While Owen Power is getting all of the hype as the sure fire 1st overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, Swedish forward William Eklund warrants serious consideration as the top prospect in this class.
Speed, creativity, transition, offense, high compete, hockey IQ, whatever the trait, Eklund has it. When Eklund’s game is dissected, it’s easy to make a case for him to be drafted 1st overall and no lower than 3rd.
As it stands, the Sabres are on track to take Power 1st overall but rumblings of them possibly acquiring another pick inside the Top 10 this year make taking Eklund a very real possibility. There’s even reports that Eklund is already very high up on the Sabres’ draft board and may even force them to consider passing on Power.
Lance Lysowski of The Buffalo News recently reported in an article that Power and Eklulnd are the Sabres highest ranked defenseman and forward respectively.
Being ranked 1st overall in my own personal rankings, there’s several reasons why Eklund is so highly regarded by myself and others in the scouting community. In this article, I’ll take a deep dive into the analytics, the stats, and the tape, as to why Eklund is the best player available in the 2021 draft class.
Getting to Know the Player
Height: 5′ 10″
Weight: 172 lbs
TCB Final Rank: 2nd
Team: Djurgården IF (SHL)
40 GP | 11 G | 12 A | 23 PTS
In his DY-1 in 2019-20, Eklund was dominant for Djurgården IF U20 team, scoring 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists) in 31 games. Eklund also added 20 games that season for Djurgården IF, though he only registered 2 assists in that time. Given the lack of production in the SHL in his DY-1, it’s no surprise that Eklund wasn’t in consideration for 1st overall entering the year.
Eklund did everything in his power to change scouts perception of him as the 2020-21 season began however. Starting the year for Djurgården IF in the SHL, Eklund sky rocketed up draft rankings as the season went on. The left handed forward is a natural winger but certainly has the play driving traits of a center, given how well he controls the play and possesses the puck.
Scoring 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in 40 games, Eklund is very dynamic from the wing and generates many of his scoring chances off of the rush. Using his natural ability to dictate the pace of the game, as well as get the puck back from the opponent, Eklund has strong on ice impacts that are likely to translate to favorable NHL analytics.
Boasting the highest Even Strength Points per Game Played (adjsuted for league) since 2008 for DY eligible players, Eklund is in some elite company per pick224.com data. While there are a few busts from this group, it’s Eklund’s style of play and high Hockey IQ that make him a safe bet to not only be an NHL player, but perhaps even a star.
Pick224.com Data for DY Eligible Players 2008-2021
*adjusted for league per @mannyelk NHLe Data
As evidenced by Byron Bader’s HockeyProspecting.com model, Eklund projects as an NHL player, though doesn’t necessarily have a high likelihood of turning into a star after the results from his DY. I expect Eklund’s star percentage to increase in this model after his DY+1 though as his production and skill set combination are no fluke and should see him elevate his game to another level in the years to come.
HockeyProspecting.com NHLe Chart for William Eklund
Looking at another model, Patrick Bacon’s TopDownHockey Model, Eklund projects more favorably and actually has the highest star percentage of all draft eligibles in 2021. These models are intended to take a prospects offensive production in their draft year and correlate it to a percent chance of being an NHL player or a Star.
Patrick Bacon’s TopDownHockey Tableau – Prospect Projections 2021
Factoring in things like the league the prospect plays in, their age, and path(s) to the NHL relative to historical data help predict potential career outcomes and percentages. (I’m sure Patrick or Byron can elaborate further into their models as there’s certainly a lot that goes into the great work they do!)
First and foremost, William Eklund was able to have the success he did this past season because of his excellent ability to perform controlled zone exits and entries. Not only does he take nearly every opportunity available to execute these plays, he does so with speed that pushes defenders back and buys him space to work with the puck.
Averaging 7 controlled exits and 12 controlled entries per 60 minutes (stats per Instat Hockey) this past season, Eklund was very consistent game in and game out with his puck possession metrics.
As Eklund keeps his feet moving, it makes him hard to challenge and maintain a good gap from a defensive perspective. Generally speaking, Eklund takes the path of least resistance through the neutral zone but will make slight adjustments so as to make it appear that he is going to change directions or swing laterally towards the boards.
