Is Victor Söderström truly as good as some people are suggesting?

 

It’s a basic economic principle: the rarer something is, the more value it carries. A dependable right-shot defencemen might be the rarest asset in the sport of hockey; as such, they carry tremendous value. It’s simple supply and demand: Demand for this particular type of player is sky high, but supply,  the amount of right-shot defenders that can actually be relied upon, is in the basement.

It’s difficult to acquire a right-handed blueliner for this very reason, a principle that is demonstrated perfectly by the infamous Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson trade. “This is the price you have to pay,” according to since-fired Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli, who orchestrated the deal for the Oilers. Most of the time, it won’t cost you a Hart Trophy winner, but breaking the bank is a necessity if a team is to add a player of this kind through trade.

The vast majority of teams would prefer not to give up a valuable collection of assets, so they turn to the draft in their search for the commodity. This year, the top right-handed defenceman in the draft seems to be Victor Soderstrom, a two-way player out of Sweden.

Bob McKenzie’s highly anticipated draft rankings, which utilize input from a panel of 10 anonymous NHL scouts, were released in late January. Soderstrom was ranked 17th at the time, and the sense is that his stock has risen a considerable amount in the month-and-a-half since. If the draft were tomorrow, the general belief seems to be that Soderstrom would be selected somewhere between the 10th and 15th selections. I had him going 11th in my most recent mock draft. 

As the top right-handed blueliner in a draft class that is short on those players, I think it’s safe to say that Soderstrom is being projected to go higher than he may deserve to. If Soderstrom was a left-shot defenceman, for example, I think he’d be a lot closer to the end of the first round than he would be to the beginning. The following table displays several recent statistical comparables for Soderstrom and their respective draft positions.

(Soderstrom has 0.16 PTS/GP this season)

Based on these comparables, Soderstrom should be expected to go about 10 picks later than he’s projected to be drafted right now. Of course, statistics aren’t everything — there are contextual factors that can be impactful, and there’s more to the sport than pure offence — but it’s something to keep an eye on. 

Let’s take a deeper look at Soderstrom’s game. 

The Swede is a mobile two-way defender that can impact the game in all three zones. He’s able to transition the puck up-ice quickly and effectively, usually by means of passing. Offensively, he can make plays at the blueline and off the rush, and he’s quite advanced in the defensive zone for his age. 

Let’s start in the offensive zone.

Soderstrom walks the blueline very well, and possesses a proficient shot that can be dangerous with traffic in front. 

Here’s one of Soderstrom’s goals from earlier in the season. His shot isn’t a major threat, but he can get it off quickly and it can be deceptive in traffic. He’s able to get it through traffic fairly consistently, but there’s definitely room for improvement in that category. 

As an 18 year old in a professional league, Soderstrom is usually limited to safe, low-risk plays, which means we don’t see anything more than flashes of his full offensive potential.  At the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, we saw a little more of his offensive ability on display (unfortunately, an injury limited him to just 2 games at the tournament). 

Soderstrom is at his best when he has the confidence and freedom to make plays like this one. The hope is that we’ll see high-skill plays like this one on a more frequent basis as Soderstrom’s confidence and overall skills continue to develop. 

Here’s another sequence that displays Soderstrom’s offensive upside. 

First, Soderstrom gets a good shot onto the net through traffic. After collecting the rebound, his teammate sends it back around the boards, and Soderstrom pinches to collect the puck. In this situation, a lot of defencemen would throw the puck on net, or possibly rim the puck back around the boards for their partner to collect. Instead, Soderstrom shows excellent poise and maturity for his age and holds onto the puck, looking for a more dangerous option. Ultimately, he manages to complete a pass to a teammate, resulting in a more threatening shot. 

