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Sabres prospect Noah Ostlund does hockey’s hardest thing. He makes it look easy


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One of the hardest things in hockey to accomplish is making it look easy.

It’s an incredibly difficult sport to play and a near-impossible one to master. There are too many moving parts (sticks, skates, crowds, a bouncing puck on an often-choppy ice surface) for it to really flow and move in unison. Too much is left to chance and luck.

Even at the micro level, many players move in choppy stomping motions and stop-and-starts that take them out of a planned path and into a hectic, often scattered game of chasing. And many others are prone to bobbles that take the puck out of the flow of the game and into a game of reaching, and slapping, and fighting between groups of players trying to regain control and get the puck back into a more controlled pattern of movement around the ice.

Oftentimes, the players who have the fine motor skills to possess and move the puck within the flow of the game, lack the processing power to make decisions that will utilize that skill. Other times, players who understand how the game works and where to be to make it work for them, lack the touch and feel needed to get the most out of their timing and smarts.

It’s especially rare for a young player to have both figured out. It takes time to learn systems, and develop the good habits that make a player’s life on the ice a smidge easier over time. And even once you “get it” (where to be, where to go, how to position yourself), you still need a brain that can quickly process changes in the landscape in order to solve a new solution from second-to-second — and the dexterity to execute within those adjustments.

Sabres first-rounder Noah Ostlund, drafted with the 16th pick in the 2022 draft, is one of those rare young players who checks both boxes. He has figured out, at an early age, how to make the game look easy.

Here, through a review of six of the seven preseason games that he has played for Djurgardens IF in the second-tier HockeyAllsvenskan, I’ll try to show you what that — the ease — looks like.

First, though, here are some nuts and bolts on the player:

  • Height: 5-foot-11
  • Weight: 165 pounts
  • 2020-21 stats:
    • J20: 10-7-8-15 in his D-2 season, which led the team in scoring despite playing a three less games than his next-closest teammate, the elder Bruins prospect Oskar Jellvik
    • U18 worlds (bronze): 5-1-1-2 as an underager and the team’s youngest forward
  • 2021-22 stats:
    • J20: 37-14-35-49
    • SHL: 11-0-0-0
    • U18 worlds (gold): 6-4-6-10 as an assistant captain with Team Sweden, while double-shifting down the middle (named one of Sweden’s top three players of the tournament)

And here are the stats from the sample of play of recent August and September exhibition games reviewed here:

  • 6-5-4-9
  • +5
  • 19 shot attempts
  • 10 shots on goal
  • 123 shifts spanning 101:06 (just under 17 minutes per game)

The tape

Note: Ostlund wears No. 45 in all clips.

Some of the things that a player can make look easy are almost imperceptible (I’ll get to those here, too). By definition if they look simple, they are inherently harder to pick up on or be impressed by.  But there are some, if you look closely, that you can identify.

One of them is a player’s first touch. In order to track it, I’m constantly asking myself the following two questions: When the puck lands on their stick, how often does it die there, or do they bobble. Or, how often do they just accept it into their stride (bonus points if it’s a bad pass and they effortlessly catch and handle it in their feet?

If you’re even a little familiar with Ostlund’s profile, you’ll know that he’s a standout skater. But a player’s skating is really only as fluid as their ability to receive and handle pucks (usually in motion but sometimes standing still as well).

Watch the way he takes this puck off of the inside of his skate blade and directly into onto his blade and into an attack:

Ostlund is particularly proficient in that area of the game and it makes him an excellent transporter of the puck in neutral ice because it allows him to successfully take passes while moving more often than his peers.

You can see it on sequences like this, where after starting the exit, he pushes a bouncing puck into his stride and then makes a quick lateral pass when pressure comes. Naturally, the pass that sets up the chance is easier to pick up on than the subtle way he corrals the puck forward for himself preceding it.

A player’s first touch isn’t always about receiving a pass, either. When a carry does break down, there are sometimes second and third “first” touches that happen as a player re-finds a puck.

 

When Ostlund re-finds pucks, he almost always deftly plays settles it.

You can see him settle the saucer pass for a first first touch below, but watch the way he re-finds the puck in his feet while moving when the defender pokes it loose upon entry. It’s that second first touch as he kicks the puck back to his stick, that’s most impressive.

Same thing on this one. Watch how, when two guys in red close in and disrupt him after the entry, the way Ostlund pushes the puck with a quick little touch on his backhand and then steps past them onto his forehand:

Making the game look easy, and blending into the flow of it, is also about taking smart routes with and without the puck.

Neither of those things are easy things to master. With the puck, many players who can skate like Ostlund can too-often put themselves into tough spots by either skating ahead of the play without the puck, or by skating into trouble and/or low-percentage areas (like the corner of the offensive zone) where they have no options with the puck. But when players know where to go the game comes naturally to them.

With the puck, Ostlund is both smooth and crafty, but he also takes what’s given to him and you’ll rarely see him force a pre-planned route.

If you back off of him in transition and give him a generous gap, he’s going to cut to the middle:

If you’re flatfooted, like the defender is here, he’ll notice pick up on it and take a step outside instead of trying to force play through the middle:

 

Without the puck, he also makes the right choices.

