The Long Road of Victor Olofsson

The date was March 30th, 2019. The scene was very familiar to Sabres’ fans. The team was down 5-0 on the road against the New York Islanders. Buffalo had been given a meaningless power-play with about seven minutes left in regulation. After losing possession, the Islanders fired the puck up the near-side boards. Captain Jack Eichel made a nifty play by batting the puck out of the air, as it was sailing out of the zone.

He then spotted a Sabres player alone on the opposite side of the ice. He slid the puck to this player, who walked in from far circle and unleashed a blistering wrist shot that beat goaltender Robin Lehner on the blocker side. It was a meaningless goal in terms of the overall score, but it happened to be the first NHL goal for Swedish winger, Victor Olofsson. It also happened to provide a great deal of foreshadowing for what was to come in Olofsson’s first NHL campaign.

By NHL draft prospect standards, Victor Olofsson wasn’t overly impressive. He’s currently 5’11” and 181 pounds, but at his draft age, Olofsson was even slighter. He was known around NHL circles as a guy who could fill the net with regularity, who could skate really well, and who had considerable play-making abilities. However, due to his size disadvantage, many NHL scouts doubted his ability to handle the physical grind of an NHL season.

Thus, the vast majority of the 2014 NHL Draft passed by and Victor Olofsson’s name was never called. It’s been said by NHL executives that once the 7th round comes around, you start really leaning on your regional scouts. These are the picks that can really accelerate a scout’s career. It’s at this point where you’re trying to uncover the diamonds in a sea of roughage. The chances that the player you select in the 7th round actually plays for an NHL team is less than 20%. However, with pick 181 in the draft, General Manager Tim Murray decided to roll the dice on the slight Swedish winger with significant offensive skills and selected Olofsson.

Most prognosticators believed that if Olofsson was going to make it to the NHL, a few things had to happen. First, he had to show that his size wasn’t going to be a deterrent to his overall game. Secondly, he had to be put in a position to allow his offensive gifts to shine. Finally, he was going to have to prove all of these things against men in some of the toughest competition in the world.

Olofsson played the vast majority of his junior and minor pro careers for the MODO program of Sweden. In his draft season of 2013-14, he played for MODO Hockey J20 of the SuperElit league, and he had what most would call a plus season for a player looking to be drafted. Olofsson notched junior career-highs with 32 goals, 21 assists, and 53 overall points in 44 games. It was enough to get him on the radars of NHL people and helped him to get drafted.

After being drafted, Olofsson played two more seasons for the MODO program, however now he was promoted to the highest level for the organization and was playing against men in the SHL. He accorded himself just fine in one of the finest leagues in the world by compiling 47 points in 88 games.

However, not everything was rosy for the MODO program, as in 2016, MODO was relegated to HockeyAllsvenskan. This led Olofsson with a choice. He could either stay with the program that he’d been with for his entire career to this point, or look to other options. Olofsson chose the latter and signed with Frolunda for two years.

It was his time in Frolunda that really caught the eye of the Sabres organization, and gave fans a thought that this guy might actually become an NHL player. In his two SHL seasons with Frolunda, Olofsson was able to compile 36 goals, 34 assists, for 70 points in 101 games. The 2017-18 season was particularly successful for him, as he was able to knot 27 goals, 14 of them on the power-play. Both of those numbers led the SHL. At this point, it was time for him to try his hand at the North American game.

It was at this point that fans started to get excited at the prospect of a 7th round selection actually making a difference to an organization that was starved for offensive upside. That excitement was tempered a bit by Olofsson’s preseason, as he suited up for three games and registered no points. At the conclusion of the exhibition schedule, the Sabres sent him to the Rochester Americans of the AHL.

Most Sabres fans were not necessarily disappointed with the demotion but weren’t sure what to expect from the Swedish winger in his first North American professional campaign. It would have been acceptable for him to have a modest campaign. However, Olofsson didn’t have a modest campaign. He had a spectacular one. He flashed all of the traits that his pre-draft evaluators said he had. In 66 games, he put up a stat line of 30 goals, 33 assists, for 63 points. Now the expectations weren’t just, will he be an NHL player, but will he be an impactful NHL player?

Olofsson was called up for a cameo at the end of the 2018-19 season, and besides the goal that was described earlier, he was able to score another goal and add on two assists in his six-game stint.

Coming into training camp this season, many in Buffalo’s front office believed that Olofsson had a legitimate shot to make the big-league roster. Much was hinging on his performance in training camp and in the pre-season. Where he was shut-out in his inaugural exhibition games, this time, he potted three goals in the three games that he played. This was good enough for first-year Sabres head-coach Ralph Krueger to keep Olofsson on the team to start the year.

The major question was, where did Olofsson fit in on the roster? The natural thought is, if he can keep up with Jack Eichel’s skating, maybe that would be the best spot to put him into natural goal-scoring positions. Arguably no one on the team can pass the puck to open skaters better than Eichel and fellow line-mate Sam Reinhart. So, it was done, and the results have been most encouraging.

Olofsson had a great deal of success early on during the current season. He even made NHL history by scoring his first seven goals of his career on the power-play.

It was a familiar formula for him, as he would find space on the right-side half-wall, get the puck from Eichel or his near-side defense teammate, and fire a blistering shot past an unsuspecting goaltender. It may have been pretty basic, but it was working, and the Sabres’ power-play was clicking. His shot also had another effect on his teammates. Olofsson, because of his natural inclination to shoot the puck has created 53 rebounds from his shots, which is good for second on the team. Unfortunately, the good times did not last long.

After an excellent October, which saw the Sabres rocket all the way up the standings to the top of the league. Then, November hit, and the Sabres saw their power-play falter, secondary scoring falter, and place in the standings falter. There was much grumbling that maybe Olofsson wasn’t an ideal fit with Jack Eichel, and should be demoted due to his lack of production outside of the formulaic approach that he had success with earlier.

Of late though, Olofsson’s play-making ability that was discussed in his pre-draft days has started to surface. As of this writing, Olofsson not only has 11 goals but 13 assists to his credit as well. Right now, he’s only behind Colorado’s Cale Makar for the NHL lead in rookie scoring.

Olofsson has also flashed fairly well in the advanced metrics category compared to the players around him. He ranks third on the team in individual Corsi-for, with a score of 122, behind only Eichel and dynamic winger, Jeff Skinner. He’s known as an offensive presence, and he’s showing that to this point.

The questions for Olofsson will continue. Is he an ideal fit with Jack Eichel? Can he produce without him? Does he have enough defensive acumen to continue to be an NHL regular? These are all difficult questions to answer, but the odds were always against the former 7th round pick from Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, who has always been one to rise up to the challenge. Even if there’s only a 20% chance.

Craig Schutts
Millersville Alumni; Life-long Buffalo sports fan; Part-time writer and podcaster until they throw me out!
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