Like so many Europeans who cross the Atlantic to play Canadian major junior hockey, Oscar Moller was largely an unknown quantity – a teenager toiling in the Swedish midget ranks suddenly thrown into the rough-and-tumble Western Hockey League. Hundreds before him have wilted under such circumstances.
But Moller is different. Moller is determined to succeed and he is more like a North American hockey player than many of his North American teammates. Yes, he has the skills that one would expect from a European import. But he also has that physical edge so highly valued in Canadian hockey. Though he stands just 5’11 and weighs a mere 177 pounds, Moller plays a big man’s game for the expansion Chilliwack Bruins, working the boards and corners, throwing his slight body at players much larger than himself.
"The defensemen in the WHL are a lot bigger than back home and they tend to play a lot more physical," Moller said. "But that doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve been trying to play like a North American guy my whole career, so I love it. I try to play like a kamikaze out there and go right at them. I just want to get the puck and I’ll do whatever it takes to get it. I have no problem taking a hit to make a play and I’ll hand out as many hits as I get."
Moller’s performance in the CHL Prospects Game Jan. 17 was a good example of that. Paired with Brett MacLean of the Oshawa Generals and Keven Veilleux of the Victoriaville Tigres, Moller was named the Team White MVP, scoring once and adding an assist. His squad lost the game 5-3 to Team Red, but Moller and his linemates were dangerous all night. Like his Swedish countrymen, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Moller has a knack for cycling the puck. Moller, McLean and Veilleux dominated Team Red with that cycling game, spending the majority of their shifts buzzing around the opposition net.
There are times when Moller’s in-your-face style gets him into trouble. His ‘welcome to the WHL‘ moment came during his first regular season game with the Bruins, a 3-1 home-ice win over the Kelowna Rockets.
"I was going for the puck along the boards by our bench," Moller said. "I saw a defenseman coming and I tried to spin away with the puck to avoid the hit. But he kind of caught me from behind and plowed me into the boards. I split my lip open pretty bad and I remember thinking to myself, ‘wow, is this the Dub?’ But I’ve been pretty lucky. I haven’t taken too many big hits, even with the style of hockey I play."
The scouting report on the 18-year-old is speed and shiftiness. On most nights he is noticeably faster than anyone else on the ice, and he combines that speed with the ability to shift gears on the fly, using an extra burst to get past a defender. He has soft hands and solid hockey sense. Like all young players he could use more time in the weight room, but strength is something that can be acquired. Pure skill is something that not everyone is blessed with.
"Strength is clearly the first thing he’ll need to work on to advance," Bruins head coach Jim Hiller conceded. "He’s got a big lower half but he’ll need more upper body strength. I think that’s attainable. He’s 177 pounds right now. If he puts on some strength in the upper body he can be a 190-pound player at 5’10, and that’s certainly big enough."
Hiller played 63 games in the National Hockey League for the Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers, playing defense against the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. While Moller is unlikely to come near the standards of those elite-level superstars, he has the offensive tools to be an upper echelon player.
"Beyond the skills, I think Oscar has shown such a great mind for the game," Hiller said. "He learns and he wants to learn and he really is a coach’s dream. He’s not a one-dimensional player. He plays the game properly at both ends of the rink. He understands the game and I’ve never had any issues with his defensive play. Combine that with his skills and I see a bright future for him."
Offensively, Moller has adapted exceptionally well to the WHL, playing on a line with Mark Santorelli and Chilliwack captain Josh Aspenlind. Though is team is on pace to threaten the league record for fewest goals for, Moller entered play on Jan. 26 ranked ninth among all rookie skaters with 20 goals and 37 points in 46 games.
"I think Mark, myself and Josh complement each other very well," Moller said. "And I’ve learned a lot playing with them. I’ve been focusing on a lot of the little details in my game and I think I’m getting a little bit better in every game. Small things like finishing checks make all the difference. I’d like my game to have the complete package."
Defensively, Moller admits he’s still a work in progress. He’s far from a liability, but he doesn’t do any penalty killing for Chilliwack and isn’t likely to be on the ice in the final minute protecting a one-goal lead.
"It’s something I’m definitely working on," Moller said. "I need to get better at reading the play and taking faceoffs. I used to be really really good at that, but it’s been up and down this season."
Moller is only a -4 this season, best on the team among players receiving regular ice time. That’s a fairly astounding number given the defensive woes that have inflicted the expansion team, and the amount of ice time Moller logs. Linemate Santorelli, for instance, is a -11 and the vast majority of Bruins’ players are lurking in the -14 to -22 range.
Central Scouting Bureau recently released their mid-season rankings and Moller ranked 35th overall among North American skaters. Once Euros are factored in, he probably would rate as a mid-to-late second round pick at the National Hockey League draft, which will take place June 22-23 in Columbus, Ohio.
"I think it shows that even though we’re a new team, we have players here and elsewhere in the system who are more than capable of playing at the next level," said Bruins general manager and ex-pro goaltender Darrell May. "We were fortunate to get Oscar with our first selection in the Euro draft and we think he will be with us for the next few years. That bodes well for our franchise as we try to develop a winning team."
The native of Stockholm insists he hasn’t spent too much time thinking about the draft, but it does cross his mind from time to time. It’s always been his dream to get drafted into the NHL, and now he’s less than six months away from realizing that dream.
"I try not to focus on that because if I focus on it it will affect my game," Moller said. "But it hits me sometimes how close it really is. I’m getting a bit excited and it makes me want to work all the harder. It’s like a carrot for a rabbit to run for. It’s just giving me more motivation to play harder down the stretch."
Like all draft-eligible players, Moller is diplomatic about his NHL choices. He insists he will be happy no matter who calls his name. However…
"My favorite team is the Boston Bruins, even though they haven’t been doing all that good," he laughed. "I guess it would be nice to get drafted by them and I wouldn’t even have to get used to a new team name."
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