Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of profiles of the top prospects for the NHL Draft on July 23-24, 2021.
Sweden’s Joakim Eriksson was a teammate of future Hockey Hall of Famer Henrik Zetterberg in the late 1990s before Zetterberg arrived in Detroit as a seventh-round draft pick and then won two Stanley Cups with the Red Wings in 2002 and 2008.
Now the general manager of 16-time champion Djurgardens in the Swedish Hockey League, Eriksson has been fielding calls before the 2021 NHL Draft about his rising star William Eklund, who has often been compared to Zetterberg and could be the Red Wings’ selection with the sixth overall pick on July 23.
“They’re similar in style,” Eriksson said. “Zetterberg was a responsible, two-way center who could produce points (960 points in 1,082 regular-season games and 120 points in 137 playoff games) but also had a great record in plus-minus playing against top opponents (plus-201 in 17 seasons with the Red Wings).
“William has played more on the wing but he wins his matchups, he’s strong on the puck and creates plays in the corners. It’s not fair to compare him to one of the NHL’s greatest players of all time but they do remind me of each other.”
The 18-year-old Eklund has certainly received more fanfare ahead of the draft than Zetterberg, who was on the third line with Sweden’s second-tier Timra IK when Detroit selected him with the 210th overall pick in 1999.
Ranked the No. 1 international skater in Central Scouting’s final ratings and projected to be taken by the Red Wings in Ted Kulfan’s NHL mock draft 1.0 in The Detroit News, the 5-10, 176-pound forward played on the top line for first-tier Djurgardens alongside Alexander Holtz (first-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2020) and Jacob Josefson (20 career goals in 315 NHL games with the Devils and Sabres from 2010-18).
Eklund was named SHL rookie of the year and the Swedish Junior Hockey Player of the year with 11 goals and 23 points in 40 games.
“Our coaches trusted me and Alex to play on the first line with Jacob,” Eklund said.
“Jacob is such a great athlete and professional in the way he prepares for games and practices. He was a good influence on us. I focused on my defensive positioning and creating space in the offensive zone for scoring opportunities.”
Eriksson said Eklund also benefitted from Djurgardens’ youth movement during the pandemic driven by limited finances for older, high-priced players. Front-office staff took 15% pay cuts with the team finishing 10th in the 14-team league and lost in the first round of the playoffs against Frolunda two games to one.
(Detroit’s 2020 first-round pick Lucas Raymond didn’t play in the playoffs for Frolunda after suffering a season-ending elbow injury).
“We made a choice to go cheaper and younger because we weren’t sure about our revenues,” Eriksson said. “We gave William the space and he responded with a breakthrough year. Compared to Alex and Lucas, he played better than them this year. He drives himself and is very professional at an early age.”
Eklund, whose younger brother Victor is eligible for the 2022 NHL Draft, said he learned how to skate with help from his mom Mia, a competitive figure skater and his dad Christian, who scored 61 goals during 429 games with Djurgardens.
“He was really good with the mental skills like working hard every game and always giving 100 percent,” Eklund said. “He was mentally tough when he played. He was a grinding player who was really good at forechecking.”
Eklund’s 11 goals this year were the most by a junior-aged player in the SHL and tied his father’s best offensive output in 11 years. He would’ve done even more productive but he missed the world junior championships with a minor case of COVID-19 and he was sidelined for more than three weeks because of an appendectomy.
Eriksson says Eklund, who has played center in the past and is projected as a top center in the NHL, will be better off playing another year with Djurgardens, which hired former Red Wings assistant coach Barry Smith to attempt to lead the team to its first league championship since 2001.
“We believe many of the talented players in Sweden should stay a few years before going to North America,” Eriksson said. “We play only 52 games so there’s a better balance between games and practice. William would benefit from another year of development depending on which team drafts him.”
Eklund said he knows about Detroit’s history with Swedish players (eight Swedes were on the 2008 Stanley Cup team), is flattered by the “cool” comparisons to Zetterberg who is still a “Swedish hero” and is looking forward to eventually playing on the smaller ice surfaces in the NHL.
“You’ve got to always think what you’re going to do with the puck,” Eklund said. “You don’t have as much time and there’s always a guy on you. You’re also closer to the net in the offensive zone and there’s a scoring chance every time.”