The 2023 NHL Entry Draft is just under two months away. At the end of June, the league will convene in Music City, where the Nashville Predators will have 13 picks to use, including seven in the first three rounds.
With the 2022-23 season wrapping up for Nashville’s prospects, I’m shifting my attention more to the draft with profiles and rankings forthcoming. In my first notebook of this draft season, I took a look at three European defenders that could all be first-round picks.
Axel Sandin Pellikka | D | Skellefteå AIK J20 (J20 Nationell)
Sandin Pellikka is the top Swedish defender in this draft class, and he’s competing with David Reinbacher to be the first blueliner taken in June. Standing at 5’11”, the right-shot defender isn’t the biggest, but he has all the bona fides of a first-round pick.
Play at the U20 level this year, Sandin Pellikka notched 16 goals and 36 points in 31 games for Skellefteå; he also appeared in 22 games for their parent club, scoring two goals and five points in professional duty. At the 2023 U18 World Junior Championship (WJC), Sandin Pellikka led all Swedish defenders with 11 points in seven games. The Gällivare native’s best asset is his skating; he’s technically sound and excels at pivoting in every direction. He anticipates the direction of play well and gets a jump on where the puck is going so as not to need blistering speed to play good defense.
Sandin Pellikka lacks a bit of physicality in his game as he relies on his stick a lot in one-on-one defending. His crossover acceleration isn’t elite, leading to occasional breakdowns in his defense against more complicated offensive cycles. Offensively, the Swedish blueliner is an effective puck handler, who is very confident in his touches, but I’d like to see a little more consistency in his zone exits. When carrying the puck, he weaves around forecheckers with deceptive footwork and his head up, but he can still be careless in passing the puck out of his end too. In his puck-support roles, Sandin Pellika often anticipates open ice well, jumping up into neutral-zone lanes to benefit his team’s attack.
David Reinbacher | D | EHC Kloten (NL)
One of the biggest risers in this year’s draft class and the potential first defender taken is Austrian David Reinbacher. The 6’2″ blueliner has been playing professionally in Switzerland this year, totaling three goals and 22 points in 46 games with EHC Kloten; in five games at the 2023 U20 WJC, he added two assists as well. Another right-shot defender, you’ll hear a lot about how projectable Reinbacher’s game is—particularly on the defensive side of the puck.
Reinbacher is an extremely mobile defender who played serious minutes for a professional team this year. He may not have the edgework that Sandin Pellika does, but his forward and backward strides are mechanically fluid, and he accelerates decently well out of his defensive pivots. At top speed, however, his stride extension can break down just a little. He’s a physical player, but not in the sense that Lian Bichsel is. Reinbacher steps up in the neutral zone and challenges puck carriers, he bumps players off the puck as they cross the blue line, and he can smother opponents against the boards—most of the time—with effective angles and a solid frame. This is partially a product of playing in a men’s league, but Reinbacher can struggle to get inside a puck carrier to disrupt possession against really strong puck protectors. But through all that, he’s most often found holding down a position between the opponent and his net. One of Reinbacher’s best abilities, however, may be his ability to fill passing lanes on zone entries and manipulate his frame and active stick to force opponents into undesirable decisions.
Offensively, Reinbacher’s ceiling is lower than Sandin Pellikka’s. His hands aren’t as effective, and there are wrinkles to smooth out in his transition puckhandling. But he can be really effective when pulling pucks off the wall, away from opponents, or from a bad pass into shooting or passing position. He has a solid shot from the point and can get the job done, but I’m not sold on how creative he can be offensively in the NHL.
Tom Willander | D | Rögle BK J20 (J20 Nationell)
The last player I’ll profile is 6’1″ defender Tom Willander. The Swedish blueliner hasn’t garnered as much hype as Sandin Pellikka, but he’s lately been making a strong case to be a first-round pick as well. Another right-shot defenseman, Willander played much of the year at the U20 level, scoring four goals and 25 points in 39 games for Rögle BK. He earned a two-game call-up to the SHL and also notched three goals and eight points in seven games for Sweden at the 2023 U18 WJC.
Willander is confident in puck retrieval and can be aggressive in using his decent frame to fend off forecheckers. He’s a mobile player who lacks elite speed but who has good lateral agility when defending. Willander isn’t always the flashiest player, but he can shut down opposing offenses with good angles, good off-puck positioning, and an active stick. Off the rush, I’ve seen instances of him pivoting too late against speedier forwards, but that’s timing that can be worked out in the NHL developmental process.
Offensively, Willander also doesn’t have the hands that Sandin Pellikka does, but he’s fairly reliable in getting the puck out of the zone. Sometimes he works himself into trouble with a lack of acceleration against forecheckers, but his skating skills are overall pretty solid. Willander has a decent shot from the point and patrols the offensive-zone blueline well, floating down to close his gap on opposing wingers. However, he won’t activate as much as other defenders might.
All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com.