Part of a strong 2018 NHL Draft class for the Montreal Canadiens (if you’ve been keeping track, you’ll have determined that seven of the 11 players selected made the Top 25 this year), Jacob Olofsson kept a run on young European talent going that summer when he was selected 56th overall out of the second tier of Swedish hockey.
The 21 points he contributed in 43 regular-season games in 2017-18, along with a positive performance in the qualification series that promoted Timrå from HockeyAllsvenskan to the SHL, were a very encouraging sign for his prospects of becoming an NHL player.
Despite helping to push his team to the top level, the offence didn’t make the jump along with him. He had just nine points in his first year in the SHL, struggling to adapt to the increased pace and competition on a freshly promoted team that wasn’t on par with the best teams in the country. However, he did use that season to work on his defensive game, becoming a more reliable option for his coach in his own end.
Needing a change in the direction his development was heading, he got a change of scenery with a trade to Skellefteå. Building from his newfound defensive quality, he was quickly regaining his confidence on the offensive side ahead of a final appearance at the IIHF’s World Junior Championship in December.
Things were derailed by a shoulder injury in one of his final practices before heading to the WJC, taking him out of the competition. He was able to play just three games after December 7, 2019.
While he was out of commission — an absence that extended into the 2020 training camp after he sustained a second concussion in two years while training — Skellefteå added to its centre depth. Olofsson wasn’t able to challenge for a spot in the middle, and began the year on the wing; a position he’s expected to stay in all season, according to coach Stefan Hedlund.
For a player who had difficulty finding the scoreboard in SHL play, it was hoped that the move would rekindle his offence, allowing him to address that aspect of his play.
Things clearly haven’t gone to plan so far in the 2020-21 season. Through 13 games, he has a mere two points, the lowest scoring rate he’s seen in his three seasons in the SHL.
With votes from 14 to 35, Olofsson has one of largest ranges among the 43 players involved in this project. Half of the ballots have him within the Top 25, while the majority of those that don’t tend to have him just a couple of spots out, so his perceived potential remains somewhat high for most of us.
Top 25 Under 25 History
He made his debut at 21 as a second-round pick in the summer of 2018, then rose to 19 last year as more people got familiar with him, despite the struggles in his draft-plus-one season. This year sees his first drop down the order.
History of #25
|2019||Gustav Olofsson / Jordan Harris|
|2016||Max Friberg / Jeremy Grégoire|
In the past, this spot on the list had been reserved for players who were expected to stay just below the NHL replacement mark. It often highlighted a player who was very strong in the AHL, but would have a very low chance of even earning a call-up. As the quality of the pool has increased, that may no longer be the case, with players like Cale Fleury, Jordan Harris, and perhaps Olofsson himself breaking through that barrier in the coming years.
Skating serves as the base of his game, and that aspect has actually improved since his draft year. This off-season, one extended by the recovery from a concussion, he worked on his leg strength, and now looks more stable on his skates and is more effective in battles along the boards. Considering his move to the wing, those improvements have been serving him well in the early going.
He’s always had good awareness of his surroundings and a strong understanding of where he needed to be on the ice, and that was one reason why his defensive game was able to progress as quickly as it has over the past two seasons.
Despite the hockey instincts, he doesn’t put himself in the best positions to make use of his skills. He tends to stay more on the perimeter when looking for his offensive opportunities, and that behaviour has only been reinforced with his change of position.
“I am comfortable as a winger — I get to play more offensively — but I prefer to play in the middle. I want to have more of the puck and to use my speed in the centre of the ice,” Olofsson told our Patrik Bexell in October.
Being somewhat out of his element helps to explain his lack of production, and Patrik has noted that Olofsson’s still learning where he should be stationed on both offence and defence this year, which he should eventually get the hang of with practice and coaching.
Effort level had been a question for him in recent years. He didn’t have to adapt his game coming up through the amateur levels as his skating and skill level elevated him above his peers. He was therefore a few steps behind in terms of preparedness for the pro game compared to those who had been making adjustments all along the path to reach the same point.
However, his off-season work the past two years is putting him on the same level, and work ethic is no longer a major concern. He puts in the effort to earn his ice time, and it’s helping him to find what little offensive success he’s enjoyed.
Olofsson was one of six centres drafted by the Canadiens back in 2018 as they specifically targeted that position. As he has seen in Skellefteå, the situation down the middle has also changed in Montreal. The organization no longer needs to retain each and every player who has even a slight chance of playing there in the NHL. Just being competent is no longer enough to earn an entry-level contract in a strong prospect pool, and we saw that this summer when the Canadiens parted ways with two of those six centres from 2018 — Allan McShane and Samuel Houde — despite their strong play in the Canadian Hockey League.
Flexibility is now the key to success for a forward prospect with no standout ability. Fitting into any open role will give a young player an upper hand on one who can only perform at one position. For that reason, figuring out how to be effective on the wing may be his best bet to get that NHL deal, because projecting as a replacement-level centre probably isn’t going to cut it.
Unlike some of his North American peers, he has the benefit of time to prove he deserves his chance. Montreal holds his rights until June 1, 2022, so he has the remainder of this season and all of the next to become a confident offensive player.
There will be spots in the NHL for smart players who can skate, and if Olofsson can figure out his offensive game this season and next, he’ll put himself in a stronger position on the depth chart, and a higher spot on this list.