Another Swedish draft pick, Mattias Ohlund became arguably the franchise's all-time greatest defenseman.
Similar to the fine work nucksandpucks is doing counting down the top seasons in franchise history, over the coming weeks I will be profiling the top 10 Canucks draft picks of all-time. Researching this series has taken me down some dark alleys, such as the Wikipedia page of the team's draft history. Truthfully though, for a franchise often criticized for its performance at the draft, the Canucks have had their share of gems over the past 42 years...they just didn't always hold on to them for very long. Players on this list were selected based on both their impact on the franchise and their contributions to the game of hockey in general, with slightly more emphasis given to the former.
#9: Mattias Ohlund from Pitea, Sweden
Drafted: 1994, round one, 13th overall
Seasons with the Canucks: 11
Reason for Leaving: Free agency, signing a 7-year, $26.25M contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning
Everyone loves Mattias Ohlund. For 11 seasons he was an integral part of the Canucks' blueline, evolving from young offensive puck-mover to quiet, steady mentor. While he wasn't an elite defenseman, Ohlund did play in an NHL All-Star game (1999) and was a four time recipient of the Babe Pratt Trophy as the Canucks top blueliner (1998, 2000, 2004, 2006).
For over ten years, Ohlund was remarkably consistent in Canucks colours, both in his defensive play and offensive output. As a result, Ohlund now owns the franchise record for both goals and assists amongst defensemen, passing Jyrkie Lumme during a game against the Colorado Avalanche on March 15, 2009. Perhaps more impressively, Ohlund was able to remain an effective and productive player for years while saddled with (the suddenly outspoken) Brent Sopel as a defensive partner. Ohlund was Vancouver's best defenseman during that era, spearheading a Swedish movement along with Markus Naslund that would later include the Sedin twins and Alex Edler, whom Ohlund mentored during his final years in Vancouver.
Despite his legacy as a fan favourite and team leader, Ohlund's career with the Canucks got off to a somewhat rocky start. After being drafted 13th overall by the club, he decided to stay in Sweden after he failed to come to terms with Vancouver on a contract. He put up solid numbers for Lulea HF of the Swedish Elite League, helping them win a league championship in 1996. That same year, Ohlund led Team Sweden to a silver medal at the World Junior Championships and was named the tournament's best defenseman.
Still unsigned by the Canucks three years after they drafted him, Ohlund was offered a five year, $10M offer sheet from the Toronto Maple Leafs, with an additional $7.5M signing bonus. As a 20-year-old who still had yet to play a game in the NHL, Ohlund probably couldn't believe his good fortune and signed the contract. GM Pat Quinn and the Canucks were given a week to match, and much like the more recent offer sheet involving Ryan Kesler and the Philadelphia Flyers, it's a decision they never regretted.
That offer sheet was the first time a restricted free agent who had yet to play in the NHL was offered that kind of money. Appropriately, Ohlund ended up scoring his first NHL goal against the Maple Leafs on October 9, 1997.
Ohlund's career was nearly cut short prematurely after he was struck in the eye with a puck during a pre-season game in 1999. Similar to what Manny Malhotra went through in 2011, Ohlund underwent corrective surgery and missed the first 38 games of the 1999-2000 season. The injury required a second surgery and more missed games the following season, and Ohlund has been playing with reduced vision ever since. Luckily (and sadly, unlike Malhotra) the injury didn't seem to affect his play, as his most productive years were still to come.
In the summer of 2009, the Canucks were forced to let Ohlund walk after a lucrative 7-year contract offer from the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was sad to see Ohlund go, but realistically he was an aging, injury-prone player, and Alex Edler was ready to assume more responsibility on the blueline.
Ohlund has had his ups and downs since leaving Vancouver. His offensive totals have plummeted, as he's taken on more of a leadership role. Recently, he missed the entire 2011-12 season after double arthroscopic knee surgery, and faces the distinct possibility of not being able to return to the NHL. Ohlund had this to say to the Tampa Bay Times back in May:
I have to, for my own peace of mind, give myself a chance to do this. My last year in Tampa (2010-11), maybe, was the most fun I had playing hockey, ever. I'm not the player I used to be in my mid 20s, but you hit a point, like I said, that when you get older you realize how fun it is and how fortunate you are, and I feel like I have to give myself that chance. I don't know if that's going to happen, but I sure hope so.
At age 36, with a pair of bad knees and facing the possibility of a canceled season, it's an uncertain time for one of the all-time greats of the Canucks blueline. But if Ohlund is unable to find a home on the ice again, he shouldn't have to wait long to find a new one: in the Ring of Honour encircling the fans that he played in front of for 11 seasons as part of the Canucks organization.
Previous entries in the Top 10 Canucks Draft Picks series:
10. Patrik Sundstrom