April 17, 2024

Willander impressing Canucks while still learning the defensive position

VANCOUVER — Tom Willander He is already projected to play a major role in the Vancouver Canucks defense going forward despite only playing the position full-time for a few seasons.

Willander (6-foot-1, 180 pounds), selected by the Canucks with the No. 11 in the 2023 NHL Draft, since moving on to defenseman two years ago. That gives the 18-year-old right-handed shot a unique ability to see the game through the eyes of the person he’s trying to get the puck to in transition.

“It’s easier to find out what situations you’re promoting with different passes,” said Willander. “Playing forward you don’t like to put the puck around the boards, it’s not too much fun when you have a 200 pound boy on your back, so it’s easier to understand what you feel going forward.”

The switch could also mean more upside for the smooth-skating Willander.

“There’s definitely a (higher) ceiling to get used to,” he said. “Last season I had a lot of games and that helped me a lot, getting used to it.”

Video: Tom Willander drafted by Vancouver Canucks

Willander’s draft stock rose with a strong second half last season, including 25 points (four goals, 21 assists) in 39 games for Rogle’s team in the Swedish junior league, and eight points (three goals, five assists) in seven games for Sweden at the 2023 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in April.

“To build a rock solid foundation for his game from playing defense for such a short period of time is really impressive,” said Mike Komisarek, who works in player development for the Canucks. “A lot has been thrown at it and you have to have the mental capacity to digest it.”

Willander’s biggest asset is his skating, but he’s also impressed with his defensive acumen, physical play, competitiveness and maturity that includes choosing to continue his development at Boston University this season rather than the more traditional path of staying home to play professionally in the Swedish Hockey League.

“Smart, quick feet, strong for his size,” Canucks assistant director of player development Chris Higgins said. “He’s excited that he’s coming over and getting used to the smaller rink, which I think is a big change for a lot of the European defenders in particular.”

That will allow Komisarek, who is based in Connecticut, to spend plenty of time with Willander as he adjusts to the smaller ice surface and tries to sharpen his game in college.

After selecting Willander, Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin already predicted him as the “perfect fit” on a future top defense pairing with Quinn Hughesmaking Willander “a shutdown role because of the way he skates and his IQ.”

If that sounds like a lot of pressure, Komisarek saw enough at development camp to believe Willander can handle it.

“The maturity level, the way he talks, the tone of his voice, the eye contact, the way he carries himself off the ice,” Komisarek said. “Right off the bat, he doesn’t behave like an 18-year-old.”

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