One thing I've noticed since getting into prospects, the NHL draft and various rankings, is how there is a much bigger difference in opinions on defensemen than there is on goalies or forwards. Considering how differently people rate defensemen in the NHL, even when they are fully mature, in hindsight that shouldn't be surprising.

My way of looking at defensemen, defense in general, and defense prospects over these years has also changed – though not that dramatically. There are definitely skills and attributes I downplayed in the past that I acknowledge as pretty fundamental now, and other elements I definitely overrated that I've come down on.

Those changes in my thoughts are coalescing around one of my favourite prospects in this year's draft, Alfons Freij. So let's talk about why.


  • Position: Left-Shot Defenseman
  • League(s): J20 Nationell
  • Height: 6'1"
  • Weight: 196 lbs
  • Birthdate: February 12th, 2006

Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:

  • Bob McKenzie: 50th
  • Will Scouch: 5th
  • Elite Prospects: 37th
  • Scott Wheeler: 39th
  • Future Considerations: 77th
  • Dobber Prospects: 16th
  • McKeen's Hockey: 19th

Freij is a left shot defenseman that has played almost exclusively on the right side this year, both on his junior team and on Team Sweden internationally. He's also very often been used on the top pair for both teams, and in all situations – though not necessarily on the top units. On both kinds of teams, one of his teammates has been Leo Sahlin Wallenius – he is another left-shot defense prospect for this year's draft, who is your proto-typical puck moving, offensive defenseman who gets a lot of points.

In fact, Wallenius led their U20 junior team in points with 42 in 43 games. Freij was tied for 6th with 33 in 40 games. Their team as a whole was pretty weak as far as forwards go: Wallenius led the whole team in points, and defensemen in general were three of the top eight point producers and three of the top five goal scorers on the team. Suffice to say, the defensemen were more important than usual for the team's overall success – both offensively and defensively.

On Team Sweden, it was a similar situation – they are pretty weak at forwards for the U18 teams, with one of their top point producers being a year younger but playing up an age group. But on the international teams, Freij had the edge on Wallenius in points – he finished second on the team overall with 36 points in 29 total games, to Wallenius' 31. Freij got rave reviews in most of those tournaments for his two-way play, while Wallenius was used more as the top PP unit and general offensive driver even if he didn't quite have as many points. This is evidenced by the discrepancy in even-strength vs power-play point production between the two: In their junior league, Wallenius had around 66% of his points at five-on-five, while Freij had around 74%. Wallenius still has more even-strength points, but only just.

If it seems like I'm writing half of this about Wallenius, it's because the two are good measuring sticks for each other. They played on the exact same teams, have somewhat similar profiles, and had more or less the same opportunities. But their outcomes, tracking data, and projection diverge in important ways. This is why I'm higher on Freij, and why he gets a profile written about him instead. The fact that he has the better outcomes, especially defensively, while also playing on his off-hand side is at least a minor bonus point I have in mind. After watching Wallenius in comparison to Freij in various international tournaments, I was always relatively underwhelmed, especially with his decision making.

From Lassi Alanen's Euro tracking data:


So let's dig into what makes Freij tick as a defenseman. There are three main reasons why I like him quite a bit, in terms of both his current profile and for his future projection: his skating and overall mobility, his offensive skill as a defenseman, and his potential as a defender.

Let's start with his skating, which forms the basis for much of his strengths both with and without the puck. Freij gets rave reviews as a mobile defenseman including that coveted "four way mobility" label. That refers to his ability as one of the better skaters among his peers in every direction – forwards and backwards, as well as lateral agility. Watching him on the international stage, I definitely think he looked like one of the better skaters in terms of both speed and maneuverability. He was difficult for the other team to pin down or check.

