EDMONTON — Philip Broberg skated out of that U-18 tournament back in the summer 2018 as a can’t-miss kid.
So smooth and powerful was his stride, Broberg was equal parts Paul Coffey and Jay Bouwmeester, leading Team Sweden’s defence in scoring and seemingly destined for the Edmonton Oilers blue-line within months, not years.
Today, Broberg is 22.
He is not a project — yet — but he’s not a regular top-six defenceman, either. The window that opened that summer will not remain ajar much longer, on a team that might have to use him as trade bait come March if GM Ken Holland feels Broberg needs to be upgraded.
He is six-foot-three, 200 pounds and skates the way Lady Gaga sings. It was really a thing to see, back in 2018.
But Broberg has played just 69 NHL games, many with fewer than 10 minutes of ice time and nearly all of them impression-less. He was out there, you just didn’t notice him, is all.
He has dipped his toe into the best league in the world in as unassertive a way as possible, and that’s got to change.
“These two last years, I got some games. I got my feet wet a little bit,” Broberg said on Friday. “I’m getting more and more comfortable … and I’m working harder this summer. So (I’m) feeling good for the season.”
If you think that this piece is simply written by an impatient scribe who is sour that the prospect we touted in 2018 hasn’t arrived yet, the signs we see at training camp tell us his team feels the same way.
This is Broberg’s year. His final chance to finally arrive.
Although Mattias Ekholm has not yet participated in camp due to a hip flexor issue, we believe Broberg will be paired up to start the season with Ekholm — the same vet whose steady game helped to finally bring the best out of Evan Bouchard last season.
“Sometimes, you just need to kind of talk to them. Give them some advice, and they figure it out,” said Ekholm, who found himself seated in the dressing room stall next to Broberg when he arrived in Edmonton in March. “The perfect example was Evan last year. It wasn’t like I did anything to him, or told him to change something. It was more like, ‘Hey, just relax. You’re an offensive defenseman and you can’t really worry too much about the mistakes defensively. You just got to make sure you make up for it offensively.’”
Some older defencemen are just whisperers that way. Shea Weber was that for Ekholm when he was a younger player in Nashville.
This season, expect the pairs to go like this: Darnell Nurse will play with Bouchard on the top pairing; Ekholm and Broberg will play together, with the lefty Broberg in his off side; Brett Kulak and Cody Ceci will make a solid third pairing.
Vincent Desharnais will start as the seventh D-man and pressure those above him for ice time.
“He’s got all the skills,” Ekholm said of Broberg. “He’s probably the best-trained guy in the room: he skates well, he can defend, he’s big. He does have it all.
“But sometimes with young defensemen, they just need to … get over the hump, so to speak. Where they get comfortable enough to just play the game.”
It’s a delicate balance when you’ve built a team to the level of this one, where anything short this season of a Stanley Cup championship will feel like a disappointment. Holland has the luxury of having Ekholm bring Broberg along through the opening months of the season, because his team is good enough to put up with the inevitable mistakes along the way.
Come the trade deadline in March, however, Holland has to provide his team with a defence that can go all the way. If Broberg proves himself worthy of remaining in that group, that would be preferred.
If he doesn’t, however, that means he must be replaced. And if this make-or-break season goes in that direction, we would wager Broberg might just be the young player who goes out so the right veteran defenceman can be acquired.
So it begins, the education of young Philip.
The tools, they are plentiful. But the deadline for construction looms.
Because it’s not like this is an Edmonton LRT line. Completion of this project has to happen this season — full stop.
“I’m trying to do my best,” said Ekholm, who will foreman this project. “We’re both from Sweden, so we can talk. I’m just trying to give him as much advice as I can, but at the same time he just needs to figure it out mentally.
“To just feel like, ‘OK, it doesn’t matter if I make a mistake. I have to play my game and the good is going to come.’”