It seems exceedingly likely that Alex Edler, the Canucks’ all-time leading scorer among defencemen, will no longer be with the Canucks next season.
Edler’s likely departure, combined with the draft coming up in less than a week, is a good reminder that top-pairing defencemen can be found outside the first round. Edler was drafted in the third round in 2004 with the 91st overall pick. In his draft year, he split time between the SuperElit junior league in Sweden and the third tier professional league, Hockeyettan, which Dave Nonis, the Canucks GM at the time, called “a glorified beer league.”
Edler wasn’t ranked by Central Scouting and few scouts bothered to even go to Hockeyettan games, but Detroit Red Wings scout Hakan Andersson got a tip and checked him out. Then Gradin got word from a friend that he should check out Edler and he made the trek out to Ostersund, a four-and-a-half hour train ride, to see him.
Teams don’t normally draft a player that just one scout has seen just one time. They definitely don’t trade for a pick to draft a player that the rest of their scouting staff have never seen. But that’s exactly what Dave Nonis did, trading a third-round pick in 2005 for the 91st pick in 2004, six picks ahead of where the Red Wings were set to take Edler themselves.
With just one viewing, Gradin found the best defenceman in Canucks history. That’s a reputation-making find for any scout and Gradin has earned a lot of respect throughout the Canucks’ fanbase for his scouting prowess.
It makes me wonder how Gradin would view Philip Broberg if he saw him play just one game.
Broberg is one of the most divisive prospects in the 2019 draft. Some rankings have him as a clear top-ten talent, the obvious second-best defenceman in the draft behind the Vancouver Giants’ Bowen Byram. Others barely have him in the first round.
The pros of Broberg’s game are immediately apparent, which makes the “one game” question so intriguing. If you only saw Broberg once, his eye-catching skillset might blow you away. Broberg has good size at 6’3” and 200 lbs, but is also an elite skater. Broberg drives up the ice with powerful strides, and matches that power and north-south speed with fantastic lateral mobility.
That size and skating make him a nightmare to deal with in transition, as he loves to jump up in the rush and drive wide around defenders, cutting to the net like a power forward. At the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in 2018, he built a highlight reel out of madcap dashes up the ice and finished with 3 goals and 4 points in 5 games.
At the Under-18 World Championships, Broberg was again all over the ice for Sweden, leading them to the gold medal with 6 points in 7 games. He was named Best Defenceman at the tournament and likely greatly helped his draft stock after a middling Allsvenskan season, where he had just 9 points in 41 games.
Broberg’s elite skating helps defensively as well, as he closes gaps in a hurry and uses his length to make pokechecks and close off passing lanes. He’s sound positionally in the defensive zone, quickly adjusting to opponents and getting in shooting lanes. When it comes to puck retrieval, his speed means he almost always first to the puck on dump-ins, and he can accelerate away from forecheckers to create a clean zone exit.
Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting, calls Broberg the complete package, saying “He's a highly competitive prospect who is smart, composed and quick in making plays, and also responsible, playing big minutes in all situations.”
Corey Pronman, who has Broberg ranked ninth overall, sees a future top-pairing defenceman when he watches him play. “He’s right up there with Jack hughes as the best pure skater in this draft class,” he says in his profile on Broberg.
“[Broberg] has exceptional skating ability and exceptional command of the game in every single regard,” says Craig Button. “Everything about his game screams top pair defenceman, if not a number one defenceman in the NHL.”
Broberg landed seventh overall on Button’s final rankings, and there are a lot of people who think Broberg won’t even be an option for the Canucks at tenth overall; he’ll have already been picked by the likes of the Edmonton Oilers or Anaheim Ducks. If he does make it to tenth, would he make sense for the Canucks?
This would be a good time to hear from Broberg’s detractors: those who don’t see him as a top-ten pick, but a player better-suited for later in the first round. There seems to be a consensus among this group: while Broberg has elite talent, particularly in his skating, he’s let down by a lack of hockey sense.
Hockey Prospect, which has him at 21st, points out that Broberg can be predictable offensively, trying “to make the same play over and over, even though it hasn’t been successful.” Future Considerations agrees, noting that “opponents quickly learn his predictable patterns when defending.”
That can be connected to his lack of vision as he skates up ice. Jeremy Davis at NextGen Hockey points out how Broberg frequently stares straight ahead while driving up the ice, rarely looking around at his options.
“As a result, he seems to be unaware of where his teammates are, and is constantly either trying to do things all by himself or else throwing the puck into areas where he’s hoping a teammate will be (but they frequently aren’t),” says Davis.
“I think that awareness and decision making are among the hardest things to instill in players, which is why I remain skeptical about his overall upside,” says Davis later in his Broberg profile. “I wouldn’t be taking a chance on Broberg until at least the mid-teen’s, or possibly in the early 20’s.”
More than one scout quoted by Hockey Prospect describes Broberg as playing “with blinders,” because of his lack of vision. Another scout I spoke to called him the defenceman version of Jake Virtanen, who also impressed with his size, power, and speed in his draft year, but hasn’t come into his own at the NHL level because of his lack of vision and hockey sense.
J.D. Burke at Elite Prospects is blunt in his assessment of Broberg, who he has ranked 29th overall: “Broberg might have the worst hockey sense of any of the top defensive prospects in this year’s draft.”
Too often, Broberg’s thrilling rushes up the ice result in him getting angled into the corner by a defenceman or with him throwing the puck towards the net or trying a low-percentage wraparound. He struggles to create much offensively unless it’s off the rush as well: he’s not the best passer, but too often tries to make risky plays that result in turnovers.
His passing issues show up in the defensive zone too. While he's frequently first to the puck, he doesn't always make the best play with the puck once he gets it. If he's not skating the puck out of the zone, he sometimes gets into trouble, making poor decisions with the puck and turning it over.
Defensively, his struggles with hockey sense show up most in the neutral zone, where he has a tendency to gamble with ill-timed pinches or get lost in transition. He has also been criticized for being too passive in the defensive zone and has yet to fully utilize his large frame in puck battles.
Perhaps the issue with Broberg is that scouts have seen him too much and can start to pick out the flaws. Maybe if one scout saw him in just one game like Gradin saw Edler, those flaws wouldn’t be as evident. Of course, that’s why Edler was a third-round pick and Broberg is expected to go high in the first round.
If Broberg figures out the mental side of his game and develops his hockey sense, his elite skating and solid size could make him a high-end top-pairing defenceman, the type of player that every team is desperate to find. The issue is that hockey sense is so difficult to develop.
Should the Canucks take a chance on Broberg figuring it out? They have a huge need on defence and Broberg has a combination of size and speed that you just can’t teach. On the other hand, the question marks surrounding his hockey sense combined with the excellent forwards that will still be available to the Canucks at tenth overall, should mean that Broberg is still on the board after the Canucks make their selection.