Unlikely path leads Joel Persson to chance at vital role with Oilers

swedens-joel-persson-controls-the-puck

Sweden's Joel Persson, centre, controls the puck during the Channel One Cup ice hockey match between Finland and Sweden in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

"Finally," Joel Persson said, "I am here."

This is the story of a small town Swede who found himself on a one-way deal, when even the people who watched him play back home thought there was no way he’d ever make it to the bright lights of the National Hockey League.

"When I was in my younger 20s, I didn’t think I’d be here today. I was almost working a full-time job at a school for five years. As a teacher and assistant teacher," said Persson, 25, who worked with special needs kids. "In my mind I was seeing myself as a teacher. Looks like it’s far from teacher now."

As Oilers camp opened with the debut of Adam Larsson and Darnell Nurse as Edmonton’s new "shutdown pair," Oscar Klefbom emerged with the right-shot Persson, a lefty-righty pairing that would really be a godsend for the Oilers — assuming the new guy can play.

"Another Swede," smiled Klefbom, the Oilers team leader in ice time last season who has partnered the past few years with Larsson. "(Persson has a) good shot, good mobility… What I’ve heard from guys back home is that he has some really good qualities that are going to help us this year."

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Of course, those "guys back home" were talking about the Joel Persson who played in the Swedish Elite League with Vaxjo the past two seasons. Not the “missing Persson” who plundered through Sweden’s lower leagues in search of some semblance of a game that would get him noticed by NHL scouts.

"I played in the third league in juniors back home," said Persson, the son of a senior care worker and a door installation man in the tiny municipality of Osby, the rare Swedish town that has never produced an NHL player. "I was in the third league in men’s team, back home, couldn’t get it going, didn’t play a lot. So I went down to the fourth tier to get a bigger role, to play a lot. We almost went down to the fifth tier, actually. We played in a relegation (series) and we turned it around in the last game so we could stay in the fourth tier."

At six-foot-one, 190 pounds, Persson is simply a late bloomer whose game finally arrived in his early 20s. After a couple of years as a puck-moving, power-play defenceman with Vaxjo, Persson signed a one-year, one-way contract last January with the former management regime in Edmonton. From there, he made the Swedish national team for last year’s world championships.

"Obviously, I didn’t think I would be here one day," said Persson, who figures to have a few interested followers back in Sverige. "Well, I played in every league back home. I have a lot of friends at every level, so hopefully lots of people (are watching). Back home, when I made it to the SHL it was a big story back there. People were surprised back home when I made that step. Hopefully I can make this step too."

It would be found money for Edmonton if Persson can hang in for 17 or 18 minutes a game with Klefbom, allowing the veteran to make up his other five minutes a night on special teams. Persson ran power plays in Vaxjo, counting 53 assists in 101 games over the past two seasons. He’ll have to start by making the team here before head coach Dave Tippett entertains the notion of stationing Persson atop the second power-play unit.

How will Tippett figure that out?

"Play the heck out of him," he said. "The biggest adjustment for him is going to be the size of the rink. Things happen quick. Players are on you very quickly, so those are adjustments."

Tippett could see a player who had heeded that advice in his first day at Oilers camp, as Persson hustled back for pucks.

"Every race that he went back for a puck," Tippett noticed. "On the big ice, a lot of times when you’ve got a lot of room you can kind of saunter back there. There’s no sauntering here.

"He’s like about seven or eight other players on our team," the coach said. "We’re going to play the heck out them at training camp and see where it goes."

In Klefbom, Persson has a mentor who can help him through the process of the smaller ice, the new country and the quicker, bigger opponent.

"I’m 26 now. A lot older, a lot wiser," Klefbom joked. "I know how important it is to have someone on your side who knows the game here. It’s not easy to come over from Europe — adapt to the smaller ice, get used to the pace and the players in this league.

"It’s going to be interesting to see how I can adapt my game, so he can be the player he can be."

The right-shot position next to Klefbom is crucial, and will be contested by Ethan Bear and Evan Bouchard.

For now, however, Joel is the Persson of interest in Edmonton.

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