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2020 NHL Draft Profile: Helge Grans, big RHD you should actually want

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TSN will tell you the Leafs should want Schneider, but they’re wrong

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

In previous profiles of other 2020 NHL draft prospects, I’ve picked guys who I find interesting and who have different reasons that I think have made them “sleepers”. For reference, or if you wanted to read the other profiles, they are as follows:

Helge Grans will be the last profile I write ahead of the draft. I wish I had more time to finish some profiles for potential first round picks, like Anton Lundell, Marat Khusnutdinov, or Hendrix Lapierre. I wanted to write this profile for two reasons: 1) I really like Helge Grans, and 2) because people like TSN are trying to sell us on Braden Schneider at 15th overall and I think that’s the wrong RHD to target.

So, with that introduction out of the way, let me introduce you to who I think is the third best defenseman in this year’s draft.

Helge Grans’ Backstory

Grans has been in a group of a fairly large and oddly diverse number of Swedish defensemen in his age group. There is a set of four of them that all could be first rounders, depending on who you ask: Helge Grans, William Wallinder, Emil Andrae, and Anton Johannesson.

Wallinder had the size and eye-popping raw abilities, and Andrae was a small defensemen who racked up the points in every level he played. Johannesson flashed all kinds of potential but battled injury problems the past couple of years.

Grans, meanwhile, quietly excelled. Each season he wound up being promoted to the next level a bit before Andrae and Wallinder. He had Wallinder’s size and some of his own raw abilities, but managed to put it together to put up points at the same rate (or better) than Andrae.

Except, for last season, when it came to international play. At the Hlinka especially, he and Andrae were pegged to be the leaders on the blueline for Team Sweden. But where Andrae had 4 points in 5 games, Grans only managed one point and was said to have struggled. Short international tournaments like always get a lot of weight put on them — just ask Quinton Byfield.

But after that, Grans returned to the Swedish leagues and tore it up. He had 27 points in 27 games in Sweden’s U18 junior league, and played well enough to receive a mid-season promotion to the SHL for the Malmo Redhawks. There he played 21 games and put up 3 points.

If the point totals in the SHL don’t seem like a lot, keep in mind that he went from a top defenseman in the U18 level getting first pair minutes and a PP1 role, to a third pairing defenseman averaging 9:41 in ice time per game with no PP time. And by comparison, Emil Andrae received a promotion to the SHL a bit later than Grans and managed no points in 10 games.

And thanks to the pandemic, the SHL has actually started its 2020/21 season before the NHL draft even happened, so we can see a bit of what Grans looks like even further in his development. So far he’s played three games, averaging minutes the first game but 16+ minutes the last two. He’s earned 13:32 minutes in a bit of a bigger role. He has two points, almost equaling in three games what took him 21 games to get.

Helge Grans Scouting Report

As usual, I read every scouting report on Helge Grans that I could find. I also watched tons of videos and highlights on Twitter and Youtube. In addition, I watched some of the international games that are loaded to YouTube for free (like this one — Grans wore #3 for Sweden). Here are some thoughts I took from all of that.

If you want a nice video to watch breaking down different parts of his game, I’d recommend this profile from Yannic St. Pierre on YouTube:

Skating: Very Good

The first thing that any scouting report talks about when it comes to Grans is his skating. Despite being 6’3”, he is a very good skater — not just for his size, but an actually very good if not great skater. He won’t be the best skater in the draft, among defensemen or otherwise, but skating won’t hold him back from the NHL at all.

Grans’ skating would be described more as smooth than explosive. He can get to a good top speed, but his biggest strength is his lateral movement. He uses it to be nimble along the blueline when he’s keeping the puck in and trying to open up a passing or shooting lane. It also helps his offensive transitions, so he can elude forecheckers and make difficult plays under pressure to move the puck in the right direction. He also uses it to his advantage defensively to close gaps and keep opposing forwards from getting around him.

Here’s what the scouts say...

From Derek Neumeier at Defending Big D:

It doesn’t take long while watching Grans actually play to raise an eyebrow over him, either. Not only is he easy to notice out on the ice because of his advantageous size, he’s also a magnificent skater who is able to move quickly and fluidly in all directions. He’s surprisingly light and agile on his feet, and gets clean, effortless extension in his long skating stride.

Making matters more enticing, his hands can be just as fast and smooth as his feet are, allowing him turn opponents inside-out with confident dekes before utilizing his long reach to keep the puck away from danger. When he combines the two factors he can occasionally be an incredibly difficult player to strip the puck from, whether pivoting and protecting it in tight traffic to maintain possession, carrying it through open ice to help create a dangerous rush, or taking a quick couple of steps to gain enough time and space to connect an outlet pass.

