Every team goes into the NHL Draft hoping to land a future star with its first-round pick, but once you get past the first handful of selections who have a great chanc of reaching those heights, confidence in a prospect achieving that level begins to drop. It becomes a game of trying to select a player who has at least a few top-end abilities to build around.
An NHL team wants a player with innate skill whose flaws can be corrected through more training in the Junior ranks, or moulded into an NHL player by the organization’s development staff during a short minor-league career. For a team prepared to wait out some physical and technical growth for its prospect, there could be a potential second-line centre for the taking in Noah Õstlund.
Birthplace: Nykvarn, Sweden
Date of birth: March 11, 2004
Weight: 163 lbs.
Team: Djurårgens IF U20
The need for physical improvement is apparent from the listed weight. He’s tall enough to play the centre position in the NHL at 5’11”, but balancing the scale at 163 pounds is one of the main concerns.
Õstlund played in Djurgården’s development system this season along with fellow forwards Jonathan Lekkerimäki, Liam Õhgren, and defenceman Calle Odelius, all of whom have received projections as first-round picks. Õstlund ranked third on the under-20 team in points, but ended up seventh in goals with just two more tallies than Odelius, and that lack of scoring had him sliding down rankings lists as the season went on.
It didn’t help that Õstlund failed to register a point in the 11 games he played at the senior level — something else the two wingers had on him — which raised further questions about his offence. The struggles were easily blamed on his size.
The concerns do hold merit. He was more of a facilitator for his teammates than someone who challenged defences himself, working more to find a passing lane than a path to the net. Many of his offensive-zone shifts had him circling, probing for passing avenues. What he and his teammates see as playmaking, scouts deemed perimeter play from someone unwilling and unable to barge through the defensive formation and force something to happen. He also didn’t have the shot to test a goaltender from the fringes, or even sell it to the defence as a legitimate threat to open the lanes to teammates he’s looking for.
A lack of size limits his effectiveness in defensive battles, but he does make up for that with dogged determination to win possession anyway. That work ethic was one of the things that kept scouts interested during the offensive drought.
There are some deficiencies in his own end and issues in the offensive zone, but there are few players in the draft class who can match his skills as he transitions between the blue lines. With the puck on his stick, he has a full toolkit of options to advance the play, from great vision of the ice around him to find an open teammate, to great mobility that his slight build and great edge-work allow, and a desire to challenge defenders at one-on-one with speed and stickhandling that he shies away from versus a set in-zone formation. Whether it’s turning defence into offence at even strength or ensuring the power play easily gains the offensive blue line, there’s significant value in that puck-carrying ability.
Elite Prospects: #27
Hockey Prospect: #41
Bob McKenzie (TSN): #22
NHL Central Scouting: #18 (European skaters)
Corey Pronman (The Athletic) #40
Scott Wheeler (The Athletic): #23
A great migration in the spring saw the influx of scouts and front-office personnel from a number of NHL teams to Northern Europe, there to witness the top prospects in post-season play. What they saw from Õstlund was a lot different from the reports they’d received all season about his offensive game.
During Djurgården’s under-18 team’s run to a title, he had two goals and five assists in four games. Playing on the U20 squad with which he’d score nine goals all season long, he was a goal-per-game player, recording five markers in five contests.
With every eye in the scouting world on him and his classmates at the World Under-18 Championship in Germany, he again displayed more scoring touch with four goals in the six game tournament, none bigger than the two he recorded in the Gold Medal Game to help Sweden take the title.
Those performances took his projection from a simple setup man to a prospect with the potential for a well-rounded offensive game, changing his entire profile over the course of a month. He rose from a spot at 51 in Bob McKenzie’s January rankings to 22nd on the finished list when he polled scouts in recent days for their final pre-draft opinions. The size is still a big concern, and that’s one reason why he’s generally ranked below linemates Lekkerimäki and Õhgren, but his reputation as a player unable to score goals had to be amended.
It will be interesting to see if this sudden burst of offensive confidence carries over to his senior games in 2022-23 (Djurgården will be playing in the second-tier HockeyAllsvenskan after getting relegated), but NHL general managers won’t get the chance to find out before they have to make their decision to draft him or someone else. They will welcome another option in their range that they may have previously written off, but it will still be a difficult choice.
He’s not going to stay at 163 pounds forever, and should be able to put on some mass without losing too much of the shiftiness on his edges. He will be one of a small handful of centres available in the latter half of the first round that hold top-six upside, and there could be a block of them coming off the board at once. Perhaps not every team will be interested in taking the gamble, like a certain team that takes a virtually guaranteed second-line centre with the first pick of the draft. But an organization needing to address its prospect depth down the middle has a chance to select a player who could become part of the team’s core in the future if Õstlund’s development continues on its current trajectory.