September 01 2014 07:54AM
Now that Gunnarsson is gone it’s time to make way for the next Leafs Swedish defenseman. While that’s more likely to be Granberg in the short term, and Loov could be the better long term option, there’s some really interesting middle ground with Tom Nilsson. Nilsson ranked 16th in our voting last year , and has now skyrocketed up to 13th based largely on one writer's belief that he might be the second best defensive prospect to make a significant impact (Hint: I’m that jackass).
Last year I wrote about how little we knew about Tom Nilsson, but operated under the assumption that most of the defensemen that the Leafs were bringing over from Sweden were destined to be Carl Gunnarsson clones. That was a wrong assumption, as Granberg, Loov, and Nilsson all are different enough from Gunnarsson that the comparison is more one of the quality and tenure we hope for rather than style. Nilsson being a runner-up to fellow Leafs prospect and Frolunda teammate Andreas Johnson for the Swedish Hockey League Rookie of the Year honour is a nice piece of evidence that the Leafs do have a quality prospect in Nilsson.
The similarities that Nilsson may have with Carl probably begin and end with the fact that he’s not going to put up points and that his biggest selling point doesn’t happen at the offensive end of the ice. Though like Gunnarsson, Nilsson isn’t a liability outside of his zone either and can complete a pass without inducing panic attacks.
Last year I mentioned that Nilsson’s biggest advantage was his physical presence, which may have been an understatement, as it is more his calling card than simply a positive attribute. Nilsson has stated that he models his game after Niklas Kronwall, though presumably not the offensive aspect, by comparison Kronwall’s offensive numbers were better as 20 year old playing in Sweden. Nilsson has also drawn comparisons to Ulf Samuelsson which is exciting for those of us who feel the Bruins have had healthy forwards long enough. Basically Nilsson is what you get when Brian Burke and Thommie Bergman make a draft pick together.
“I'm a defensive back and like to play pretty physical and
aggressive. Then, I try to develop my game, become more confident puck and let
loose a little more aggressively, I'm working on it daily.”
–Tom Nilsson via translated interview with shl.se
Nilsson by the numbers is encouraging, especially if you like real time stats (note: please don’t like real time stats). As a SHL rookie Nilsson was 4th on his team in ice time with 18:30, his 2:14 of PK time led the team’s defensemen. He was 3rd on his team in blocked shots, 2nd on his team in hits. For all his physical play it commendable that Nilsson only had 22 PIMs. Neat.
Nilsson is going to have a good chance to bring some of that aggressiveness to the Marlies this season, and with his aggressive style, I’m sure he’s going to find the smaller North American rinks to be a target rich environment for open ice hits. His expectations seem to be reasonable regarding where he’ll play as well.
“I’ll go over with very few expectations, however. I do not know where I'll play. There are two teams that play in the organization I play for. I will just run at full speed. If I had any chance at the NHL, I would not have gone over, but then if it takes half a year, a year or two years, it may be seen. It's a different hockey to learn but then I know that I am a good hockey player and if I play well, I have a chance of getting a place, I think.”
“I chose to go [to North America] because I wanted to learn
the game over there and get into the system.”
-Tom Nilsson via translated interview with Pucksnack.com
Having spent time in the Swedish League last season, Nilsson will be more accustom to playing against men so there shouldn’t be too much of a learning curve there. And with decent speed, and apparently enough common sense to know how to pick his spots he’s got a good chance to see significant ice time with the Marlies despite their crowded blueline.
Longer term it seems very likely that Nilsson will earn a shot with the Leafs, and if things go well he could be a great defensive minded partner to balance out a player like Gardiner, although it’s far more likely that Nilsson will be a strong third pairing defender rather than playing in the top four. His big hitting, shot blocking style paired with his ability to actually skate and move the puck should make Nilsson an appealing prospect worth keeping an eye on in his first year in Toronto.
Here’s a compilation of some of Nilsson’s defensive highlights from the past season (via Seer Video)