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Photo Credit: Linnea Rheborg

Checking in on Oilers prospect Joel Persson

After Joel Persson signed a contract with the Oilers back in May, we haven’t heard a whole lot about the smooth skating defenceman outside of checking in on his stats with the weekly prospect update. Thanks to the interview done by our friend, Peter Sibner from Elite Prospects, we’re going to change that today. 

About a month ago, The Nation Network got together with our friends at Elite Prospects to put together a trip that brought a group of Swedes into Edmonton to attend three Oilers games and check out the city. When they finally arrived, we were able to lure in two of the top dogs at EP, Uffe Bodin and Peter Sibner, into the office for an episode of the Real Life Podcast and one of the things we asked them about was Oilers defensive prospect Joel Persson. At the time, both Uffe and Peter spoke highly of his puck moving abilities and knack for creating offence from the back end but they also admitted that there was still the need for further seasoning before he’ll be ready to make the jump to the NHL. So how has he progressed since then? Quite well, actually.

Over at EP Rinkside, Elite Prospects’ new editorial site, Peter Sibner wrote a very detailed profile on Persson and how he continues to defy the odds with his unlikely development path.

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Most NHL prospects were local superstars when they were six years old.  They got pitted against the best in their age group at regional selections in their early teens. More often than not, they got involved with the national team at around 16. Before 18, they usually had their first whiff of professional hockey or were stars in Major Junior. Soon thereafter, many of them will be drafted and nurtured and pampered by NHL teams for the rest of their careers, some until their jerseys hang from the rafters.

Joel Persson is not one of those players.

If you didn’t know, when Persson was 23 years old, he was doubling as a middle school teacher’s assistant in Kristianstad, Sweden during the day and a hockey player by night. The guy was basically Swedish Batman, living two very different lives. For Persson, the dream of playing in the NHL seemed about as likely as finding a unicorn, but he just kept doing his thing until the phone eventually rang.

“At first, it was just a coincidence. I think it was [Kristianstad coach] Mats Lusth who called [Växjö GM] Henrik Evertsson and was like ‘We have a helluva defenseman here, I think he’s worth a shot higher up.’ And we also felt we had enough depth in our D to take a chance on this guy”, Växjö head coach Sam Hallam told EP Rinkside about the championship contender making some people scratch their heads by signing a completely unknown defenseman from the third division last summer.

Defenceman Joel Persson of the SHL Vaxjo Lakers

After signing with Vaxjo, Persson was brought along slowly, spending some time in the press box before claiming a permanent spot on the blue line. He was an unknown commodity to most Swedish hockey fans but he had a range of skills that made him a low-risk bet for the SHL club.

“We actually didn’t play Joel a ton of minutes for the first three months. Patience, let him find his groove. But it was also a stroke of luck on his part. Cory Murphy had left a spot on our PP last summer, Ben Youds was brought in to fill it and then he got injured in our first pre-season game. Enter Joel”, Hallam said of the bad luck that became a stroke of fortune for Persson.

With low expectations and a strong work ethic driving him forward, Persson was up for the challenge of establishing himself as a legitimate threat from the Vaxjo back end. According to Sibner, the Vaxjo Lakers had experienced this type of delayed development curve before and Persson’s persistence and openness to coaching made him a worthy project that the team was happy to take on.

“There were some things we could fix pretty quickly, physically as well as some tactical elements. In terms of conditioning, Joel did a great job that summer. That alone allowed him to take a pretty big step, being able to play at a higher pace against better players. Straight away, we knew his play with the puck and his offense was at a high level. So it was a matter of working on some defensive positioning and one-on-one situations. That was our plan and when a player just buys into that, results will come. Still, we may have had our plan and offered him some guidance, but Joel himself is really the one that’s been putting in all the work”, says Sam Hallam.

Now in his second SHL season, Persson no longer has the benefit of playing with Elias Pettersson to help him generate points. Last season, the trio of Persson, Pettersson, and centreman Robert Rosen combined for 130 points over their 52-game schedule, causing many to wonder how his production may be affected without them. This season, Persson hasn’t taken any steps backwards and is on pace to match last year’s points totals with 14 points (3G, 11A) in 20 games.

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Since signing with the Edmonton in May, there is obviously more pressure on Persson to continue his development but the early returns are certainly looking promising. According to Sibner’s interview, Persson clearly knows that he has a mountain worth of work ahead of him if he truly wants to land in the NHL and make an impact, but the grind of getting there is something he’s willing to do.

“Of course, that’s my goal. At the same time, a lot of things need to go right for that to happen. I try not to focus too much on it now, I try to do my best here and become the best player I can be before that chance will hopefully materialize”, says Persson.

As you’d expect, Persson is saying all of the right things as he inches towards his North American debut and I truly hope that he can succeed on what he wants to get done. Considering the route he took to make the SHL in the first place, I’m not about to doubt the guy. Obviously, we’ll have to wait and see how things play out over the next year or so but Persson’s skillset certainly makes him a prospect worth watching over the next eight months or so. But can he really make it to Edmonton’s blue line? Sidner asked his coach that very question:

“Eventually, yes. I think they have a good plan for him in Edmonton. As long as he keeps working the way he does on the ice and makes sure to be ready physically when he leaves for camp. He’s not afraid to take a beating, he’s not shying away from physical hockey and he has a great ability to move the puck to the right address. He’s one of those few, really smart players who can deal with stuff by being in the right spot, lifting a stick here and there, picking angles and gaps just right”, says Hallam.

Fingers crossed, Oilers fans. Fingers crossed. Gord knows I’m pulling for him.

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If you have a few minutes, you should definitely head over to EP Rinkside and check out the full article about Persson. Peter Sibner took a deep dive on the defenceman and there are a lot of great quotes with Persson and Coach Hallam that I didn’t get to include here. If you take Sibner at his word, and I certainly do, then it’s possible that the Oilers may have found a diamond in the rough. It’s still very early but maybe, just maybe Joel Persson will be worth the wait.

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