Who is the best defenceman in Vancouver Canucks’ history?
It’s a tough question to answer because the Canucks have arguably never had a true number one defenceman at any point. Even the 2010-11 team, the best team the Canucks have ever iced, had a cadre of four or five number-two defencemen making up the core of their defence.
Two players, however, are sure too come up in any discussion of the Canucks’ top defenceman of all-time: the two big Swedes, Mattias Ohlund and Alex Edler.
The two Swedes are first and second in both all-time goals and points from a Canucks defenceman, but are known for more than just putting up points, with well-rounded defensive games that saw them used in all situations.
The Canucks could really use more size on defence without sacrificing speed and skill, much like they had when Ohlund and Edler were in their primes. Enter the top Swedish defenceman in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft: Simon Edvinsson.
There are a wide array of opinions on Edvinsson heading into the draft. He ranks as high as second overall by Ryan Kennedy at The Hockey News to as low as 14th overall by independent scouting service Recruit Scouting. He's even earned comparisons to Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Edvinssson as a top-five pick, but would be equally unsurprising to see him slide down and be available for the Canucks to pick at ninth overall.
If he’s available, would Edvinsson by the right pick for the Canucks? Could he be a potential Edler replacement for the Canucks in the future? Is it strange that Swedish defencemen are only compared to other Swedish defencemen? Let’s take a closer look.
Simon Edvinsson by the numbers
The first numbers that jump out in regards to Edvinsson are 6 and 5. Those numbers are in his height — Edvinsson is a 6’5”, 207 lbs left-shot defenceman. Even as the NHL has gotten bigger in the modern era, that type of size still stands out.
The next number that stands out is 10, as in the number of games Edvinsson played in the SHL this season. It may not seem like much, but even getting 10 games in the SHL is a good sign for a defenceman who just turned 18 in February.
Of course, it’s more like he played just three games in the SHL, as he only crept over 10 minutes in ice time three times last season, but only five first-time draft-eligible defencemen played any games at all in the SHL last season.
Edvinsson only tallied one assist in those games in the SHL and it seems apparent in the games he spent in the Allsvenskan and Under-20 leagues that offence isn’t necessarily going to be the biggest strength of his game. He had 6 points in 15 games in the junior Nationell league, for instance, where he might have been expected to rack up more points against his fellow teenagers.
Likewise, he had just 4 points in 7 games in the World Under-18 Championship, a far cry from the point-per-game production of fellow top prospect Brandt Clarke, though still respectable.
Still, Edvinsson’s relative lack of production isn’t a huge red flag. Even Erik Karlsson had just one point in 7 games in the SHL in his draft year, though he certainly produced more in other leagues. What makes Edvinsson stand out is his impressive array of tools to go with his size.
“He’s already an elite NHL skater.”
All the size in the world doesn’t mean much in hockey if a player’s skates are full of cement. Fortunately, that’s not the case for Edvinsson, who is a superb skater.
“He’s already an elite NHL skater and he’s only going to become that much better with maturity and strength,” said TSN’s Craig Button on the Tracking the Draft podcast. “Forwards, backwards, pivoting, the ability to pick up the pace of the game and beat pressure in his own zone — he’s outstanding in that regard. I think he’s the best skater in the draft.”
That’s high praise for any prospect, let alone a 6’5” defenceman. Edvinsson has high-end skating ability and the willingness to use it to attack in transition, making for thrilling rushes up the ice, especially when he combines that speed with his excellent puckhandling skills.
“Edvinsson is most effective carrying the puck out of the zone,” said Elite Prospects’ David St-Louis. “He’s uniquely agile for a 6-foot-5 defender, weaponizing fakes, look-offs, hesitations, heel turns, and pushes to dart past hapless forecheckers. He manoeuvres with the puck kept in his hip pocket, with his top hand in control, free from his body.”
When you see that puck-rushing ability, it’s easy to instantly label him a swashbuckling offensive defenceman, but that doesn’t jibe with his point totals at all. In fact, despite his superb hands and top-flight skating, Edvinsson is arguably a much better defensive defenceman than he is an offensive one.
“He defends extremely well.”
Edvinsson uses his impressive skating ability to close gaps defensively, aided by his long reach. He also has a physical edge to his game, erasing opposing players along the boards and winning puck battles down low.
“Edvinsson is a detailed defender with high-level in-zone instincts, a tight neutral zone gap, well-timed physicality, and supporting instincts to match,” said St-Louis.
“He defends extremely well, especially on the rush using his reach,” said Elite Prospects scout Jimmy Hamrlin.
“Edvinsson will get into the greasy areas if he needs to try to grind down play,” said prospect analyst Will Scouch. “I think the older he gets, with more and more strength training, I think he’s going to be a very solid defensive player down the road.”
There are still some defensive lapses in Edvinsson’s game, however. When the play breaks down, sometimes Edvinsson has trouble identifying where to go and who to cover, as in the below play that resulted in a goal against. While his teammate could have covered for him, Edvinsson never even shoulder checked to identify the danger.
