Top 25 Under 25, #10: Mikael Wikstrand
One of the offseason's most talked about prospects starts off our Top 10 of Sens players under the age of 25.
Another late round gem from the Bryan Murray regime? A player that fits the 'modern NHL'? Another Swedish defenseman? Mikael Wikstrand is all three of these things, and despite whether we see him in North America this year or not, he's going to be an interesting fellow to track this season.
Drafted 196th overall in 2012, Wikstrand (pronounced 'Vik-strand') is a mobile defenseman who's offensive game and defensive skills balance really well. From Sens European scout, Vaclav Burda:
"Offensive guy who can skate and play an all-around game. Has a good chance to play on Swedish national team at (2013) world juniors. Solid kid who can move the puck and make plays. Plays with men and has no problem adjusting his game to the next level. Not a (physical) guy. He's a positional guy who angles people."
When taking players from overseas, the Senators appear to target players who can feature prominently at the World Juniors, which gives the Sens a look at how they can play against the best players of their age group. Since 2011, every European draft pick (Zibanejad, Claesson, Wikstrand, Hogberg, Englund) except Tobias Lindberg has gone on to play in the World Juniors. This year, Andreas Englund and 2015 pick Christian Jaros are locks to be there, with Filip Ahl desperately competing for one of Sweden's forward spots. Given all of this, it's no surprise that Wikstrand has featured prominently on Sweden's U18, U19, and U20 teams, and has performed relatively well. After 5 points in 7 games at the U19 play during his draft year -- something that surely caught the attention of the Senators scouting staff -- Wikstrand put up 4 points in 6 games at the World Juniors, while handling difficult defensive assignments, and ended up being named as one of the Top 3 players on the Silver medal-winning Team Sweden by his coaching staff.
The lockout year was beneficial for Wikstrand's offensive confidence as a whole, as his team, Mora IK, who play in Sweden's second-tier league the Allsvenskan, signed Anze Kopitar and Bobby Ryan. Wikstrand ended up with the second most points among defensemen that year, and his 0.56 PPG was fourth among all U20 players in the league. The 'stacked team' explanation applied to almost everyone in the league, so the fact that Wikstrand was right under first rounders Pontus Aberg, Filip Forsberg, and Alexander Wennberg in points-per-game is a noteworthy fact.
In case that wasn't enough for you, Wikstrand started off 2013-14 in Mora and put up 20 points in 27 games before transferring to Frölunda in the SHL with Swedish World Juniors coach Roger Rönnberg. Rönnberg is clearly a fan of Wikstrand, and played him a ton - a perfect situation for the Ottawa Senators, who want their prospects to get as much ice-time as they can if they're staying over in Europe. Wikstrand responded with a 0.58 PPG clip in 19 games, a mark that was higher than his season total in the Tier-II Allsvenskan a year earlier!
Although you may notice that Wikstrand's point production took a little bit of a hit in his first full SHL season, he was still Frölunda's top player in terms of average ice-time per game, clocking in at around 21 minutes a night. To dig a little deeper into Wikstrand's performance, I reached out to a Swedish hockey analyst who covers the SHL. Although the league doesn't track many of the underlying metrics that are now commonly discussed in the NHL regarding possession, zone entries and exits, and quality of scoring chances, the analyst (who chose to remain anonymous) tracked many of these things manually. Wikstrand led the team in most possession metrics, and although Frölunda had some of the best best possession numbers in the league, there's evidence that Wikstrand was one of the players driving the bus as he grew into a #1 defenseman as a 21 year old player.
What about now?
Where Wikstrand is playing this season has been an interesting storyline to follow over the course of this offseason. Nichols has a really good recap of the situation here, and instead of clipping all of it in this article, I'd implore you to give Nichols a click. Basically, Wikstrand is either going to play:
- 1. in Ottawa by making the team out of training camp. Although the Swedish analyst that I spoke to said that Wikstrand could definitely do this (remember his impressive development camp?), it doesn't look likely with Marc Methot, Patrick Wiercioch, Jared Cowen, Mark Borowiecki, and Chris Phillips all on one-way contracts on the left side. Wikstrand is eventually going to have to push two of Wiercioch, Cowen, and Borowiecki out -- hopefully not the former due to "similar playing style" as you can't ever have too many GOOD defensemen -- because all are under contract or under team control for the next few seasons.
- 2. in Färjestad, Wikstrand's hometown SHL team. The Senators have already loaned him there to play Champions Hockey League group stage games against other top European clubs. From the press release: "Permitting Mikael to play in highly competitive games this early in the year should enable him to come to both our rookie and main training camps with a leg up on some of the players against which he will compete for ice time," said Senators assistant general manager Randy Lee. "Given that we have spent considerable time investing in Mikael’s development, we believe this loan will provide additional benefit to both him and ultimately to the Senators." It could just be me, but Lee sounds a little aggressive there, doesn't he? Almost like he's saying, "Look Mikael, we get that you want to play for your hometown team. Here's a chance to do so, but we expect you in North America after that. Peace." It's also interesting that Wikstrand transferred from such a fantastic opportunity over in Frölunda, but it does appear that the answer is as simple as 'I wanted to play close to home before leaving for the NHL.' If Wikstrand does end up with Färjestad, it'll be interesting to see how he does relative to last season's stellar performance.
- 3. in Binghamton, where Wikstrand would spend a couple months or a whole season getting acclimated to the North American game. Wikstrand may need to do this just to get rid of the "entitled European prospect" stereotype, but also because of Ottawa's one-way contract problem discussed a bit earlier. John Klingberg, a player who's a year older than Wikstrand, has actually followed a really similar career path in terms of production, international success, and transition to North America. Klingberg only needed a handful of games in Texas before lighting up the NHL last season. Yes, Klingberg's offensive skills are greater than Wikstrand's, hence why one is a second round pick and one is a seventh rounder, but it's a very interesting comparison nonetheless. Wikstrand would join the great rookie class of Nick Paul, Tobias Lindberg, and Ben Harpur, making Jeff's Binghamton coverage even more of a must-read.
After being named the Senators second-best prospect by Corey Pronman of ESPN Insider, and being called one of the best defensemen not in North America by Pierre Dorion, Wikstrand is certainly one of the high profile prospects to track this upcoming season. A blend of offensive skill, skating ability, and smart defensive play is an attractive package for a 6'2, 196lb defender -- here's hoping he's as good as advertised.
Thanks for reading.