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William Eklund: 2021 NHL Draft Prospect Profile—This Year’s All-You-Can-Want Center Prospect

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He’s quick, he’s agile, he’s got all-seeing ice vision. Is this top prospect going to be the next New Jersey Devil?

Who is he?

If you’ve been following prospects at all, this guy needs no introduction, but for those who haven’t heard: Meet William Eklund.

William ‘Give me the puck and I’ll do it myself” Eklund plays for Djurgårdens of the Swedish Hockey League, a team you may recall that is also home to Devils prospect Alexander Holtz. He’s a Swedish native, hailing straight from Stockholm. Eklund is 5’10” and 172, putting him right around average size for offensive prospects. Where he is not average, however, is his skill. Eklund is an offensive powerhouse. He put up better than a point per game in the J20 SuperElit last season, and this season managed 23 points in 40 games and 2 points in 3 playoff games in the SHL as an 18-year-old. The lefty center/wing hails from a strong lineage of hockey— his father Christian Eklund played for the same SHL team as William from 1994-2013, and his younger brother Victor currently plays for them in their U16 division.

Where is he ranked?

As is the issue every year, the top ten of this year’s draft is hotly contested, even more than usual without a consensus number 1 overall. Some rankings varying so dramatically one person’s #1 is another’s #10. Despite this, Eklund manages to fall within this top ten dog fight for virtually every analyst:

What others say:

“Calling Eklund anything short of a puck wizard would be borderline insulting. He’s the most talented of any draft-eligible forward in terms of pure puck skills... Eklund can be a tenacious forechecker who is willing to throw his weight around below the goal line or in the corners. He’s also attentive with an active stick while in the defensive zone, plugging gaps in the danger areas and shoulder-checking the points for a potential backdoor play... His anticipation and awareness are at the highest levels for a teenager, and most of his better scoring chances are byproducts of beating an opponent to a spot or exploiting a gap as it opens.” —Steve Kournianos

“His top-end speed is very good, but not quite in the great category. However, the rest of his skating skills are close to elite. His agility and edgework are at an extremely high level. He can change directions quickly, fooling defenders. He also has a quick first step and excellent acceleration...Eklund has a very good shot, but could learn to be a bit more selfish and shoot more. His wrist shot and snap shot are both powerful and accurate. He also gets both of those shots off quickly and his deceptive release can fool goalies at times...He is willing to work down low, supporting the defence against the cycle game. Eklund also does a good job of applying backpressure and helping the defence that way. His positioning is solid and he stays on the right side of the puck. Once a turnover is created, Eklund does a good job of moving the puck out of the defensive zone and starting the transition game.”—Ben Kerr, Last Word on Sports

“Eklund provides just as much excitement in his game as [Fabian] Lysell, as he plays and thinks the game at a quicker pace. He’s very quick with his feet and has excellent vision to read the play extremely well as he’s a great playmaker and shooter.”—Peter Baracchini, The Hockey Writers

“Like Alexander Holtz before him, he just knows how to put the puck in the net. He also has the creativity and playmaking abilities that will make him a multi-faceted threat in the NHL.”—Matthew Zator, The Hockey Writers

“Eklund is the highest IQ player in this draft. He already understands coverages better than most NHL top six forwards.... He turns players inside out regularly on the cycle, not through outrageous moves, but by cutting back on himself at the very moments his marker least expects him to, leaving them out of position and with Eklund free to walk in towards goal... He does not have the heaviest or most accurate shot, but with the positions he manages to get to almost every shift it is rare that when the puck comes to him he is not in a dangerous shot location... If Sidney Crosby is the “King of the Grinders” then William Eklund is one of the Princes. His style of play, combined with his high IQ, means that he rarely “needs” to pull a rabbit out of the hat and make a wonder-play. He gets space almost every shift with ease.... Despite being a smaller player he really does relish mixing it up, both with and without the puck. He will take a hit to make a play as well as engage around the net and along the boards... He never gives up on a play, even if every-one on ice left it for dead a long time before. As would be expected, therefore, his forechecking is relentless, and he causes turnovers regularly with a very active stick.” — Alexander Appleyard, Smaht Scouting

Highlights:

My Thoughts:

Despite the comparison to Devils prospect Alexander Holtz by Zator, there’s another Devils player that Eklum bears a strong resemblance to on the ice: Jack Hughes. Modern Jack Hughes that is, not Jack Hughes of his draft year, which is a notable difference and improvement. Eklund is a playmaker with filthy edges and agility to break a grown man’s knees at will. He’s got ice vision for days and can find room for himself or find a passing lane in any situation. The reason I say modern Hughes instead of 2019 Hughes is his defensive ability. Unlike pre-draft Hughes, who was basically above the defensive zone and his lack of defensive skill was notable, Eklund knows how to manage his defensive positioning and is a foracious backchecker, which is much more reminiscent of the Hughes we’ve seen this past season.

Like Hughes, Eklund has an excellent shot and can snipe corners with his wrist shot, but both his wrist and his slapshot lack power. His shooting percentage hit nearly 20% at times this season, but when you consider the proportion of shot attempts that get blocked, don’t lift when he wants them to, or just plain miss the net, that number drops dramatically. Shot timing and power are absolutely something that can be worked on at the NHL level however, and Eklund has never pretended to be a sniper. He’s a playmaker who benefits significantly from having a shooter on his wing. His right hand man for a few seasons now has been a name Devils fans should recognize— the sniper, Alexander Holtz. What Cole Caufield was to Hughes, Holtz is to Eklund. Eklund is a brilliant passer, and while he’s caable of taking the shot on his own or finishing the play in front of the net, he needs a good shooter on his line to be able to finish the plays he can’t make himself.

Eklund is not a speedster. Hughes, Hischier, Wood, and Bratt can beat him in straight line speed. However, he more than makes up for his speed in agility, and he thinks and sees he game just as fast as the rest of them. He’s capable of working in on his own to stall a play as you can see in the first clip of him, which is huge at the NHL level because that skill can kill a changing time long enough to get the rest of the line on the ice and in the zone. He’s also not shy of mixing it up, whether its getting feisty after the whistle, defending a teammate, taking a hit to make a play, or dropping a shoulder in the defensive zone.

So, should we pick him?

The better question is perhaps will he be available. If you’re drafting for best player available and Eklund falls to the Devils at 4th, it’d be extremely tough to see him continue to fall past us. He’s a tenacious and talented center, and keeping him united with his battle buddy in Holtz could result in a lethal pairing for us. I certainly wouldn’t be upset to see his name called.

That being said, I also think there’s truth to the school of thought of drafting for need, especially in the high first round picks. The Devils need defense, and the fact that there will almost certainly be a high talent defensive prospect like Luke Hughes, Owen Power, or Brandt Clarke available is a tantalizing prospect. The Devils also have significant center depth with four first round picks at center at the NHl level including two first overall picks, plus several more talented centers in the pipeline including Dawson Mercer and Tyce Thompson. We also need goal scorers— Holtz and Nolan Foote can’t shoot for all four of those centers. Dylan Guenther is a voracious point producer and all situations player who could slot in well next to any of our Cs.

Long story short, I don’t think Eklund’s skills warrant drafting him over another player who could potentially slot in just as soon to a much more needed position on our team. However, don’t think I won’t be happy as a clam if we pick him anyway—this kid is good, and he’ll enhance any team he’s drafted to no matter their roster situation.