One of the reasons why the United States has grown in the National Hockey League is a result of the United States National Team Development Program. The USNTDP was formed to bring some of the best young American hockey players together and have them on the same page for international play. It has also become stepping stone for many of the country’s best prospects as many have moved on to professional hockey. The program is in its 22nd year of existence and there are no signs of it slowing down. As a result, you will see many USNTDP players picked in Dallas at the 2018 NHL Draft.
Their defensemen are particularly notable in this year’s class of prospects. In fact, we’re going to profile four of them. This one is for a big man from Voorhees, New Jersey: Mattias Samuelsson.
Who is Mattias Samuelsson?
According to his profile at Elite Prospects, Mattias Samuelsson was born on March 14, 2000. He is listed at 6’4” and 217 pounds. He is a left-shooting defenseman. He is the son of former NHL defenseman Kjell Samuelsson. He played for quite a while, mostly with Philadelphia, and after retirement went into coaching with Philly’s AHL team. Knowing that, it is not a surprise why Mattias is from Voorhees. Regardless, Samuelsson joined the USNTDP program in 2016-17 and rose up to the U-18 team in 2017-18. He is committed to Western Michigan University, which was not the case this time last year. He was originally going to Michigan, but the switch was made back in January according to this article by Benjamin Katz at the Michigan Daily. Michigan has a lot (and I mean a lot) of incoming players, so it could be that Samuelsson wanted to go somewhere he can play right away. Should he want to go to major juniors, then he’ll have to go to Sarnia in the OHL as they drafted his rights. As far as I can tell, he’ll be a Bronco.
Since Samuelsson is a member of the USNTDP, it’s hard to get a read on the basic stats. The program does participate in the USHL but the rosters change so much as to give many players looks. The USNTDP also plays plenty of exhibition games against college teams, international teams, and other squads. That said, here is what I found out through USA Hockey’s site for the USNTDP. In their non-USHL play, Samuelsson played in 58 games where he put up eleven goals, twenty assists, 93 shots on net (about 1.6 per game), and 113 penalty minutes. Samuelsson led the team in PIM, which isn’t great, but he finished with a solid 0.53 point-per-game rate and finished only behind Bode Wilde in both goals (behind by 1) and points (behind by 10) by defensemen. In USHL play, Samuelsson played in 23 games where he put up four goals, ten assists, 37 shots on net, and 67 PIM. Again, a solid PPG rate of 0.61, a shots per game rate of about 1.6, and annoyingly led the team in PIM.
The hallmark of Samuelsson’s season would have to be the World Under-18 Championships. Mattias was the captain of the team that went on to win Silver in the competition. According to the official PDF documents at the IIHF’s website for the tourney, Samuelsson was named one of the three best players for America by the coaches alongside Joel Farabee and Oliver Whalstrom. Seeing that he only put up a goal, an assist, and 17 shots on net in 7 games, his defensive performances must have been quite good to get that kind of praise. Curiously, the media picked Cameron York over him for the all star team but whatever. The point is that the captain did well at the U-18s.
Where is Mattias Samuelsson Ranked?
The USNTDP does not get ignored so plenty have seen Mattias Samuelsson perform. Here is how he is ranked by various people and services.
- NHL Central Scouting Services: North America - 21 (Final), North America - 17 (Midterm)
- Steve Kournianos, The Draft Analyst - 42 (May, Final Top 500), 48 (April, Sporting News), 40 (January Top 500), 51 (September Preseason 500)
- Future Considerations - 38 (Final)
- McKeen’s Hockey - 25 (April, Top 31 only)
- Hockey Prospect - 17 (March, Top 31 only)
- International Scouting Services - 31 (May, Top 31 only)
- Craig Button - 28 (March)
Based on the rankings pulled as of May 22, Samuelsson is seen as a late first-rounder, early second rounder. Steve Kournianos has been ranking him the most frequently - as he does - as somewhere in that later range. While a bit out of date, some of the services think he’s a first rounder. He slipped a bit according to CSS, but that could be a function of some players moving up as opposed to Samuelsson not playing well enough.
