The Canucks gave fans a glimpse behind the scenes heading into the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, showing some clips of their scouting meetings and interviews with Director of Amateur Scouting Judd Brackett and Assistant GM John Weisbrod. In that video, Brackett and Weisbrod repeatedly emphasized that their philosophy at the draft is to take the best player available, as opposed to drafting for need.
At the same time, Brackett suggested that in an ideal world, the best player available would directly fit a significant need.
“I think we focus mostly on best available,” he said, “and at times maybe that intersects. When we look back at last year, for us Quinn [Hughes] was best available and also biggest need. When we can make those intersect, it’s great, but I think we’re focused on trying to find the best available at ten.”
In the 2019 draft, will the best player available once again intersect with the Canucks’ biggest need?
While the Canucks’ needs are many, one of the biggest is on the right side on defence. With Chris Tanev aging before our eyes like he chose the wrong grail, the Canucks badly need a future top-pairing right-hand defenceman. Troy Stecher seems like a solid second-pairing guy and Jett Woo showed a lot of promise in the WHL this past season, but the rest of the right-side depth for the Canucks are veteran 6th and 7th defencemen (Alex Biega, Luke Schenn), long shots (Jalen Chatfield, Mitch Eliot), or wild cards (Brogan Rafferty). It’s hard to see a top-pairing defenceman among them.
The Canucks could try to fill this need with a big free-agent signing or trading for a young reclamation project, but their best bet long-term is to find someone in the draft with a ceiling of a top-pairing defenceman. That someone could be Victor Soderstrom.
Soderstrom ticks a ton of boxes for the Canucks. He’s Swedish, which doesn’t hurt. He’s a right-handed defenceman, which directly fits their biggest need. With his calm, polished defensive game, it’s easy to see him fitting alongside an offensive defenceman like Quinn Hughes, though Soderstrom is no slouch offensively himself.
A scout quoted in The Hockey News, which has Soderstrom ranked 12th overall, said, “This was supposed to be a transitional year for him in the pros, but he has played tougher minutes than expected. He’s going to make some team look good.”
Even playing in the SHL as a 17 year old, let alone a 17-year-old defenceman, is a sign that a player is likely to be a very good in the NHL. But Soderstrom didn’t just play in the SHL: he averaged the most minutes of any junior-aged player.
Soderstrom averaged 17:06 per game for Brynas, playing a regular shift on the second pairing and quarterbacking their second power play unit. The next highest ice time for a junior-aged defender was Philadelphia Flyers prospect Adam Ginning, who averaged 15:55 per game and is over a year older than Soderstrom.
In fact, Soderstrom had several games where he played over 20 minutes, with a high of 23:07 in a game in January, over a month before his 18th birthday.
That’s remarkable, though it doesn’t quite reach the minutes of top Swedish defencemen in recent history, like Victor Hedman, who averaged 21:16 per game in his draft year, or Rasmus Dahlin, who averaged 19:02. It still seems very meaningful, particularly when you consider why Soderstrom was trusted with those minutes.
Simply put, Soderstrom is trustworthy.
“He can look like a 35-year-old veteran on the ice at times, making excellent decisions and he rarely puts himself or his team mates in bad situations with the puck,” says Christoffer Hedlund of Elite Prospects. “He seems to always have a clever solution to the situation he is in and will stay calm and composed in the most stressful situations.”
“Soderstrom is the modern-day defensive defenceman,” reads his scouting report from Jeremy Davis at NextGen Hockey. “Soderstrom excels with high-end processing, excellent positioning, timely stick checking and quick bursts of speed on loose pucks.”
Despite his smaller frame at 5’11”, Soderstrom regularly wins puck battles, using his lower centre of gravity to stay strong on his skates and come out with the puck against larger players. He’s a tough, physical player for his size and his defensive game should easily translate to the NHL. His active stick and strong positioning make him an effective penalty killer as well.