Notice here for example how he could stay wide and drive the far post, or open up to the inside of the defender to get open for the pass. Going to the middle is the higher percentage play because it’s both a shorter pass and prevents the net-front defender from potentially intercepting it.

Here, a similar decision to cut to the inside to make himself available results in a drawn penalty:

Here, his skating, his pathing, and his recognition of a vulnerable defender come together to expertly jump the D through the middle of the ice and score:

He’s also creative, which allows him to use his smarts to invent something when the more common routes (a cut to the middle or a dash to the outside) aren’t there for him.

You can see that on entry plays like this, where he recognizes that he’s surrounded by four red jerseys and instead of trying to make something happen for himself, uses that crowd to his advantage by making an ‘easy’ short pass to his streaking teammate that allows them to switch the puck sides and gain the zone:

Similar principles apply in small area plays that all players at today’s highest level should be able to make but many still struggle executing because they lack they either lack an understanding of how to use spacing or they lack the feel on the puck required to place pucks into space without the proper weight.

Ostlund makes two short passes to his teammates here that look like quite simple plays, but you’d be surprised by the number of players who dust off the puck too long to see the first one or send the second one past the target because they don’t lay it as softly as he does.

 

He’s also excellent at adjusting even and changing directions/plans, whether weaving through his edges, crossing over, or even side-stepping pressure. That had made him a go-to carrier on the power play.

Again, it’s the goal here that catches your attention (nice shot, kid), but it’s his weaving entry (no bobbles, the right route, the right pass at the right time) before it that sets it up.

Despite the fact that Ostlund has a lean 5-foot-11, even the defensive side of the game comes seems to him easily and naturally.

If you ask one of his coaches about him, they usually describe him as a dependable two-way player who works off of the puck to get it back, understands the details of the game, can penalty kill, and excels in the face-off circle. One of the reasons he double-shifted so much at U18 worlds when Leo Carlsson got injured and the Swedes were down to three centres, was because of his strength in the dot and the trust he’d earned off the puck.

Some of that comes back to a lot of what I talked about in breaking down how his reads and routes make the game easier for him offensively.

He’s a superb tracker of the play who sees things develop before they do and then finds ways to get himself into spots to be a factor in what’s coming.

Watch how he anticipates the puck coming loose off the boards and tracks from starting this sequence in the right-wing corner to taking the puck a few feet from left boards here (even if the opposing player does a better job handling that puck off of the wall, Ostlund would have been right there to lift it off of him, too):

He also understands how to support the play without necessarily putting himself into spots where he has to try to fight and claw to win a puck from a competitive disadvantage strength-wise. It’s hard to win those battles. The game gets easier if you recognize you’re F3 (the third forward into the zone) and instead of chasing the play, you support it and make yourself available for a short pass when the time comes, like he does here:

And when you have those habits, eventually shots like the above turn into goals like the below. Again, he swings to the top of the left-wing circle to act as a support valve in preventing the AIS breakout. When the breakout breaks down (ha!), he’s in the right spot to pounce.

Even when he does have to engage in a battle, he also knows how to use his skating and body to best-position himself to gain the upper hand without ever needing to fight for anything.

The little bump he initiates here by turning into the opposing player in the corner after his back check is a prime example of that. Simple, but effective:

When an opportunity to gain inside positioning isn’t there, he also knows how best to use his stick to win back pucks.

He’s not in an advantageous spot entering this race for the puck but watch the little stick tap into a clean steal.

Similar execution below. He doesn’t steal the puck by pushing into the opposing player and taking it. Instead, he actually avoids making contact and slides ever so slightly under his stick to take it. There are a lot of other players (including some very good defensive players) who are going up and in on the defender aggressively on this play. Ostlund just does it a little quieter.

In control, his style of puck protection is quiet too.

Knowing his build isn’t well-equipped to go toe-to-toe with opposing players by playing the physically engaged, initiating style that is played by many (again, quite successfully in some case too!), Ostlund has learned the art of shading.

I refer to shading as a player’s ability to protect the puck without needing to initiate contact while still taking ice. Shading is not drifting to the perimeter (often ineffective). It’s keeping defenders off of you and manipulating your way into favourable spots on the ice without necessarily driving into them (quite effective). It can look like a hesitance to attack, but it’s not.

A player who drifts stays on the wall in the below play and makes himself easy to defend. Ostlund shades off of it, takes the defender with him, and frees another player to take the space left on the wall and take advantage of it where he couldn’t. The result is a secondary assist.

With the above in mind, watch this sequence play out almost identically. He’s not driving into the middle with any aggression here. But he’s protecting the puck off of his body just so, the opposing defender can’t reach in on him, and then he takes the space that a more aggressive player would have tried to attack into anyways. The result? Another secondary assist:

Here’s a third example, where he takes a puck in the corner and instead of allowing himself to be pinned, shades away from coverage while still swinging across the top of the circle (rather than up the wall) towards the middle of the zone:

And here’s a fourth example. On this one, he has no path to the middle so he doesn’t force one. But watch the way he keeps the much bigger defender off of him:

And all of this is without having shared with you the nicest play he made in the six games that are the subject of this review: a lacrosse goal.

But he made that look easy too.

And that’s just what he does. There are no bobbles. There are no stops to have to get a puck that he left behind. There’s no racing into trouble. There’s no chasing the play defensively.

He just makes it look easy.


 

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
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