But there's another part of Freij's skating that honestly mesmerizes me while I watch him move. It has nothing to do with speed or mechanics, and everything to do with watching him choose where to be on the ice when he doesn't have the puck. He is constantly moving, not necessarily at a high pace, but I've noticed him swiveling his head and picking out spots on the ice – even if that area is away from the play. I notice this the most in the offensive zone, but he very much is a roamer who is looking where he can be to support the play and positioning himself accordingly. I've honestly never noticed this in another prospect before, maybe just because it looks more obvious with him as opposed to others. Most of the time, his anticipation and positioning in this sense winds up being accurate in terms of reading the play. Combine that with his actual speed and mechanics, and he can seem like he's everywhere all the time, but always involved in the play.

From Felix Robbins at McKeen's Hockey:

Freij’s biggest asset is his skating and should stay an incredible asset at the NHL level. His strides are smooth, he shifts his weight gracefully and turns on a dime. He uses crossovers to build up speed laterally along the blue line and uses C-cuts on defence to maintain his body between man and net, turned towards the play. While Freij’s mobility and fluidity of his movements are great, they aren’t necessarily things that set him apart from other defencemen in his region. However, in combination with the explosiveness of his north-south speed, I don’t think there is a single defenceman that can touch him.

Freij is #86 in all the above clips

The other area where Freij profiles very strong is with his offensive ability, and his skating helps a lot in this area. I quite like Freij's ability with the puck on his stick and what he can do with it, but an important caveat is that I mean this as a defenseman. One of the things I definitely overrated in the past was 'offensive skill' in defense prospects, though back then I mostly meant it like I did with forwards – slick dekes, good shot, making the same kind of passes that great passing forwards do. What I think is more important now is the ability for a defenseman to support the offense, because in all but the most rare circumstances a defenseman simply won't have the same level of skill and opportunity to produce goals and points that forwards will.

So when I say I like Freij's offensive skill, I mean how he moves the puck. Eluding forecheckers in his own end to be able to pass or carry the puck out with control. Pushing the puck up the ice quickly to get it into the offensive zone before the defense can set up. Keeping the puck moving in the offensive zone so the forwards have a chance to do something dangerous. The fact that Freij also has a good amount of skill to contribute comes when he has the chance to – when a forward comes high in the cycle, and he jumps into the play in the vacant area to act as another forward, so any pass or shot he takes that could generate a point comes from more dangerous areas. These are the kinds of things that Freij is good at, he's not going to get the puck at the point and take a huge slapshot or deke through two or three opponents between him and the net and then snipe it all on his own.

From Will Scouch:

His skating, deception, skill level and quickness are elite. His ability to think creatively to make space for himself and create diversions is unique in this class. He generates offense without relying on point shots and d-to-d passing, able to create passing lanes and push into the offensive zone... There’s a real Sam Girard-type quality to his game, with excellent edges and creativity to push play offensively.

Freij is #86 in all the above clips

Now we come to Freij's defense, and this is an area I will fully admit is more about future projection than his current level of ability. I'll first state that he has already shown that he can be a very effective defender, both in the neutral zone and in his own end. The issues he has with defending comes more with his consistency than anything. But in some of the big international tournaments he's played in this year, Freij has shown he can be one of the top overall defenseman among his peers – and that includes his defensive ability.

From Lassi Alanen at Elite Prospects:

Alfons Freij was the rock of Sweden's defence for large parts of the tournament. He might not be quite as smooth of a skater as Sahlin Wallenius, but his explosiveness and four-way mobility are very much comparable. He's also the superior defensive skater, more aggressive in how he gaps up and forces breakups near his blue line.
His powerful lateral movement allows him to make stops off the rush, in addition to having an active defensive stick and willingness to engage physically along the boards.

Freij is #86 in all the above clips


I've held off on making this comparison to this point for a reason, but in many ways Freij reminds me of Topi Niemelä. I mean this in terms of their skating, offensive ability, and their 'defensive promise'. But... Niemelä's defensive ability never really came along. In fact, I'd say it hasn't seemed to have really improved very much at all since he was drafted, while his offense very much did. It's kind of funny because I remember when he was drafted, it was more his defensive promise that drove almost all of his hype and his offensive growth came almost out of nowhere.