There are so many examples of Eklund carrying the puck into the zone that show how committed he is to being a strong possession player. As this type of trait is one that typically translates well to the NHL, Eklund should have no problem continuing his positive impact and play driving ability.
To be a true impact player in the NHL, a prospect needs to have the ability to do more than just carry the puck. Finding ways to take the puck away from the opponent or force them into giving the puck up is a skill that requires a high compete level, speed, and intelligence.
Eklund is excellent at using his speed on both the forecheck and back check to apply pressure to the puck carrier. By getting on them quickly and taking away their outlets, Eklund is able to take the puck away or force turnovers.
In the clip below, Eklund shows off his speed and relentless pursuit of the puck. First applying pressure on the forecheck, Eklund ensures the defenseman does not get an easy breakout pass and prevents any controlled exit, forcing the play behind the net. Eklund then gives chase out to the neutral zone to force the opponent to make a pass instead of continuing to carry the puck. At the end of the clip, Eklund uses his defensive awareness to stay in the open high danger zone which ultimately prevents an easy scoring chance from the player he picked up.
Eklund is relentless in his puck pursuit, which helps him make a positive impact in both the offensive and defensive zones. As he pushes the pace of the game without the puck, Eklund is able to create scoring chances for himself as evidenced in the clip below.
Using his speed to chase down the puck, Eklund gets a nice scoring chance from the side of the net. This was made possible by Eklund identifying where the puck was going early, an example of his high hockey IQ, and making the effort to get there first.
InStat Hockey provides a great glance at Eklund’s shot attempts both from an overhead and first person perspective. In the map below, Eklund takes the majority of his shots in the high danger areas which is also where he scored the majority of his goals. The shot attempts plotted are all at even strength for further reference.
Overall, Eklund took 39% of his shot attemtps in the high danger (“home plate” area) zone which is a byproduct of his understanding of where to go on the ice, and his positioning.
Shot Map Courtesy of InStat Hockey
Net Perspective Shot Attempts Courtesy of InStat Hockey
Note: Data is not comprehensive of all Shot Map locations
Looking from Eklund’s perspective, a lot of his shots are aimed low and at areas that are just below or above the goaltenders gloves. One positive thing that comes from taking these low shots, especially in tight, is the potential for rebounds which in turn produce more scoring chances.
Watching Eklund, he takes shots with a purpose and his understanding of how to not only get the puck to the net but also take shots that give his team a higher volume of scoring chances is another example of his high Hockey IQ.
High Danger Play
Driving to the high danger areas of the ice in the offensive zone is not the easiest as it’s typically the most congested area of the ice. There’s times where Eklund finds open ice in these areas to make himself available for a pass, makes passes to teammates, or literally takes the puck there himself for a shot attempt.
In the clip below, Eklund comes down the left wing with speed and sees an opportunity to take the puck to the middle of the ice for a shot. While he could have taken a shot coming down the wing, Eklund understands that getting the goalie moving side to side by skating to the middle gives him a better chance of scoring. This play doesn’t end up in a goal but Eklund shows off his good hands to create the scoring chance.
Eklund can frequently be found just to the side of the net, uncovered in most cases as he’s excellent at camouflaging where he is going. Because of this, Eklund is able to get excellent scoring chances from in tight and was rewarded a few times this year with goals.
It’s hard to gauge whether or not Eklund will end up a better play maker or goal scorer at the NHL level as he has done both well at the SHL level. Given the smaller ice surface in the NHL and how teams can clog up the high danger areas, I could personally see Eklund developing into a very good play maker though.
Eklund uses his speed well to enter the zone and from there dictates where the puck is going to go. Because of this, he is excellent at distributing the puck to the front of the net with defenders chasing him.
On the assist above, Eklund enters the zone on the left wing and threads the pass through traffic at high speed right on the tape of his teammate in the slot. Eklund’s confidence to make this pass along with his vision to identify a passing lane at the exact right moment is an indicator of the potential success he could have as a passer in the NHL.
Eklund is so good at getting the opponent to believe he’s going to do one thing, and then do another. As shown in the following clip, Eklund draws the play behind the net and with his great awareness and passing ability, sets up his teammate for a goal. The timing of this pass is at an elite level because he can only make it once the goalie and defense commit to defending him behind the net.