From Benn Kerr at Last Word on Hockey:

Grans skating really helps him to play a strong two-way game. He has very good edgework and agility. This allows him to cover the ice in any direction, and quickly move in any way, all 360 degrees. He also has smooth pivots, allowing him to transition quickly from offence to defence and vice-versa. Grans has a strong lower body and good balance, this helps him to play a physical game along the boards and clear the front of the net. He will be even better in these aspects as he continues to get stronger and mature. Grans speed in both directions is above average, but he is not a burner. His acceleration is also decent. This allows him to keep up with the play.

From Smaht Scouting:

He skates well, with good power and impressive edge work, and while he is already a big boy he does not look close to being finished filling out. He also possesses nice puck skills, and he uses that ability alongside his skating to regularly skate out of trouble and send play the other way.

Here are some clips that showcase his skating....

This goal he scored when he was in Sweden’s U20 juniors. You can see him use his speed to blow by defenders, and his quick lateral cuts to dodge around them if they put themselves in his way.

This one shows a better example of his lateral movement, and specifically how it helps him on breakouts. It has two quick stops or cuts to elude forecheckers so he can hang onto the puck just long enough to find an open man and start the transition.

Shot & Scoring: Good Enough for a Defenseman

There’s not much to say about this one. He does not have an elite shot for a defenseman, let alone in general. He isn’t a high volume shooter, and has never really been a goal-scoring defenseman. That said, he does have a decent wrist shot from the point and can blast a hard one-timer from time to time, including the one goal he’s scored so far this season (highlight below).

When he shoots from the point, it’s more to find a screen, tip, or rebound. In that sense, his skating above helps him find this — and it reminds me a bit of Morgan Rielly in that sense. He won’t fire a shot off right away, he’ll try and skate along the blueline to open up a lane for a better shot. But where Morgan Rielly is legitimately good at scoring goals as a defenseman, Grans likely won’t be. The points he generates will likely come from his passing setting up goals, more like Gardiner in that sense.

From McKeen’s Hockey:

Not a big shooter from the blue line but has good technique. He mostly uses his wrist shot where pulls the blade closer to his body and releases the puck quick through the defending team. He moves well backwards across the blue line and has good timing for when to shoot but can also struggle to get puck through at times.

From Ben Kerr at Last Word on Hockey:

Grans is more likely to use his wrist shot than his slap shot from the point. His shot has decent power, and by using the wrist shot he gets it off faster and avoids having his shot blocked. His slap shot could use a bit more power though. This may come as he continues to bulk up.

From Smaht Scouting:

The Ljungby native has a good, hard wrist-shot that he manages to get space to utilize often, rarely struggling to find a seam to get a shot off. He fits the archetype of a modern-day defenseman, and loves getting involved in the rush.

Here are some highlights to give you an idea of his shooting. It’s worth noting that Grans, while able and willing to skate with the puck in the neutral zone, is not one to attack deep into the offensive zone. He wants to set up plays, and shoot from the point when it makes sense to.

Here you can see the goal Grans scored Friday night for his first of the SHL season. On a powerplay, he actually does creep deeper into the zone and wires a hard one-timer from the faceoff circle.

This shows off his wrist shot from the point. Watch him start drifting towards the center of the ice as soon as the scramble in front starts. Whether luck or good anticipation, he’s in perfect position to receive the pass and fires off a quick shot while he has a clear look.

Passing, Play-Making & Offensive Transitions: Great

This is where Grans will have the biggest impact as a player. His skating is very good, but it’s how he uses it to help him make passes and transition the puck up on offense that is what caught my attention the most. What the video report embedded above really showed is how often Grans will look around, shoulder-check, and survey the ice as he goes to retrieve the puck. It helps him see who is where, how much time he is, and where his outlet is.

The skating helps him elude the forecheckers for long enough so he can

From Smaht Scouting:

Once on the rush he does not lack creativity, and creates space for team-mates with soft hands and accurate passing. Already a veteran of half a season worth of SHL games, his passing and vision in the neutral and offensive zone also stands out. In full stride he can feather the puck to rushing team-mates, and also spring forwards into dangerous situations regularly. But it is not just on the rush that his passing ability shines. When set up in the offensive zone Grans can dictate play from the blue-line.

