-ft player. He works hard to get back to the defensive zone, and his high IQ is present there too. His skills of perception enable him to be one step ahead of the play. It is not uncommon for him to anticipate a mistake, jump up and create a 2v1 from nothing before the opposition have even lost the puck. He might not be as physical in the defensive zone as he is on the cycle at the other end, but his active stick and eagerness to engage works well for him here too. While not a penalty-killer in the SHL he has been utilised there at the u-20 and u-18 levels.
On the power-play Eklund can either run play from the right half-boards, or get down low near the goal-line and facilitate as well as get to the net-front when needed. In juniors and to start the season, as well as in 5v3 situations, Eklund plays the right side. However, he has been extremely effective this season in the SHL playing a net-front role. He adds his own caveat, where he kicks out regularly to the right goal-line. While only 5’10 this position seems to best suit his skill-set.
For my money Eklund is the best forward in this draft. He might not be a physical freak, or an athletic freak, or a speed freak… but his freak ability is maybe the most important of all. Players like Nicklas Bäckström and Joe Pavelski have been stars in the NHL for years. What makes them so good is what makes Eklund so good. It is their immense hockey IQ’s. While Eklund might “only” end up a good, two-way, 50 point forward it would be no shock if he became a star.
Henrik Zetterberg, C/LW, Retired, Played for Detroit Red Wings
Yes. A very lofty comparison. Don’t expect William Eklund to be as good as the future Hockey Hall of Famer. But he certainly could be a stylistically similar player who is a first liner at the highest level. The similarities start with their amazing ability to get clear air in the offensive zone. Both read the play to a high level. Like Zetterberg did, Eklund loves going to the danger areas, and while not having a truly high-end shot can rack up goals due to his awareness, positioning, and ability to re-direct pucks. As with the long-time Red Wings man, Eklund is a better play-maker than goal-scorer, despite being able to light the lamp. While adept defensively, Eklund does not have the same high-end ability at either 5v5 or the penalty-kill that Zetterberg had. Neither are the fastest skater, but are strong on the puck and agile, with good edges.
stats from InStat and EliteProspects
Prospect report written by Alexander Appleyard. If you would like to follow Alex on Twitter, his handle is @alexappleyard.
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