The Finnish forward factory continues to churn out product, with the country being well-represented yet again in this year’s draft class. While the Finns aren’t boasting a Patrik Laine equivalent in 2018, a number of his countrymen will be hearing their name called early on.
Though not the most prolific among them, Niklas Nordgren may turn out to be a very good pick come draft day. Size is a concern, but after showcasing his skill throughout an impressive season at the top level of junior hockey in Finland, there’s a lot to like about his game.
Birthplace: Helsinki, Finland
Date of birth: May 4, 2000
Position: Right Wing
Weight: 170 lbs.
Team: HIFK (Liiga)
Nordgren produced at a ridiculous level in the Jr. A SM-Liiga, and would likely have won the league’s scoring race had he remained there for the entirety of the season. With 42 points, he placed in the top-20 league-wide despite playing just 28 games — by far the fewest of anyone on the list — while his 1.5 points per game were tops in the league among those to appear in more than 10 outings.
It was his play on larger stages that helped to elevate his profile. Making his professional debut for HIFK in the Champions Hockey League, he netted a hat-trick against ComArch Cracovia, totaling six points in just two games in the competition. Domestically, Nordgren did play 15 games for HIFK in the Liiga, and should see more time there as an 18-year-old next season.
Most notable was his play in April’s Under-18 World Championship, where he was a main piece for a loaded Finnish squad. His shot was on display, with eight goals to lead the tournament, while he was also the leading point-scorer for the champion Finns, whose roster included fellow draft-eligible Jesperi Kotkaniemi and top 2019 prospect Kaapo Kakko.
The biggest knock on Nordgren come draft day will be his size, though he can make up for it with the way he plays. He’s a workhorse who puts in equal effort across all zones, and plays with a surprising amount of grit considering his stature. He looks far heavier on his skates than his measurements would have you believe, and he maintains good balance in the dirty areas thanks to a low centre of gravity.
Skating is perhaps the area of the Finn’s game that most holds him back. he is not slow per se, but the majority of players his size who make it at the NHL level are able to overcome a height disadvantage with pure speed. Nordgren will not be that player, though it's not for lack of trying, as few players will leave more on the ice from shift to shift.
For a perfect glimpse of what he can bring at his best, you need look no further than his game- and tournament-winning goal for Finland at the U18 Worlds. Trusted on the penalty kill, he blocked a shot and sent the play the other way, staying open down the ice and made no mistake after receiving the pass from Kotkaniemi.
Offensively, Nordgren has a lot of strengths. Despite some doubts about his top speed, he has the intelligence to find open space and create scoring chances. From there, he has the hands to make slick passes (outside of the U18s, he has been more of a setup man), or unleash a wrist shot with great speed and accuracy.
Niklas Nordgren wears #40 with HIFK in Jr. A SM-Liiga and #15 with Finland's U18 team.
In the clips above, we can see some of the things that impressed scouts in their viewings. A slightly unusual, if not inefficient, skating stride does not prevent him from using his skills and smarts to draw in his adversaries. He uses quick movements to manipulate would-be defenders, opening up time, space, and lanes for himself and his teammates.
He isn’t shy about getting in front of the net or deep in the corners, and while he would struggle to bully opposing players, particularly in the pros, he’s gritty enough to stay there. He’ll need to become stronger to make it to the NHL, but the will is there.
Future Considerations: #61
Hockey Prospect: #48
NHL Central Scouting: #21 (European Skaters)
A player who doesn’t seem to do much wrong, the question will be whether Nordgren can continue to play the way he does when he graduates to the professional level. He will need to overcome physical barriers when it comes to size, strength, and speed, but with a hard-working engine, he’ll give himself every opportunity to do so.
There’s a lot to like about the things he does well, although opinions differ on how valuable a prospect he will be for NHL clubs. His position in some publications’ rankings can vary wildly, with The Hockey News placing him as low as 93rd, while The Athletic’s Corey Pronman draft board approach lists him as 30th-best.
Nordgren projects to be chosen somewhere in the second round, though he could fall into the third round if enough scouts are concerned about his weaknesses.
The Habs have greater needs on defence and down-the-middle, but there’s no question they could use a solid prospect who can line up comfortably on the right wing. With enough picks around his projected range, the Montreal Canadiens may be willing to take the risk on a small but fiery player who has the potential to reward them for their trust.