What Others Say About Mattias Samuelsson
Samuelsson was profiled in a February 15, 2018 article by Adam Kimelman at NHL.com. The article gives a general overview of what the player is all about. He’s big (we know this from his measurables), he’s physical (not a surprise given the size), and he’s developing on the offensive side of things (huh). I want to highlight quotes by two people. First, this quote by the Director of Central Scouting Services, Dan Marr:
“He utilizes his size (6-foot-3, 217 pounds) as a strength. Defensively he stands out. He understands the role. He plays within his means. He moves well for his size, he doesn’t over-handle the puck. He does know how to utilize his size asset and he does know how to utilize it within the rules. He doesn’t go out of his way to run guys, hit guys. His 1-on-1 game, he makes sure he handles his checks. On the defensive side of the puck he’s responsible with it.”
These are mostly positives. One of the concerns about bigger players is whether they can skate well and this suggests that he can move without too many issues. I do like reading from a third-party that Samuelsson doesn’t just solely use his size to make plays and that he doesn’t over-handle the puck. Not doing too much with the puck is, I think, a feature for a defenseman.
The other quote comes from Seth Appert, who is the coach of the USNTDP under-18 team. He had this to say about Samuelsson’s development:
“His numbers offensively have increased quite a bit here in the last couple months. Lot of that is from aggressively gapping and learning how good he can be at it. Because if you have to break the puck out from your own zone, generally speaking that’s tough to go 200 feet and scoring goals. Break up plays in neutral zone through your defensive gaps and your stick and your backchecking, lots of times those neutral-zone turnovers can transition to odd-man rushes the other way.”
”What he’s done a really good job of in the last couple months is challenging his gap, his footwork, shutting pucks down in the neutral zone and then transitioning the puck to our forwards and activating into the rush.”
I ran through Samuelsson’s game log and Appert is not wrong but not entirely right about the numbers. His USNTDP stats have a game log. Samuelsson had a very good January with two goals, four assists, and 13 shots in seven games. But he had three assists and seven shots in five December games; three goals and 21 shots in nine November games; and one goal, four assists, and eight shots in eight October games. So, yeah, the numbers did increase but not in the last couple of months. Just the one before the article was posted.
That being said, I like reading about these details about a prospect because it speaks more to what they do away from the puck. Being able to maintain enough space against attacking players without being too aggressive or passive is good for a defenseman. Breaking up plays in the neutral zone as well as back on defense is a good thing. Being able to make an offensive play after a defensive play is really important for defensemen in the NHL these days. The position really favors those who can contribute in both directions as opposed to the primarily offensive defensemen and the “stay at home” defensive defensemen of the past. A team works better when all five skaters can handle pucks and move them well instead of four or three skaters.
What I’m surprised I didn’t read in the NHL.com article is anything about his discipline. Leading the team in PIM at the USHL and non-USHL games is not a positive for any player, much less a physical one.
Moving, Ben Kerr has profiled Samuelsson as part of his Top Shelf Prospects series at Last Word on Hockey. It’s the 32nd profile for Kerr, so I’m taking that to mean that is about where he ranks him. In any case, Kerr’s profiles are always worth your time reading. Kerr does state that while he skates well with his large frame, he could improve his acceleration. In terms of offense, Kerr notes that he is not going to lead any rushes but he has a good wrist shot. I think that’s right, as you’ll see in a bit. Kerr’s explanation of his defensive game is worth highlighting:
Samuelsson is a big defenceman, who plays a physical game in his own end of the rink. He throws big hits if an attacker comes down his side of the ice, and also battles hard in the corners and in front of the net. Samuelsson sometimes gets into penalty trouble by being a bit too aggressive though. If he learns to walk the line between being strong physically and taking penalties, he will be an absolute force. He uses a long, and active stick to cut down passing lanes and is not afraid to block shots. Samuelsson is a strong penalty killer. His hockey IQ and anticipation are strong.
Ah, there it is. And I think Kerr is right. If Samuelsson can avoid costing his team shorthanded situations, then he can provide more value on the ice. It is comforting to know that he is not just using his size for hits but also to win puck battles, which is just as important if not more so in defensive situations. It is also comforting to know he is a part of the USNTDP’s penalty killing units as it does further suggest he has done well on defense. I’d love it if there could be a way to determine if he played against the other team’s better players, but stats at this level are not yet that advanced to even guess at that. It would not surprise me if he did, though. Still, this all points to Samuelsson doing well as his position’s namesake - when he’s not in the penalty box.
Kerr notes that he does not see Samuelsson as someone leading a power play, which kind of points to how he sees his offensive upside. There’s work to be done, but as he’ll be going to college, he’ll have the time and opportunity to do so.
A Little Video
There is one main highlight video for Mattias Samuelsson out there. SEER VIDEO has this compilation of scoring plays, a local television profile, and an AC/DC backing track. Nothing against AC/DC but SEER could have lowered them in the mix.