“Edvinsson also was overly puck focused in his defence, not realizing when teammates drifted out of position and he had to cover,” said St-Louis in one game report from the U18s. “He can’t really repair the mistakes of others right now.”
Still, his overall defensive game is very projectable to the NHL, with a willingness to use his size to his advantage in front of the net and along the boards. The question is whether Edvinsson can be more than just a solid defensive defenceman. Does he have more to give offensively?
“I don’t think he’s going to be a top-end offensive player.”
While Edvinsson is dynamic rushing the puck through the neutral zone, once those rushes hit the offensive zone he has a tendency to get funneled towards the boards, ending any threat off the rush. In the offensive zone, Edvinsson is good at holding the blue line and pinching down the boards, but he lacks a strong shot, which is a bit surprising given his size and how much leverage he can potentially have on his stick.
Even Button, who is higher on Edvinsson than many others, is clear that he’s unlikely to produce a lot of points in the future.
“In the offensive zone, I don’t think he’s going to be a top-end offensive player, I don’t think he’s got those qualities,” said Button. “But because he can hold the line, because of the confidence and the skating, and because he can jump into the attack and keep the play alive in the offensive zone, that’s going to allow whoever has him on their team to be able to keep the offensive thrust, to keep the play going in the offensive zone.
“It’s not going to show up in points or a big, booming shot, but it’s going to show up in really good play.”
Because of his size and skating, Button compared Edvinsson to a less-offensive Seth Jones or a late-career Jay Bouwmeester, when the offence waned but he settled into a more defensive role.
The bigger issue, however, is Edvinsson’s passing and puck decisions. That aspect might be enough to knock him several notches down the draft board for NHL teams picking ahead of the Canucks in the first round.
“The passing decisions. Oh my goodness, the passing decisions.”
When Edvinsson is skating the puck through the neutral zone, he’s at his best. When he’s passing the puck up ice, however, is another matter entirely.
“The passing decisions. Oh my goodness, the passing decisions,” said Scouch. “The first game I tracked of Edvinsson, he fired 38 pass attempts, which is almost a record...the trouble is that he only completed 23 of those passes and you do not want a player who is labeled as a premiere two-way, puck-moving defenceman taking 159 pass attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 and handing it over to the other team 40% of the time.”
Too often, Edvinsson tries to make a pass through a lane that doesn’t exist or to a player that isn’t there or hangs onto the puck too long and has to just flip the puck out to the neutral zone or dump it in instead of creating a more dangerous rush. Sometimes he seems paralyzed by indecision and doesn't make a pass at all.
It’s part of the reason why he creates so little offence despite his superb skating in transition — he doesn’t find his forwards with the puck in transition, so nothing comes of those dynamic rushes.
With someone who can escape the forecheck as cleanly and easily as Edvinsson, he would typically be exactly the player you want to transition the puck up ice, but right now too many of his touches turn into turnovers.
“Scouts find common ground in lamenting Edvinsson’s mistakes with the puck,” says St-Louis. “It’s a potentially critical flaw in his makeup that could undo an otherwise mighty collection of tools. It’s also a pretty common flaw in players at this stage in their development, the sort of thing an NHL development staff can fix.”
That’s the biggest question mark for Edvinsson. Are his decisions with the puck a fundamental issue that will limit his ability to play dependable minutes at the NHL level or are they something that can be ironed out in development?
“One of the bigger boom-or-bust players in this draft.”
It’s not like Edvinsson always makes poor decisions with the puck and he has the ability to create chances for his teammates when everything works out right — the right passing lane opens up at the right time for him to beat an opponent and slide the pass through. He doesn’t depend on shots from the point, but looks to create shots from more dangerous areas on the ice, which is a positive.
The issue is really consistency. Edvinsson needs to learn when to make that risky pass to create a chance and when to make a safer play. He needs to make decisions more quickly under pressure and learn when he can escape that pressure and when it’s better to make the simple pass early.
“The inconsistency that he shows is so vast that it makes him one of the bigger boom-or-bust players in this draft,” said Scouch. “Honestly, you do not know what you’re getting with Simon Edvinsson on a shift-by-shift basis.”
Still, if he can improve on his flaws, Edvinsson could be a smooth-skating, 6’5”, top-pairing defenceman. Those players don’t come along every day.
“I just love the raw potential that Simon Edvinsson brings to the game,” said Scouch. “If he can learn to pick his decisions with his passing better, fill out his tall frame a little bit more to be stronger on his feet, and continue to work on his skill and forward-skating speed generation, I think he could be an outstanding two-way defender with great metrics at both ends of the ice.”
At the moment, however, Edvinsson is a bit of a high-risk player without the requisite offensive rewards that typically come from those risks.
That risk might be too high for a team picking in the top five. At ninth overall, however, the Canucks could afford to take that big swing. If Edvinsson hits his ceiling, any team that passes on him at the draft is going to be kicking themselves. With his size, skating, and hands, he's about as unique a prospect as there is in the 2021 draft.
Because of that uniqueness, however, he might not last to ninth overall.