The issues with Freij's defense has to do with his consistency, and that comes down to some questionable decision making at times. He can try to be too aggressive at bad times and get burned for it, which is somewhat covered up by his great skating ability allowing him to recover more often than others could. But he can also be too passive at times, giving way too much time and space for an opponent to make a play.

If I overrated certain kinds of offensive skill in defense prospects in the past, one area I definitely underrated was defensive ability. This is partly experience – I've now seen first hand how many 'offensive' defensemen prospects struggled to really make it in the NHL without having their defense at a good enough level. Offense is not enough. You can point out your Cale Makar's, Quinn Hughes' and Morgan Rielly's all you want, but they both have defense that is 'good enough' at the NHL level AND have truly elite NHL offensive skill as defensemen. Most 'offensive defenseman' prospects will never be at an offensive level high enough to compensate for sub-par defense.

Quite frankly, I've learned through experience (sort of) to not underrate actual defensive ability. That's why I listed his "defensive potential" as one of the GOOD parts of Freij, while listing it as a BAD part. The inconsistency he has means that there is something in his skills, size and ability to process the game in front of him that allows him to make good defensive plays at times. So there is the potential that he can refine his decision making, learn with experience, and improve in other areas that help him become a capable NHL-level defender. On the other hand, there's also the potential he doesn't. That's the big question for him.


All of the above said, I like Freij as a prospect. The comparison between him and Niemelä are not perfect, and in fact there are two things that Freij has going for him that Niemelä, by now, does not.

First, Freij has the advantage in size – he is already listed as taller (6'1") and heavier (196 lbs) as a 17 year old than Niemelä is right now as a 22 year old (6'0" and 179 lbs, and both seem generous to me). Those things do matter, as does the fact that he has a bigger frame to work with when adding muscle that definitely helps defensemen when it comes to defending in their own end. In that sense, Freij's defensive projection has a higher floor and ceiling than Niemelä's ever did.

The other thing Freij has going for him is time. Some prospects just don't improve, either in general or in specific areas. Niemelä's defense may have been an example of those who never do, but that doesn't mean Freij can't or won't. He is still 17, and he has time to improve his defensive consistency and decision making. Even if he doesn't improve it enough to be the next Hampus Lindholm or Nicklas Lidström, he just needs to improve it enough to not be such a huge liability in the NHL that his offense doesn't matter anymore.

This is why I think there is such a huge discrepancy in his rankings. It reflects how differently scouts will rate his current defense and how much they weigh the potential of him improving it to a capable level.

For me, this makes it difficult to try and guess where he'll wind up being taken. As of writing this, he just finished playing on Team Sweden at the World U18s against some of the very best prospects in this year's draft. He averaged well over 20 minutes a game, and I think was Sweden's best overall defenseman in terms of balancing offense, puck movement and defense. He added another 6 points in 7 games, helping Sweden win the bronze medal.

Personally, I like his profile enough to think he'd be worth a shot as a late first rounder, but also has the potential as a trade down candidate if teams remain tepid on him. If you think of him as a bigger, younger, and better Niemelä, how high would you take that kind of player?

Thanks for reading!

I put a lot of work into my prospect articles here, both for the draft and Toronto's prospects. I do it as a fun hobby for me, and I'd probably do it in some capacity even if PPP completely ceased to exist. But if you like reading my work, some support would go a long way! I pay for a few streaming services (CHL, NCAA, USHL, the occasional TSN options for international tournaments that are broadcast) to be able to reliably watch these prospects in good quality streams. I also pay for some prospect-specific resources, such as tracking data and scouting reports from outlets like Elite Prospects, Future Considerations, McKeen's Hockey, The Athletic, and more.

Being able to get paid for this helps me dedicate more time and resources to it, rather than to second/third jobs. And whatever money I make here, a lot of I reinvest back into my prospect work through in those streaming and scouting services. Like I said, I'd be doing whatever I can afford for this anyway, so any financial help I get through this is greatly appreciated!

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