It’s quite rare that we see young players exchanged between two organizations. There is always the risk that the young prospect moved suddenly blossoms and makes the team look foolish for giving up too early. NHL teams are generally risk averse, so sending out pieces that are not completely known assets is probably perceived as even more hazardous.
At the time Montreal moved William Bitten for Gustav Olofsson, the defenceman had earned some time in the NHL but was still taking his first steps in the league. While closer to his ceiling than Bitten (the younger of the two), he also couldn’t be called a finished product.
The move came down to balancing the depth of both teams, which is the flip-side of such prospect trades. The Minnesota Wild needed forward depth and had plenty of defencemen; while the Montreal Canadiens were in search of left-handed blue-liners and could afford to sacrifice one of their many smaller, hard-working playmakers.
Looking back at the transaction a year later, Olofsson didn’t end up being a solution on the blue line at the NHL level or even in the AHL. He was injured in the first pre-season game while still with the Wild and only played two games with the Laval Rocket before undergoing shoulder surgery. The recovery period kept him out for the rest of the season.
This has been a recurring theme in Olofsson’s career.
He showed promise in his draft year, and that led to Minnesota selecting him in the middle of the second round, He fast-tracked his route to professional hockey, only spending one season at the college level, but in the very first game of what should have been his first complete season in the AHL, he sustained an injury, once again missing the entire season. It was also a shoulder issue.
Adding minor rest periods for other smaller health concerns, Olofsson has missed more than two seasons’ worth of hockey since his draft year. It’s a massive setback in a young career.
The good news for the defenceman is that he already somewhat found his on-ice identity, and he is an athletic skater. He might not reach the playing level scouts had envisioned for him a few years ago, but he still has a good chance to make it as an NHLer — if he can stay healthy long enough to get back on that path.
Another positive for Olofsson is that Montreal still isn’t strong on the left-side of their defence. They have depth, but a great performance could realistically push him into a spot at some point next season.
Olofsson had a lot of middling votes, placing him around where he ultimately ended up on the list. The range remained quite high with the defenceman receiving a high vote of 16 and a low one of 39. More than half the panellists had him in the Top 25.
In ranking Olofsson 22nd, I factored in his NHL experience and the qualities he already showed at the top level. I believe in his ability to get back to an NHL role and establish himself with Montreal (or another team) down the line.
It’s impossible to predict injury, and the time lost hurts him, but it can also be seen a bit more positively. Olofsson might be on the older side for this project, but he has had as much actual playing time as some of his younger counterparts. Getting back on the ice and staying in the rotation for a full season should do wonders for his game and development.
It’s important to remember that the Wild chose to keep Olofsson over Mikey Reilly ... before sending the Swedish defenceman on the same route to Montreal. They are both more than capable skaters: agile, quick, and with enough speed to contribute to rushes, but their play styles are vastly different.
While Reilly is all about generating offence and therefore takes a lot of risks and can be loose and forgetful in his defensive game, Olofsson has much less of a penchant for the offensive side. Instead he guards high-danger areas better, generally reacting calmly to opposing movements, and switches to correct assignments.
Their skating ability also serves them in different ways. Reilly evades opponents and jumps up to create offence, while Olofsson matches attackers’ movements and closes on them.
Olofsson isn’t a shutdown defenceman just yet. His game hasn’t had the chance to mature to the point where he can match some of the best offensive players, but he has the skill and attention to detail necessary to take his game in that direction.
He could end up being a good partner for a more high-flying defenceman as he engages on threats and separates them from the puck, which is the first action needed to create controlled breakouts.
The video below using sequences from an NHL game in 2017-18 highlights some of Olofsson’s abilties.
There are more puck-moving elements to Olofsson’s game than just good engages. He manages to hit his forwards with the odd pass through traffic to let them fly away from the zone, but it isn’t a consistently strong part of his game. He generally prefers to defer to others in transition.
It’s also a bit of the same approach for him on the offensive blue line. If the puck bounces up to him at the point, it’s probable that the next place it heads is toward the net. He keeps his offensive game simple, taking the space given to him by the defence, sometimes even pinching down hard by switching with one of his forwards, but he doesn’t creatively open up plays that aren’t there at first sight.
All in all, Olofsson has the makeup of a bottom-pairing defenceman at the NHL level. His mobility should allow him to keep up with the game as he finds confidence and hones his play with the puck.
As stated before, the number of games he does play in the NHL will depend on him staying healthy enough to restart his progression. There is unfortunately no controlling that past a certain point, even with appropriate training and surveillance. All Olofsson can do is work toward regaining his full form and proving his worth in the AHL, where he will start the season in all likelihood.
It’s also possible that Olofsson’s future will be with another team as he is eligible for waivers this season. Some other organization, believing he is ready for a depth role on their blue line immediately, could pick him up if he is sent down.