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Part of the plan: How Victor Olofsson carved his path to opening night

Forward has remained patient since being drafted in 2014

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Victor Olofsson came to North America one year ago with his sights set on playing opening night for the Buffalo Sabres. Instead, he spent the next six months in Rochester.

He responded the only way he knows how: a 30-goal, 63-point AHL campaign while working tirelessly on improving his two-way game and adjusting to a smaller ice surface. 

No rush. All part of the plan. 

"He made the best of it," Rochester Americans coach Chris Taylor said. "He didn't wait for two months or three months [to be] like, let's get going. 

"He took advantage of what he had and what was given to him and he took the bull by the horns and just ran with it, and it was him. That's why he got all the ice time. He deserved every bit he got."

Olofsson will be in the opening-night lineup for the Sabres in Pittsburgh on Thursday, beginning on a line alongside a pair of fifth-year players in Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. At 24, the rookie winger will be the oldest member of the trio.  

His journey to this point has been an exercise in patience. It's been five years since the Sabres selected Olofsson with the 181st pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, each representing another checked box in a plan he trusted would ultimately lead him to this day. 

"I've been trying to be real patient," Olofsson said. "I don't feel like I need to rush anything. 

"I feel like it's all been kind of part of the plan."

 

A lethal weapon

Henrik Gradin began coaching Olofsson when he was 15 years old, though he estimates Olofsson was as young as 10 when he first noticed his affinity for playing with the puck. 

Gradin recalls bringing his son to the rink in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, where Olofsson would be scrimmaging with the other kids.

"You could see, he always tried to do something with the puck," Gradin said. "He always tried to work hard on the skills. He was not just there to play a scrimmage. You could see he enjoyed to do things with the puck."

That included countless hours in the backyard with a bunch of pucks, a net, and his older brother, Jesper. It was here that Victor Olofsson's shot was born. 

Tony Olofsson - a professional player for more than a decade in Sweden - preached the importance of the wrist shot to both his sons. As wingers, he reasoned, they would rarely have time to get off a slap shot with accuracy. He implored them to focus on the wrist shot and try to score, every time. 

So, Jesper and Victor spent their time shooting in the backyard, unaware they were refining a weapon that would one day allow Victor to lead the Swedish Hockey League in goals.

"We didn't feel like we were really working on anything," Victor recalled. "We just kind of had fun out there. I don't know, I think it's turned out pretty good."

Olofsson had already refined his shot by the time Gradin began coaching him in MODO's youth hockey program. Gradin went on to coach Olofsson with MODO's Under-20 team and was an assistant coach for the senior team when Olofsson made the jump to the SHL as a 19-year-old in 2014-15.

"He always, always scored a lot of goals, in whatever level he played," Gradin said. "If he played Under-18 or Under-20, SHL - he always produced at the level he played at."

The only thing holding him back was his size. Gradin recalls Olofsson struggling to compete physically against older men when he first made the jump to the SHL. His shot was such a weapon, they dressed him as the extra forward and played him on the top power play anyway. 

Gradin, now a scout for the Colorado Avalanche, said the shot is among the best he's seen in a career that spans more than 25 years between playing, coaching, and scouting. 

"Oh yeah," he said. "His wrist shot, to be that precise, to really shoot that hard and be that precise - If he wants to hit the crossbar, he hits the crossbar. And, he hides his shot so well."

Video: OTT@BUF: Olofsson rips one-timer past Daccord for PPG

Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark played for MODO both with Jesper, who by all accounts has a similar shot, and later with a young Victor. Ullmark explained what it means to "hide a shot" from a goalie's perspective.

"For some guys, they open up the blade in a typical way," he said. "They hint with their shoulders, how they put their elbows. For us, it's more about reading the player than reading the actual shot because guys in this league, they shoot too fast. 

"So, if I just want to go off the puck speed and where the release is, I'm not going to make the save. I have to actually kind of read the player before. What he does well is he hides all those intentions in a very peculiar way. It's not unbeatable, but it's way harder to actually know where he's going to shoot."

Deceptiveness is one aspect of Olofsson's shot that makes it great. There are others. 

Ask Taylor, and he'll mention Olofsson's ability to miss the sticks and legs of opposing players while still maintaining velocity. Jesper will tout his brother's capacity to always know the location of the net. Roger Rönnberg, Victor's coach in Frölunda, might bring up his "scorer's mentality."

"He always shoots to score," Rönnberg said. "He doesn't shoot to collect rebounds. He doesn't shoot to get the puck towards the goal. He finds those holes that it's hard to cover for the goalie. He's a smart shooter, too."

