Top 25 Under 25, no. 20: Mikael Wikstrand
Perhaps one of the more surprising names to crack this list comes in at the twentieth spot: Swedish defenceman Mikael Wikstrand. The Mora defender is playing in Sweden's second-tier Allsvenskan league, but looks to challenge for a roster spot in years to come.
At the beginning of the season, if you told me Mikael Vikstrand was going to make this list, you probably could have forgiven me for being skeptical. No disrespect to the seventh round Swedish prospect, but Ottawa's system is well-stocked with talent, most of whom were much earlier draft picks and much further along in their development. Indeed, there are some players who may lace up the skates for the Senators some day and yet do not figure into this list of Top 25 Under 25. So, again, had someone with remarkable foresight told me Vikstrand would find a spot on this ranking, I would have suppressed my skepticism to remark, "well then. I guess something happens."
That "something" came in the form of an eye-catching offensive tear to start off the season. To be sure, before this season, it would have been hard to imagine Wikstrand serving as a significant offensive contributor from the blueline. Pardon this shallow analysis, but I haven't been a Wikstrand disciple for more than the past few months, and I don't watch enough (read: any) junior hockey in Sweden to speak beyond what his stat line tells me. Before this season, the only season in which Wikstrand was remotely close to a point-per-game number was when he was playing for Mora's Junior 18 team and put up 17 points in as many games. In just about every other season, his numbers have not indicated much offensive acumen. There are a few potential explanations, the most obvious of which speaks to a jump in ice time and responsibility. Last season, playing for Mora in the second-tier Swedish league, Allsvenskan, Wikstrand's production was exactly one helper through twenty games. This year, he put up thirty-two points in forty-four games. It seems like a stretch to say that Wikstrand suddenly found his offensive game. It's more reasonable to think he earned a higher spot on the team's depth chart and, in turn, more ice time and better linemates. Definitely better linemates.
Anze Kopitar joined Mora for the duration of the lockout and Bobby Ryan arrived later in the season, though much of Wikstrand's output came before Ryan joined the squad. Wikstrand's early season flurry caught our attention, and I penned a piece about it back in late October. Thanks to some good work by Steffe G over at The 6th Sens, I was able to glean this as a means of explaining his meteoric rise:
In short, Wikstrand was a rookie on a fairly veteran team that failed to qualify for the promotion playoffs to Sweden's Elite League, Elitserien. As a result, there was a possibility of upward mobility for the Swedish youngster after an unspectacular year of 3 points through 47 games.
This year, the team is made up of a large number of young players, with more players born in the '90s and only two who are over thirty. Though a 1993 birthday, Wikstrand is not the youngest player on the team and he also comes with a rookie season under his belt.
Is Mikael Wikstrand in contention for a roster spot? Probably not in the next two seasons, but he's certainly strengthened his case in years to come. It is to his credit that scouts don't see him solely as an offensive threat. Rather, his dependable defensive play and decent first pass earn him credence as an NHL prospect. That he can prosper playing with professionals like Kopitar and Ryan speaks well for his future. There will always be room for a player who can hold their own at both ends of the ice, mobile in the offensive zone with a nose for the right places on the ice (half of his points are goals) and common sense play inside their own blueline.
Though different styles of player, Wikstrand is reminiscent of Fredrik Claesson last year: a relative unknown late-round pick (Claesson was taken in the fifth) whose play following their draft year picked up noticeably. Indeed, both players plied their trade for Sweden at the WJC- Claesson last year, while Wikstrand played for the silver medal-winning team in Ufa. Claesson is playing in Binghamton. Wikstrand is a project, with a ways to go in his development, but his well-earned spot on this list speaks to the hope many have that he will be a part of this team in years to come.