Name: Helge Grans
Team: Malmö Redhawks (SHL and SuperElit)
Stats: 27 games played, 4 goals, 23 assists, 27 points, 10 PIMs, -8 plus/minus rating (SuperElit)
NHL Central Scouting ranking: 6th (European skaters)
Comparable NHL player: Jake Gardiner / Mike Matheson
When you start getting to the latter half of the opening round of an NHL entry draft, prospects usually start to fall into one of two categories: guys who can do a little bit of everything but aren’t spectacular at anything, and guys who have a high-end tool or two but are considered risky because of a big weakness in their game.
In my most recently prior prospect profile for the 2020 NHL Entry Draft I wrote about OHLer Tyson Foerster, who is one of the better examples from this class of a forward who fits into the latter category above (elite shot, but pretty-darn-far-from-elite skating). This time I’m going to cover one of this draft’s most notable defensemen who fits into this category: Helge Grans.
Take a quick glance over the numbers on the Swedish defender’s Elite Prospects page and you might raise an eyebrow: a point-per-game scoring pace in the SuperElit, Sweden’s top junior league; 21 games played in the professional SHL, with some recorded points tagging along for the ride; a listed height of 6-foot-3 and a listed weight of 192 pounds, which is ideal for a blueliner.
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.
However, if you thought the word “occasionally” in the last sentence above was carrying a lot of weight, you’d have been correct, and that’s the other shoe that unfortunately needs to drop in this article.
For as magnificent as some of Grans’ tools are, he needs a hefty manual (and maybe even a training course or two) about how to use them. It’s one thing to be adept at receiving the puck and getting control of it while it’s on your stick, but it’s another thing entirely to consistently make the right decisions about what to do with it next, and therein lies the riskiness of Grans as a prospect.
Simply put, his puck management is a problem. He is far more prone to turnovers and unforced errors than you’d like to see out of someone with so much raw physical skill. Sometimes he’ll skate the puck into possession dead ends, while other times he’ll send hopeful passes that get lost in the abyss, and both of these sorts of things happen at a frequency that is frustrating to watch as a scout.
And for all his tools and his good scoring totals in the SuperElit this past season, he doesn’t really project as a significant offensive contributor at the higher levels. It’s hard to generate offense from the back end, and Grans lacks the creativity and offensive know-how to truly excel in this area. His shot isn’t much of a threat, either. Best-case scenario, he could be a guy who can chip in 30-40 points per season in the NHL at his peak thanks to his puck rushes, outlet passing and ability to keep possession in at the blueline, but that’s far from a sure bet.
These sorts of issues persists when he is without the puck as well. Knowing when to pinch high or fall back is an important skill for defensemen, and this is something that Grans really struggles with. He’ll often get caught too far up, not sense the approaching danger, and then get burned as enemy forces rush behind him with the puck. You’d also like to see better reads and positioning in his own end, as he seems to track unfolding events a second or two behind the play and has trouble shutting down cycles.
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. It wouldn’t be a surprise if some NHL teams had Grans ranked quite high because they believe they can fix his flaws, while some other teams have him significantly lower because they don’t think it’s a feasible project.
The Dallas Stars haven’t been afraid to take big swings on long-term projects in recent drafts, so it’s safe to assume that they’ve been extra diligent with scouting Grans, who has a good chance of still being available when they pick in the 1st round. There are similarities (good and bad) between Grans and 2019 1st-rounder Thomas Harley, so being able to get another Harley-like prospect, but one who can help plug the organization’s shortage of high-end, right-shooting defense prospects, could be of much interest to them.