William Eklund may very well be the first forward taken in the 2021 draft, but for most fans in North America, he's still an unknown quantity. The Swedish left winger missed the world juniors due to a positive Covid test and his late 2002 birthday means he was too old to play at the world under-18s in Texas. You'd have to go back to the 2020 Hlinka-Gretzky tournament for some highlights and Eklund did play well, tying for first in team scoring with five points in five games for the bronze medallists. But even the Hlinka-Gretzky is more for the hardcore than the average follower.
In that case, let's go to the experts on Eklund's quickly-developing game.
"He's good, he works hard," said one NHL team scout. "Really smart. From the dots in and from the corners in he's a really good player - very skilled that way. He's quicker than he is fast. He works and he has skill, which is a good combination."
Eklund played in the SHL all season after splitting the previous campaign between Djurgarden's main squad and several of the program's junior teams. This year, he developed some excellent chemistry with New Jersey Devils first-rounder Alex Holtz and ended up out-pointing his elite linemate, with Eklund notching 23 points to Holtz's 18. And given what we already know about Holtz, that's an impressive feat for Eklund. As it turns out, the two have been friends since childhood and with New Jersey slated to pick fourth overall next month, it's tempting to picture Eklund in a Devils sweater - though the kid said it would be cool to play for any of the NHL's 32 franchises.
Eklund's season wasn't all sunshine, however. On top of the Covid test that cost him the world juniors, he also had an emergency appendix removal shortly thereafter. That's pretty harrowing for a teenager, but a great lesson in dealing with adversity.
"Those things were mentally tough for me, I had to fight through them," Eklund said. "You see your season can go many different ways; you can have a good one in the beginning of the year, then those two things come from nowhere. So I had to be mentally tough there."
A big fan of New York Islanders center Matt Barzal, Eklund loves to study how the speedy NHLer operates on the ice.
"He's amazing to watch," Eklund said. "I look at the way he uses his edges in the corners and how fast he turns and gets out with speed. Also how good he is at finding his teammates, too."
For Eklund, there is still a checklist of what he wants to improve on himself. Shooting is one target, while he also wants to get better in tight areas (Barzal being a perfect model for that one) and gain some more top speed.
Having said that, Eklund is one of the most polished forwards available in the draft this year. He plays left wing but can also line up at center, while his coaches trusted him to play meaningful minutes at the ends of close games - which is pretty impressive for an 18-year-old in the SHL. While defenseman Owen Power is basically a lock to go first overall to Buffalo, there has been a lot of talk in Sabres media about the team attempting to acquire another high first-rounder in order to snag Eklund. But that would have to be a high pick, since Eklund could easily be the first forward off the board, his main competition being University of Michigan center Matty Beniers and WHL Edmonton sniper Dylan Guenther.
But this is also a unique class in that none of the players are guaranteed to jump straight to the NHL. Power and Beniers want to win an NCAA title with Michigan, while defenseman Simon Edvinsson has said he plans on spending next season full-time in the SHL with Frolunda.
"I think I have one more year in Europe, to develop into a better player here," Eklund said. "I've seen a lot of players come back to Sweden to develop and it's a good thing. We have a good coach coming in (five-time Stanley Cup winner Barry Smith) and a good group."
And undoubtedly, Eklund will continue to make that group even better.