For a guy who took a long time just to make it to a National Hockey League training camp, Philip Holm suddenly finds things happening really quickly with the Vancouver Canucks. And not always in a good way.
The 25-year-old Swedish defenceman, who went undrafted in the NHL but leveraged an excellent season at home into a free-agent contract with the Canucks last May, has had some positive moments during the pre-season but made a ghastly turnover that led to a goal-against in Vancouver’s 9-4 loss last Sunday against the Vegas Golden Knights.
“I wasn’t that happy because my biggest asset to the team should be in the defensive zone and I wasn’t happy with how I played,” Holm said before another pre-season appearance for the Canucks in their 5-3 win over the Calgary Flames on Wednesday. “The game here is faster. Back home, when the other team dumps the puck, you’re used to having time to go get it and skate it back up the ice. Here, I just have to find the easy play quickly.”
This is hockey; turnovers happen. Especially in pre-season games filled with entry-level players, many of them fresh out of junior or college hockey.
But Holm isn’t really a typical entry-level player and probably shouldn’t play like one.
He spent most of the last six seasons in the Swedish Elite League. He was the only “domestic” defenceman to make Sweden’s world championship roster last spring, when players from the NHL dominated the team.
Five days after Sweden beat Canada in the final — Holm was an extra — he signed a one-year contract with the Canucks, whom he chose over a handful of NHL teams that included the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks.
Most of those losing bidders could offer Holm a more immediate chance at winning. But the Canucks, coming off bottom-three finishes the last two seasons, offered him a more immediate chance of playing.
Vancouver general manager Jim Benning, who made a successful sales pitch to Holm during lunch in Paris at the world championships, signed NHL free-agents Michael Del Zotto and Patrick Wiercioch on July 1 to bolster a Canuck defence that lost Luca Sbisa in the Vegas expansion draft and Nikita Tryamkin back to Russia.
But there remains a good opportunity in Vancouver for Holm, who should be pushing Wiercioch and incumbent Alex Biega for a depth spot on the Canucks’ blue line.
Wiercioch and Biega are with the Canucks’ first team in China. Holm was left behind to play pre-season games this week with Vancouver’s younger North American team.
Given his age and experience, Holm should stand out.
In games last weekend against Vegas and the Los Angeles Kings, even-strength shot attempts were 26-12 in the Canucks’ favour when Holm was on the ice. But even with a goal and assist on the power play on Sunday, it was Holm’s glaring defensive mistake against the Knights that lingered.
“I guess I’m a couple of years older than most of the guys and I have some experience to bring with me,” Holm said. “But everyone just has to play their game and not try to be someone else. This is a bit new for me with the size of the ice and stuff, but I’m feeling more comfortable every day.”
Holm was playing in Sweden’s third division during his draft year, but at age 20 made Djurgardens’ first team in the old Elite League. After five seasons in Stockholm, Holm signed with Vaxjo before last season and was one of the best defencemen in the Swedish Hockey League.
He had 21 points in 52 games and led the league with a plus-24 rating.
“I don’t know if he changed or the league changed,” Benning told Sportsnet when asked Wednesday why it took Holm until now to get an NHL audition. “He was never a spectacular guy who put up offensive numbers. He just played a solid two-way game. Good in his zone, good positionally. He can skate and pass the puck.
“He made a lot of nice plays (against Vegas) but also had a really bad giveaway on the goal. But every player that’s ever come over from Europe has to adapt to the smaller rink and less time. That’s what he’s doing.”
Holm said all hockey players in Sweden are aware of the long history the Canucks have with players from his country. In Paris, he also talked about Vancouver with Canuck defenceman Alex Edler, Holm’s national-team teammate.
“Of course it’s always been a dream since I was a kid,” Holm said of the NHL. “I always wanted to play professional hockey, and when you get to one stage, you want to take the next step. I’ve always been looking to play at the highest level.
“From the beginning, when I talked to Benning, I had a good feeling about Vancouver. I like that they’re trying to get the team in a new direction. They have new coaches coming in and are building something new with young players. I felt it would be a fun journey to be a part of.”
As long as the journey doesn’t become an adventure in the defensive zone.