“The main thing is that you have to have your head up all the time, and you must know what you are [doing] with the puck straight away when you get it.”
That’s what Anton Olsson said in an interview with the SHL website last month when asked about transitioning to the professional ranks. He continued: “The opponents come flying from everywhere when they’re checking. They want the puck, and you have to have an idea of what to do with it before you get it.”
Taken by Nashville in the third round of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, Olsson is no stranger to Sweden’s top league. The 18-year old defender has now played 68 games with the SHL’s Malmö Redhawks and scored his first pro goal earlier this year. Adapting to more responsibility and working on his lesser-refined skills have defined Olsson’s game this year as he’s progressed from being Malmö’s extra defender to third-pair (and sometimes second) minutes.
Averaging just over 13 minutes per night, Olsson has notched four points in 24 games. In seven games I’ve tracked, Olsson has recorded a 50.0% Corsi at even-strength play, allowed just 3.96 high-danger shots (on-net) per 60, taken 11.89 individual shot attempts per 60, and notched 4.62 primary shot assists per 60.
While his impact on the scoresheet has been limited, Olsson’s game-by-game growth, and his remaining flaws, are apparent when watching his shifts. The 6’0” defender is beginning to evolve from a cautious player with average to below-average skating mechanics to one that challenges opponents with confidence and plays a strong north-south game.
Earlier this season (and in his pro career in general), Olsson’s (#56, white) weaker skating stride could be easily exposed by faster forwards. He’s fond of pinching his gaps at the blue line—as we see above where he begins his crossover within a stick’s length of the puck-carrier—but he doesn’t have the accelerating step or knee bend to pivot late and still succeed.
Here’s another example: Olsson pinches his gap early and does make an okay attempt to push the puck-carrier out wide. But when he lands his pivot, he’s perpendicular to the play, so he needs another crossover step before he can open his hips and skating stride. Quick-moving opponents will take advantage of that every time.
But throughout this year, I’ve seen significant improvement from Olsson (#56, red). Here, he pulls from his gap closure earlier and pivots sooner. With a slightly better knee bend, he’s able to maintain body position on the puck-carrier, smother him into the boards, and force a change of possession.
As is said frequently about teenagers playing in pro leagues, adding the requisite muscle is a massive part of a prospect’s development, especially defenders. Earlier viewings of Olsson’s net-front defense showed a player who knew what to do but was often a step too slow or not strong enough. This clip shows Olsson doing a decent job of taking on the net-crashing forward upon zone entry, but as the play develops, he lets that opponent slip in behind him—while not engaging physically—and get in position for a high-danger scoring chance.
Fast forward a few months, and I’ve seen a confident defender who anticipates (albeit never perfectly) how the play will develop in the neutral zone then does his best to establish body position on the crashing forward. He cuts off the play with ease and quickly starts a controlled breakout.
Improvements in his transition game have been most notable for Olsson this season. He was drafted as a player not known for skating the puck out of his zone, but he’s certainly developed a new wrinkle to his game. While he’s still allowed controlled zone entries at a 54.9% rate, he’s kept all but 39.3% of them to the outside of the zone. On puck retrievals in his defensive zone, he’s winning those battles 77.8% of the time, and he’s executed a controlled zone exit on 60.6% of his chances; The rate at which he carries the puck out has slowly crept up to 40.0%.
There’s so much of a difference between a player who knows the right play and one who can execute it too. For Olsson, evading pressuring forecheckers has been about better execution this year. In the clip above, he first disrupts the play in the neutral zone and then makes a quick touch to his partner to mitigate the opponents’ dump-in. Instead of passing out of the zone from a standing position, he quickly recognizes his chance and jumps into an end-to-end rush, buying time for a line change and helping to establish possession at the other end of the rink.
Here’s another shift demonstrating those transition improvements. Olsson is making crisp, effective passes to his forwards and diving into neutral-zone seams with the puck on his stick even when opponents are crashing around him.
Olsson is also taking more liberties to step up in the neutral zone and not just mirror gaps but cut off transition plays before they happen.
This upbeat in confidence and poise from Olsson has begun to turn heads. While I don’t think his development path reaches that of a top-pair, scoring blueliner, increasing his footprint on the offensive side of the game, further improving his puck skills, and tweaking some of his skating mechanics could unlock a dependable fifth or sixth defender for Nashville down the road.