From Future Considerations’ draft guide (paywalled):

He looks calm with the puck and makes mature, smart plays, though due to his offensive way of playing, he sometimes forgets his defense and gets little bit behind in the neutral zone. Very hard to forecheck due to how confident and smart he is with the puck. He has great passing abilities and makes accurate tape-to-tape passes almost every time. Seeks out the simple, safe play in organizing the breakout, when afforded the opportunity. He sees the ice well and seems to find a smart and distinct pass for the teammate that has the best position in most of his plays.

From Kevin Papetti at Maple Leaf Hot Stove:

While I don’t see him as a high-end point producer, he’s 6’2” and moves around the ice well, so he’s very projectable. He’s more than capable of delivering a decent breakout pass — even when under pressure — and this skillset should translate nicely to the NHL level.

From Scott Wheeler at The Athletic:

Grans’ game still needs some refining but there’s a lot to like about his raw tools. He’s long, he can skate, he handles the puck well for his size, he can make plays as a passer on outlets or through seams in the offensive zone, and there’s a confidence to his game that enables him to take risks and execute.

Smarts & Defense: Mixed Bag

This is where the big question mark on Grans is. On the one hand, he can make all kinds of smart plays with the puck and sometimes without it too. In that Hlinka Semi-Finals game I linked to earlier, he played a smart game against a powerhouse Team Canada roster. He would cut off angles, push guys into the boards, and avoid making costly turnovers.

But in other games earlier in the tournament, he would have lapses of puck watching, misread plays, and have head-scratching turnovers. He can use his skating in one instance to step up in the neutral zone and close the gap on a puck carrier, then skate back to retrieve it in his end, shoulder check to see where the pressure was coming, and make a play to push the puck up the ice. Then the next shift he could skate the puck behind the net and into two forecheckers, giving up the puck without even trying to fire the puck on the boards around them.

The fact that he doesn’t always make these bone-headed mistakes is promising to me, because I think it’s a sign he can learn to make the mistakes less often. The other thing is that a lot of his defensive issues in his own end are exacerbated by a lack of strength. Against Team Canada I would see him make the right play and get the guy against the boards, but didn’t have the strength to keep them pinned there and would get pushed off even by smaller Canadian players. He might be 6’3” and 190~ lbs, but not a lot of that seems to be muscle yet.

As he gets older and stronger, he’ll be able to make those plays with more regularity and with more effectiveness.

Here’s what the scouts have to say...

From McKeens Hockey:

Grans has control over his surroundings and plays with strong gap control and can be very effective with strong reads, good stick work and strong backwards skating. He is a solid defenseman away from the puck. He still has flaws as he can get stuck a bit too deep in his own end (which probably is a bigger problem in the bigger European rinks), but I like the way he processes the game.

From Last Word on Hockey:

He maintains good gap control and if a forward gets himself into the wrong position, Grans can deliver a big hit. He stays disciplined though, as Grans does not get out of position looking for those hits. Grans is effective at cutting down passing lanes with his long stick and his size. He is also willing to put his body on the line to block shots. One area that will need to be improved though is that he can sometimes be inconsistent in moving the puck. He will make the occasional bad giveaway and needs to clean this up going forward. Grans battles hard on the boards and in front of the net. This is an area he can improve in as he gets stronger.

From Dayton Reimer at The Hockey Writers:

Teams love his physical tools, and they’re arguably some of the best at the draft, but his lack of physicality and defensive liabilities are cause for some concern. Despite his size, Grans is not an intimidating presence on the blue line, often looking for the puck and the breakout instead of trying to shut down the opposition. In fact, there is little physicality to his game at all, which could be a problem when transitioning to a North American style.

Grans also struggled with decision making and vision this season, often making baffling mistakes off the puck. He has shown to be competent in the critical defensive skills, but can still be a liability on defense. On offense, his mistakes are far less common, but not nonexistent.

It’s harder to find highlights of a player’s defense, good or bad. But here’s an example of him having a brain fart with the puck on a 5 on 3:

And here you can see Grans leave his man in front to join two teammates pursuing the puck carrier:

Where Should Helge Grans Be Drafted (+ Why It Should Be Ahead of Schneider)?

I think what sums up the dilemma with Grans best is this from Derek Neumeier from Defending Big D:

Something to be said about his weaknesses, though, is that at least Grans is willing to play on his toes and try to take control of the play from time to time. Being too aggressive is a problem, but so is being too passive. You want confident players who can shift into a higher gear if the on-ice pace picks up, and Grans is willing to do this both with and without the puck.

