There are two drafts taking place this week — the Seattle Kraken expansion draft and the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. In one, the Vancouver Canucks will lose a player; in the other, the Canucks will add a handful of prospects to the organization.
With both drafts in mind, it seems like the right time to look back at one of the most unusual draft stories in NHL history: the guy who was drafted four times.
Well, three-and-a-half. It’s complicated.
Back in 1986, Stefan Nilsson was an up-and-coming young player in Sweden. The young forward had a solid 5 points in 5 games at the European Junior Championships — the precursor to the World Under-18 Championships — and even played a few games in Sweden’s top men’s league, then called the Elitserien.
Accordingly, the Washington Capitals took a chance on Nilsson, selecting him in the sixth round of the 1986 NHL Entry Draft. Unfortunately, the Capitals couldn’t get him signed to a deal, so he went back into the draft two years later in 1988. That’s where things get weird.
Too many Stefan Nilssons
In the 1987-88 season, Nilsson had proven himself in the Elitserien, talling 10 goals and 21 points in 31 games as a 19 year old. That was enough to spark renewed interest in the Swedish centre from NHL teams.
That included the Calgary Flames, who selected Nilsson in the 7th round. It also included the Canucks, who selected Nilsson in the 12th round.
Wait, hold on. You can’t do that. You can’t select a player who has already been picked by another team, which is what the Flames immediately argued to the league. There was just one problem — the Flames had picked the wrong 20-year-old Stefan Nilsson out of the Elitserien.
To add to the confusion, there was a third Stefan Nilsson who was 19 years old and was also available in the 1988 draft. And all three Stefan Nilssons played for Sweden in the 1988 World Junior Championship.
Or should that be Stefans Nilsson?
In any case, it’s no wonder there was confusion. You can picture Flames GM Cliff Fletcher talking to his scouts and asking, “You guys like Stefan Nilsson, right? To be clear, I mean the 20-year-old Stefan Nilsson, not the 19-year-old Stefan Nilsson. Wouldn't want to mess that up!”
That’s how Nilsson was picked twice in the 1988 draft, at least in spirit. We’ll call it one-and-a-half times.
This all could have been avoided if teams had simply called Nilsson by his truly excellent nickname: Skuggan, which translates into English as “The Shadow.” Incredible.
Alas, the “real” Stefan Nilsson never came over to Vancouver to play for the Canucks but his days of being drafted by NHL teams were not yet over.
Expansion draft shenanigans
In the year 2000, two new teams joined the NHL: the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild. To fill out their rosters, the NHL held an expansion draft just as they are for the Seattle Kraken. The biggest difference, however, is the number of players that teams could protect.
For the Kraken expansion draft, teams can protect seven forwards, three defencemen, and a goaltender or eight skaters at any position and a goaltender. Even with that limited protection list, the Canucks are unlikely to lose a valuable player. Either the Kraken take a forward with limited upside like Kole Lind or Zack MacEwen, or they take goaltender Braden Holtby, providing the Canucks with some salary cap relief.
In 2000, however, teams could protect up to 15 players: nine forwards, five defencemen, and one goaltender. They could even protect two goaltenders and still protect seven forwards and three defencemen.
It wasn’t even just one team selecting from the dregs that remained but two. There were few decent players to pick from and certainly no stars. Still, the two teams had to take someone.
The first player the Canucks lost was Darby Hendrickson to the Minnesota Wild. Hendrickson was born in Minnesota and served as one of the Wild’s first alternate captains. He was legitimately one of the best players to come out of the 2000 expansion draft and he had spent 20 games in the AHL the previous season.
The second Canucks player selected in the 2000 expansion draft was none other than Stefan Nilsson.
Minnesota Wild legend Stefan Nilsson
The Canucks still held Nilsson’s rights from drafting him in 1988. Just like now with Russian players, teams held the rights for European draftees indefinitely, as there was no transfer agreement between the NHL and those leagues at the time.
Nilsson had proven that he was the best of the three Stefan Nilssons, going on to a long career with Luleå in the Elitserien and serving as their captain for six seasons. He even captained Sweden to a silver medal in the 1997 World Championship, one of three years he represented Sweden at the tournament.
In 2000, however, Nilsson was already 32 and there was no chance he was going to come over to the NHL. He hadn’t even played in the Elitserien for two seasons, instead spending a couple years in Austria and Switzerland before later making his triumphant return to Luleå.
Why did the Wild pick Nilsson? Was it a mistake like the Flames had made in 1988? Did they mean to pick someone else?
It wasn’t that at all. It was about money. Nearing the end of the expansion draft, the Blue Jackets and Wild had picked everyone they actually wanted, but they were required to take two players from every team. At that point, they just wanted players who they wouldn’t have to pay.
So, the Wild picked Nilsson, knowing that he wouldn’t cost them any money.
It was no great loss for the Canucks. Brian Burke, then-GM of the Canucks, deadpanned, "We've put chicken wiire over the hotel windows to stop anyone from throwing themselves out," about the prospect of losing Nilsson.
It was, however, a missed opportunity for the Wild. While the Canucks hadn’t left many decent players exposed, a 23-year-old Brent Sopel was available. He certainly could have helped the Wild’s blue line in the years to come.
Of course, the biggest miss for both the Blue Jackets and the Wild was Martin St. Louis. The future Hart and two-time Art Ross winner was left exposed by the Calgary Flames, but had yet to break out as an offensive dynamo at the age of 24. Neither expansion team picked St. Louis and the Flames instead bought out his contract, leaving him free to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
As for Nilsson, he never played a game for the Capitals, Flames, Canucks, or Wild. He eventually retired with Luleå in 2004 but returned again to the club as a coach in 2012. He is currently Luleå’s general manager and had his number 4 retired by the team in 2015.