Eklund doesn’t have a rocket of a shot in terms of velocity, though this is something that has not hindered his ability to beat goalies with his quick release. Placing his shots on net with extreme precision, Eklund can score while skating a high rate of speed.
The ability to place these shots where he does are another great sign that as he gets stronger, his goal scoring ability is likely to get even better. While scoring on the rush plays like in the clips above is one way Eklund has shown an ability to score, he also can pick up goals using his ability to find open ice in front of the net.
Eklund is such a difficult player to defend in the offensive zone because of how many ways he can beat you. Whether it be with his passing, shots from further out, or even in tight as shown in the video above, trying to understand what Eklund is going to do next is a nearly impossible task which make him all the more lethal.
Areas of Concern/Improvement
It’s been hammered home that Eklund is a very well rounded forward who brings a lot of positives to his team every time he is on the ice. Having said that, he is not a perfect prospect (none are) and does have some things that he could improve.
As there are some minor things to his game that need work, it’s easy to see how scouts have become enamored with Owen Power and prevented Eklund from getting much consideration for 1st overall.
Decisions With the Puck
Eklund’s intention of making plays with the puck are absolutely a strength of his, however, his execution can sometimes be a bit flawed. This is a byproduct of Eklund’s patience with the puck to wait for the perfect play to present itself.
This type of decision seems to happen more often after a zone entry where he does receive pressure from the opponent. Eklund hates giving up the puck though and will try everything in his toolbox to maintain control or make a play.
Not every play can turn into a shot attempt or scoring chance, though Eklund certainly exhibits that type of mentality. Again, this is a good way to think for a prospect his age playing against this level of competition.
Learning how to have the discipline to take what plays are given to him rather than forcing himself into a bad spot is a nuance to Eklund’s game that can be refined, though I have no concerns with him improving this aspect which is a minor area of improvement.
Eklund’s stride is not the greatest and prevents him from being an elite skater and even faster than he currently is. While his agility and edge were are solid, improving his ability to be a more efficient skater and cleaning up this aspect of his game would only increase his already high ceiling.
Because of how fast Eklund processes the game, he doesn’t need to be the fastest player on the ice. Improving in this area isn’t necessary for Eklund to be a good NHL player but it would certainly help him reach his true potential and increase his positive on ice impacts.
As is the case with most players that are in their draft year, there’s a need to build up physical strength and Eklund is no exception to this. Given that he already engages physical contact with players in the SHL, he seems like he will only become a more impactful player when he does put on more muscle.
This isn’t to say that Eklund is weak by any means but more bringing to light the fact that his potential is even higher as he reaches physical maturity. The most important thing to take away from Eklund’s physical game is his willingness to take contact to make a play.
Will he adjust/improve?
Given how minor the issues with Eklund’s gameare, there’s little doubt in my mind that he corrects them after another year in the SHL and under the developmental eye of NHL coaches.
With the intense style with which Eklund plays, it’s easy to see his desire to succeed and intent to improve his game, which is evidenced by his year over year improvement from just a season ago. As Eklund gets stronger and builds off of his already high confidence, there’s so much potential for him to be a 1st line winger in the NHL.
Were I Kevyn Adams, William Eklund would be the 1st player taken off the board for Buffalo. Eklund’s skills and intensity will translate to the NHL and he seems like a sure fire Top 6 forward with the potential to be a 1st line winger with how well he impacts important metrics of the game.
Eklund had great success in the SHL against men this past season, and could possibly make a crack at the NHL next year but I believe he could use more time to work on some of the “weaker” points of his game.
Given the current state of the Sabres, Eklund is probably best served playing another season for Djurgården. Eklund himself even stated that he needed one more year in Sweden to further develop his skills.
Adding a player like Eklund via 1st overall (or 3rd if an Eichel trade comes to fruition) would be a big step in the right direction for the imminent rebuild. This is especially true for an organization that has lacked finding high end forward prospects in the draft, outside of Eichel and Reinhart
As the draft gets closer and teams solidify their draft boards, Eklund could certainly be drafted as high as 1st to as low as 7th possibly. Regardless of where he ends up, it’s of my firm belief that 5 years from now, William Eklund will be viewed as the best player from this draft class.