Back in September, Soderstrom took part in his first NHL training camp and pre-season after being selected 11th overall by the Arizona Coyotes in this year’s draft. Following an exhibition game in Vancouver, a reporter asked the slick Brynas Gavle product if he was wearing #77 as a tribute to Victor Hedman, the 2018 Norris Trophy winner with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Soderstrom responded: “Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, Victor Hedman. They’ve all been really good players. Phil Esposito, too.”
That’s a whole lot of attention to detail. And Soderstrom is equally meticulous with his on-ice performance. No wonder he’s on Swedish head coach Tomas Monten’s top pairing with Rasmus Sandin at the IIHF World Junior Championship. In the 5-2 win over Switzerland on Saturday, Soderstrom played a team-high 21:18. He leads all Swedish blueliners with three points (0+3=3).
Of his chemistry with Sandin, who played six games for the Toronto Maple Leafs in October, Soderstrom said: “We actually played together when we were 16, back in Brynas. So I like to play with him. He’s a really good player and we’ve got good chemistry. It’s fun.”
“I think it was a good learning experience for me,” he recalled. “Obviously it was really big for the whole country, and I was happy for all the guys on the team that we won. They did an awesome job. But it was hard for me sitting and watching TV. I couldn’t even be there on doctor’s orders. It was tough seeing the team having such success and not being able to be part of it on the ice.”
Things are certainly looking brighter this year. In his SHL sophomore season, Soderstrom’s points production (2+7=9 in 15 games) has already surpassed last year’s output (4+3=7 in 44 games).
While he has yet to make his NHL regular-season debut with Arizona, he has no regrets about staying in Sweden. It’s part of the development process for the 181-cm, 80-kg teen, who is in regular contact with Arizona GM John Chayka and the club’s skills coaches. He also appreciates the support he got in the Valley of the Sun from fellow Swedes like Carl Soderberg and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, in whose house he lived for more than a month.
Of course, not every puck goes in. Soderstrom surprised everyone, including himself, when his rising shot knocked the visor off the helmet of Switzerland’s Mika Henauer on Saturday. Asked if he’d ever done that before, Soderstrom chuckled: “No, never actually! It was the first time. I hope he’s OK.”
A dynamic skater and puck-mover, Soderstrom is more than OK, according to his teammates. Just ask David Gustafsson of the Winnipeg Jets: “Sweden is a country with a lot of skilled defencemen, and you can see that Victor Soderstrom is the new guy. A big offensive D-man, similar to Adam Boqvist, Erik Karlsson, and those guys.”
The deep Swedish World Junior blue line, which also features 2019 NHL first-round picks like Philip Broberg (Edmonton) and Tobias Bjornfot (Los Angeles), must meet expectations if the Juniorkronorna are to win their third gold medal ever (1981, 2012). In Trinec, the team has two group games left against Kazakhstan and Slovakia to fine-tune their system and potentially stretch their record preliminary-round winning streak to 52 games.
Soderstrom’s nerdiness has its limits, such as when it comes to analyzing that streak: “I think it’s only the media who talks about that. We don’t really talk about it in the locker room.”
Regrettably, when he’s with the national team, he also usually just gets the number he’s assigned, instead of personally assessing its historic dimensions. So if you assume he’s channeling Maurice “Rocket” Richard or Gordie Howe by sporting #9 at this tournament, alas, it’s not so.
Yet even if this kid only turns out to be half as good as Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, or Victor Hedman, he’s in for one heck of a pro career. (Not to mention Phil Esposito.) Meanwhile, one suspects Soderstrom still has another level to attain in the Czech Republic.