American forward Ryan Lasch played both on a line and on the power play with Olofsson during the 2017-18 season, when Olofsson led the SHL with 27 goals in 50 games. He found that he could pass to Olofsson in any location and trust his linemate would get a shot off. 

"He's able to one-time it from different angles," Lasch said. "He was able to get it from down low or the half boards or even like a harder angle, from like the point coming directly down towards him, and still get his shot off and put it exactly where he wants it. 

"I think that's kind of unique about his shot. You can get it anywhere in his wheelhouse and he's able to adjust his hips and figure out how to place it where he wants. It's pretty special. You don't see too many guys who are able to make that type of adjustment like he does."

Ask Victor himself, and he'll tell you the most important attribute to a great shot is speed.

"I think probably the biggest thing is just to shoot it really quick," he said. "Just to get the puck off the stick as fast as you can before the defenders can get his stick there or the goalie can get in position, because then you don't have to be as accurate. 

"If you're handling the puck a little bit too long, everyone is going to be in position and it's going to be a lot harder for you to get that shot through. I think the biggest thing in my mind anyways is I'm just trying to get it off as quick as I can."

 

Staying patient

Video: Americans Made: Victor Olofsson

There is no extra forward in the National Hockey League. For Olofsson to accomplish his dream, he needed to add the physical strength and habits away from the puck that would allow him to compete with the best players in the world. 

That transformation took another step when he left MODO and his hometown to play for Frölunda in 2016. It's been a year and a half since Olofsson last dressed for the Indians, yet Rönnberg's enthusiasm still bleeds through the phone when talking about his former forward.

Why?

"One of my absolute favorite offensive players I've coached during my, soon, 30 years as a coach," Rönnberg said. "He's a tremendous guy. Open-minded, hard-working guy. Coachable. Great personality. He's a guy spreading joy to his teammates, too. That's some whys."

When he brought Olofsson to Frölunda, Rönnberg saw a tremendous skater and a gifted goal scorer who needed to close the gap in terms of strength and conditioning. Olofsson scored nine goals in 51 games that season while he focused on adding size and improving his defensive game. 

By the next year, the gap had closed. Olofsson's goal total ballooned to his league-leading mark of 27. His 43 points ranked second on the team to Lasch.

Lasch, who spent the 2017-18 season in Switzerland but had played against Olofsson when he was with MODO, was stricken by the winger's improvement.

"You're almost amazed at the transformation he made from two years prior to that to where he was that season," he said. "He just kept making jumps. That was my first impression, like, 'Man, this kid just keeps getting better.'"

Video: Victor Olofsson mic'd up at development camp

The next jump, Olofsson felt, was the NHL. When he went to Rochester instead, he utilized the time to continue to fine-tune his game to North America, from getting pucks out along the boards to making a habit of going to the net. Over time, Taylor saw him become a leader on the Amerks.

The kid who grew up focused on making plays with the puck even fell in love with killing penalties. 

"He's such a smart hockey player that all of a sudden, about two months left to go in the season, I started to use him on the PK and he just thrived on that," Taylor said. "It got him more ice time and he understood how important the defensive side of the game was. It made him better offensively."

 

The next step

Rönnberg has seen it again and again. An offensive player leaves Sweden to chase the NHL at a young age and is relegated to checking duties during his climb up the ladder. Eventually, he loses his identity. 

Olofsson strived to make sure he was ready before leaving his home country, patiently adding elements to his game that would allow his offense to flourish in North America. If he did it right, he trusted his chance would come.

"Maybe this year he has all the pieces in the puzzle right to break through in the National Hockey League," Rönnberg said. "I really hope so, because he will be a tremendous role model for younger players to keep their patience, especially goal scorers. 

"They need to continue to play at the level where they can stand out and play on the [power play] and get offensive minutes so they can establish their identity as a goal scorer." 

Olofsson spent his six-game stint with the Sabres last season playing alongside Eichel and Reinhart as well as on the top power-play unit. He tallied two goals and four points in six games. He tallied three goals this preseason, all on assists from Eichel or Reinhart. 

Video: CBJ@BUF: Olofsson dials up one-time tally

But hockey in March and September is different than hockey in October. The work has only just begun, and he knows it. Twenty-four hours before he would dress for the Sabres in their season opener, Olofsson was already thinking about his next challenge.

"I only played a handful of games last year," he said. "It's going to take another step to keep that high level throughout 82 games. It's a lot easier to just do that in a short term, five or six games. It's way harder to keep my game up over the whole season. 

"That's going to be the biggest challenge for me this year. But I'm looking forward to it, for sure. I feel like I'm ready for it. We're just going to see how it goes." 
 

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