In any case, as this is a highlight clip, there’s more emphasis on the points Samuelsson picked up. The goals are worth checking out as they are just about all wrist shots. Just quick flicks that have enough weight on them to beat the goalie while on target. His overtime winner at 2:55 is a good example of that. At 3:27, you can see Samuelsson get a good long wrister on target, stay with the play from the point, and score later on the attack with another one. I’m not sure these wrist shots will work at the next level, but they do look nice here. Samuelsson showed off some speed and finish when he scored on a breakaway coming out of the penalty box at 4:30. He got ahead of the two defenders and fired a lovely wrister before they could catch up or foul him. And if you like bloopers, he got a bit of a flukey one at 5:44. Still, this video shows that he has a good mind for jumping up on rushes and taking wrist shots. He didn’t really move in too much from the points on plays where the team is set up, but that is not his thing.
I especially like the play at 2:40 where he makes a good pass off the boards to beat a forechecker in his own zone and then continued on up ice to join an attack. I don’t think Samuelsson actually touched the puck that eventually became the goal, but he got primary assist anyway and his joining of the attack forced the goalie to make a move that ended up costing him. I wish there was a defensive highlight video for Samuelsson to show off plays like that as they speak to what others point out about his defensive work.
An Opinion of Sorts
After writing up a profile on a defenseman who has an excellent offensive skillset and a really weak defensive one, Samuelsson provides a contrast. He is not devoid of offense whatsoever. He has a good looking wrist shot, he can join faster players on a rush when needed, and he has decent enough levels of shot and point production. But Samuelsson’s biggest assets appear to be more suited for defense. He’s big. He apparently uses his size well with his stick and throws checks without getting out of position. He can break up plays in the neutral zone in addition to his own end of the rink. He can position himself with players in motion. He’s done well enough to be highlighted as a top player in an international tournament (the World U-18 Championships he captained) despite not having impressive offensive numbers. These are all good things for any player; they point to Samuelsson being more of a defensive player.
That is fine, and I think Samuelsson will fit the mold of what that will be in coming years in the NHL. Like Steve Santini, even defensive-oriented defensemen need to be able to skate well and not handle the puck like it is a grenade. While Samuelsson has some ways to go before going professional, what I’ve read and the clips I’ve seen show a player who can do that. As Ben Kerr noted, he needs to be better about taking calls and to keep working on the skating. I think that is possible and, if so, then that will not only help in the long run for his future career in hockey but also in the short term for who he plays for next season.
That said, he’s not really in a good spot prospect-wise for the Devils. It’s not that he would be a bad fit for the system or anything. It’s about the picks themselves. I think it would be a big, big reach for the Devils to take him at 17th overall. There will be other defensemen (and skaters) with more to offer, whether that is more upside, more offensive skills, and/or more standout traits at that position. I’d rather have them take more of a chance at his USNTDP teammates like Bode Wilde or K’Andre Miller at that spot, among other prospects, and I’m not quite certain how I think about those two either (you’ll find out about one of them in a few weeks). However, the Devils do not pick again until the fourth round and short of a massively awful combine, Samuelsson is not going to be available at that point. I think he has late first/early-to-mid second round pick written all over him.. If the Devils had a draft pick in that area, then that would be a solid choice. They don’t, so it’s either one massive reach, a more massive hope he falls to the fourth round - which would raise the question of why he fell at all, or the Devils acquire a pick in that area. But I don’t think Samuelsson is so good that he would warrant the Devils to make a deal to move back in the first round or add a second round pick somehow.
I come away learning about Mattias Samuelsson with a positive outlook that he could be a good pro defensemen. He will help on defense and could chip in some offense here and there. He’ll use his size as an advantage and if he can stay out of the box, all the better for it. But I don’t think the Devils are in a position where they could realistically get him and conclude he’s one of the best prospects available with the picks they do have right now.
That’s my take on Samuelsson. Yours may be different. What do you make of the big defenseman from Voorhees? Do you think he can improve his discipline and skating? What about his offense can he work on? Where do you think he will go in the draft? Is he good enough to warrant the Devils to acquire another pick to go out and get him? If you’ve seen him play for the USNTDP, what did you think of him? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Samuelsson in the comments. Thank you for reading.
Tomorrow: Another defenseman with the surname of Samuelsson, but he’s unrelated to Mattias and Kjell and he was born in New York.