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Swedish shutdown defender Tom Willander could be a low-risk first-round pick

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Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Pike
1 year ago
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In recent memory, the Calgary Flames have done a lot of strong work drafting Swedish defencemen. Heck, in 2015 they drafted a pair of them – Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington – that have emerged as really quality players for their hockey club.
18-year-old Swede Tom Willander is a defensive whiz kid whose offensive game is a work in progress, but whose shutdown skills could make him an attractive, relatively low-risk proposition in the first round of the 2023 NHL Draft.

Scouting report

A product of Stockholm, Sweden, Willander is a February 2005 birthday. He’s a right shot defenceman listed at 6’1″ and 179 pounds.
Willander bounced around a little bit. He played his minor hockey in the Saltsjöbadens IF system, then played a spell with Flemingsbergs IK, then spent his 15 and 16-year-old seasons with AIK before joining Rögle BK for his 17-year-old, draft-eligible season in 2022-23. (And even during 2022-23, he bounced around a bunch.)
Writing prior to the men’s Under-18 World Championships, Dobber Prospects’ Alexa Potack had this assessment:
Defense is Willander’s best asset, but success on the power play helped him become Rögle’s highest-scoring defenseman in the J20 Nationell this season. He reads the rush well, rarely gets caught out of position, and knows how to utilize his reach. He isn’t a particularly flashy player but he can effectively support or lead in every zone. Offensive play is not Willander’s strength, but he contributes by locating and reaching pass options and creating space. The U18s will be a great environment for Willander to demonstrate his reliable capabilities on a larger stage.
As part of Smaht Scouting’s rankings, SpokedZ had this rundown:
Tom Willander is a big, mobile, right shot defenseman playing for Rögle BK. He’s a very intelligent defenseman who uses his high-end mobility to evade forechecking pressure and make life easy for teammates with a successful first pass. He’s solid defensively both in-zone and against the rush, and he plays a conservative style that enables him to play relatively mistake free hockey. That conservative style is effective in his own end, but it also limits his projection from an offensive standpoint. He oftentimes will rely on hopeful shots from the point instead of experimenting with the tools in his arsenal, ultimately hindering his ability to be an offensive threat on a consistent basis. I’d like to see Willander occasionally step outside of his comfort zone and add a layer of unpredictability in his offensive game.
Willander feels like a “safe” pick. He’s got size, mobility, and the defensive acumen that suggests that he can probably translate what makes his game work at the Swedish junior level to the North American game. The big question – and the one that probably determines if he’s a first-rounder on a particular club’s draft list – is whether he can continue to develop his offensive game and become more comfortable taking risks with the puck.

The numbers

Willander played hockey in a lot of places in 2022-23.
He played two games for Rögle BK’s SHL team, registering zero points, and he suited up for one Champions League game, too, also with zero points.
Willander spent most of his season with Rögle’s junior team in the J20 Nationell. He had four goals and 21 assists in 39 games in that circuit. His 25 points placed him 19th among all under-18 players in the J20 circuit, and third among under-18 defencemen. (He also played two games for Rögle’s under-18 team and had two points.)
Internationally, he represented Sweden at three events: the men’s Under-18 Worlds (eight points in seven games, silver medal), the Hlinka Gretzky Cup (two points in five games, silver medal) and the World Junior A Challenge (four points in six games, bronze medal). He led the men’s Under-18 Worlds in goals by a blueliner.

Availability and fit

The Flames are lean on high-end defenders in their system, and a responsible, puck moving Swedish defender that can play a defensive role in his sleep seems like a really good fit. (As a bonus, he’s a right shot.) The Flames’ level of enthusiasm for Willander likely depends on how confident they are that they can coax him out of his offensive shell, so to speak.
Based on the scouting consensus, Willander is probably available in the second half of the first round but also wouldn’t be perceived as too much of a reach if selected at 16th overall. He’s ranked 15th by Corey Pronman, 18th by Sportsnet, 23rd by McKeen’s, 27th by Scott Wheeler and 30th by Daily Faceoff. (He’s outside the first round on FC Hockey’s rankings, though.)

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