That mature defensive game sets him apart from a lot of the other defencemen in the draft and has some suggesting he’s the second best defenceman available, with Bowen Byram the consensus top defenceman.
Soderstrom is a smooth skater, who uses his mobility and edgework to create separation when he has the puck and to close gaps when he doesn’t. He’s a transition machine, whether he’s carrying the puck up ice through the neutral zone or, more often, quickly retrieving the puck and hitting a teammate in stride with a great pass.
His awareness on the ice is fantastic, as he always seems to know where the pressure is coming from when he’s retrieving the puck and where his teammates will be when he gets it. It also makes him hard to beat in the defensive zone, as he’s already in the skating, passing, and shooting lanes before an opponent has a chance to use those lanes.
Offensively, Soderstrom has the quick hands to stickhandle in traffic: he’s not flashy with the puck, but can evade opposing players with quick, subtle moves. He’s an excellent passer distributes the puck well to his teammates to create chances. He can get the puck through traffic with his wrist shot as well, and does well to create shooting lanes with his lateral mobility.
#SHL: RHD Victor Soderstrom (Ranked No. 12) wristed home his fourth goal of the season but Brynas dropped a 4-2 decision to HV71. Soderstrom leads all U20 SHL defensemen in goals (4), shots (51) and TOI (16:42) pic.twitter.com/E6xee387tS— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) February 22, 2019
When it comes to intangibles, he seems to have those in spades, with his Brynas coach, Magnus Sundquist, praising him for his leadership.
“He is a leader,” said Sundquist to Montreal Canadiens blog Eyes on the Prize. “I forgot which game it was, but he came into the room during an intermission and told everyone, ‘Guys, this is how we will run the power play,’ and started to draw up plays.”
For a 17 year old playing with and against men, to show that kind of confidence and leadership is impressive.
There are some criticisms of Soderstrom’s game. One is that he’s sometimes a little too safe, though this can be a plus as well. He doesn’t often take chances with the puck, which limits turnovers, but also limits the offensive opportunities he can create. Several scouts also note his lack of explosiveness and high-end speed in his skating, an obstacle he overcomes with excellent anticipation and positioning.
His high ice time also has a downside, as you would hope for a little more offensive production given how much he played. Soderstrom finished the SHL season with just 4 goals and 7 points in 44 games, while averaging 1:34 per game on the power play. His numbers don’t jump off the page in junior or international play either.
This raises questions about Soderstrom’s offensive upside. Other defencemen expected to go later in the first round seem to have higher ceilings offensively, even if their defensive games need work, like Philip Broberg, Thomas Harley, or Cam York. That said, if Soderstrom can develop that side of his game — and he has the tools and intelligence to do so — he could make a lot of teams sorry they didn't draft him.
The biggest question for the Canucks is not whether Soderstrom will be a good defencemen in the NHL — that seems like a safe assumption. The question is whether Soderstrom will be the best player available at 10th overall.
No publically-available draft rankings have Soderstrom ranked higher than 10th overall, and only McKeen’s Hockey has him there. Most rankings have him around 11th to 14th. Some have him much lower than that. Craig Button at TSN has him at 17th, Chris Peters of ESPN has him at 22nd, Corey Pronman of The Athletic ranks him 27th, and Scott Wheeler of The Athletic has him lowest at 28th.
Scouts I’ve talked to seem to agree: Soderstrom wouldn’t exactly be a reach at 10th overall, but it would mean missing out on a better forward. While the Canucks have a big need on the right side of their defence, they also have a big need for more scoring talent at forward. Picking Soderstrom ahead of the likes of Peyton Krebs, Cole Caufield, or Matthew Boldy might not make much sense.
With his mature defensive game, Soderstrom would be a safe pick, but is safe what you want at 10th overall?
The better option, if the Canucks really want a defenceman in the first round, might be to trade down to a lower pick. Otherwise, the Canucks should likely stick with one of the talented forwards that will be available at 10th.