The big question about his NHL upside, really, is just how much can his decision-making and mental processing be improved through development and experience? Some guys simply need more experience and hands-on education to iron out the creases, and the improvement comes at a later date. On the flip side, some other guys just don’t have the mental makeup to think the sport at high levels, no matter how much time you spend with them.

So here’s the thing with me. I am of the opinion that draft rankings tell you more about the person ranking them than they do about the actual players. Let’s take this case as a question of Grans vs Schneider. Both of them profile in a similar range: late first to early second round for the most part. Some have either ranked as high as the middle of the first round, others as a late second rounder. Both have clear strengths, and also clear flaws that could limit their effectiveness in the NHL.

But both profile to have ceilings as good second pairing defensemen. The difference is in how they will get to that point. Schneider will be a “safe” option, where his skills (and they are skills) profile more on defense and shutting the other team down. Grans profiles as more “risky”, where his skills help his team go from defense to offense and dominating transition play.

The reason why you will have different rankings comes down to how much the person ranking thing values “safe” vs “risk”, offense vs defense, and so on.

But the thing is, I don’t think that pigeon-holing for either of them makes that much sense. Schneider might be more defensive minded but that doesn’t make him any less risky. He’s all-defense guy who doesn’t have the best lateral skating but is a good skater overall, and he makes risky/unsafe/costly turnover plays with the puck too. That could limit him to being a third pairing PK specialist, where the risk with Grans’ game could limit him to a third pairing PP specialist. Their ceilings are about the same, and their flaws could limit them about the same.

What makes me consider Grans as the third best defensemen in this draft is his combination of tools and how I weigh his strengths vs weaknesses. I think that in spite of his flaws, Grans’ skills could still lead him to being a good second pairing defenseman. A good possession player, great at driving play up the ice, makes the occasional and baffling “big mistake” that is overshadowed by his impact the rest of the time. And there is always a chance a guy with his tools can figure out how to play better defense — Auston Matthews is a recent example I can think of this. When he was drafted everyone talked about how he could be the next Kopitar as an elite two-way center because of the tools he had (size, skating, anticipation, etc), but until this season he was baffling poor at playing defensively. He did, eventually, start figuring it out.

On the other hand, I don’t think I can say that as confidently as Schneider. Put it this way, a big RHD who can make plays, transition the puck to offense and rack up 30-40 points per season at his peak while making baffling big mistakes could be Jake Gardiner. A big RHD who can shut the other team down but struggles more to make plays and transition the puck to offense as frequently while also making the occasional baffling mistake with the puck could be Roman Polak, Cody Ceci, Martin Marincin, and so on.

And if they both figure things out and reach their potential? Schneider could be the next Hjalmarsson, which don’t get me wrong is very valuable. But Grans could be something special, even if there’s an outside shot at it. I also think that it’s easier for me to see the path for Grans to take to fix his problems. Hit the gym and get stronger, work with a skating coach to make it elite, work with defensive and video coaches to work on proper positioning and how to read plays. The tools are there to work with.

But with Schneider? He has the defensive tools, but I have a harder time seeing the tools there for the rest of what he would be asked to do as an NHL defenseman.

For what it’s worth, Bob McKenzie had Grans ranked at 32nd overall — behind (in order) Guhle, Schneider, Barron, and Wallinder as the 6th highest ranked defenseman. I can see this, considering the first three guys on that list are more of the “safe” options (better defensively right now and play in the CHL). That’s typical of what NHL teams and scouts seem too think in regards to ranking prospects — prioritizing defense and “safe” over someone with more perceived “risk”.

As for me, and where I think the Leafs should look to take him? I still see Grans as a reach at 15th, just like I would consider Schneider to be a big reach. Both could be useful second pairing RHD, which the Leafs sorely need. But I’m not a fan of reaching on a pick to fill a position of need in the NHL when either player will likely not be in the NHL for at least another 2+ seasons. I would love Grans though, so if the Leafs get to 15th and wind up trading down 5-10 spots, Grans is a guy I would seriously want them to look at.

So what do you think? You can see more of his highlights in one pack in this video. Do you see his potential? Are you worried about his propensity for brain farts? Comment below where you think he should be drafted.

Poll

Where do you think the Leafs should draft Helge Grans?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    YOLO — take him 15th he’s what we need
    (14 votes)
  • 43%
    Take him in the late first round if you trade down
    (149 votes)
  • 49%
    Hope he falls to 44th in the second round
    (170 votes)
  • 2%
    Too risky for me, I’d avoid him
    (8 votes)
341 votes total Vote Now