Soderstrom displays similar poise on the breakout. In possession of the puck in his own zone, Soderstrom has his eyes fixed up-ice, searching for a clean outlet pass to a teammate. He reads the play exceptionally well, moving the puck away from forechecking pressure and putting his forwards in as favourable of a position as possible to continue moving the puck towards the opposing net. He’s able to make quick, intelligent decisions under pressure, a key trait in a dependable defenceman.

This is an outstanding pass from Soderstrom. He’s facing his own goal-line, but he still looks up-ice, makes a quick assessment of the play, and connects on an excellent breakout pass. 

Here’s another intelligent play. Soderstrom collects an errant pass and pivots to face up-ice. He has the whole play in front of him, allowing him to survey the entire ice. Soderstrom chooses to bounce the puck off the boards to his teammate, allowing his teammate to skate into the puck and get into a position to make a play. 

We don’t see it a lot, but Soderstrom is capable of breaking the puck out with his feet as well. He’s an above-average skater with good speed and excellent agility, an ability he uses to cut through the neutral zone. 

On this excellent zone entry, Soderstrom cuts through several opponents to gain entry to the offensive zone, displaying his edgework and agility in the process. 

Soderstrom certainly possesses the skating ability required to be effective in transition at the NHL level, but I have concerns about his puck skills. Is he strong enough with the puck on his stick to carry the puck through traffic at the NHL level? There’s still a lot of room for growth in that area, and I wouldn’t count on his hands ever catching up to his feet.

Here’s a play that illustrates this quite well. 

Soderstrom makes a great move to lose the initial forechecker, but nearly loses control of the puck in the process. The opposing team is playing a very conservative neutral zone system, so he gets away with it, but a more aggressive team would have pounced on him in this situation. After he regains the puck, Soderstrom fumbles it again, and it’s poked away by a defender. Obviously, this second one is just a simple mistake, but it’s illustrative of a deeper weakness that exists within Soderstrom’s game. 

Soderstrom is known for more than just offensive ability. His two-way ability has held up well against professional opponents in the SHL, and his well-rounded game will be one of his most attractive features to teams at the draft. The Swede holds a tight gap through the neutral zone, defending the middle of the ice and pushing attackers to the outskirts of the ice surface. He has a strong stick and isn’t afraid to play the body, making it difficult to beat him at the blueline. 

Soderstrom plays this one-on-one scenario perfectly. He’s well positioned towards the middle of the ice, closes the gap, and removes the player from the puck. It’s a body-first defensive mentality that isn’t overly common among 5’11” defenceman, but it’s a mindset that Soderstrom displays all over the defensive zone. 

All-in-all, Soderstrom is a well-rounded blueliner with great feet and an even better brain. Most analysts would agree that skating ability and hockey IQ are the two most important traits in a prospect— Soderstrom excels in both areas. These two traits alone give Soderstrom significant upside, but there are some less positive factors as well. First of all, as we went over, his puck control isn’t at the same level as some of his other skills. Furthermore, Soderstrom hasn’t displayed the consistent high-skill offensive element that we would prefer to notice from a high-caliber prospect. His status as a teenager in a professional league would certainly impact that, but it’s an element that has been missing from junior and international play as well. Even at lower levels, his dynamic ability has only come in brief flashes. 

It’s for this reason that I’m much more confident in projecting Soderstrom as a future second-pairing defender than a top-pairing guy. He’s a steady player that could be an important piece of a team’s blueline, but I doubt that his puck skills and overall ability will be enough to keep up with top competition while still contributing in a positive way. 

Is that what you want out of your top 15 pick? It wouldn’t be a bad result by any means, but if players like Alex Newhook, Cole Caufield, Arthur Kaliyev, or Ryan Suzuki are available in that range, I’d much rather have the forward. Once we reach the latter half of the first round, and the clear impact forwards are off the board, I’d have much less of an issue with Soderstrom. He won’t be a regrettable pick or a bad player, but I can’t help but feel that Victor Soderstrom is being somewhat overrated as one of few high-end right-shot defencemen in the draft.