Considering that Western Michigan has 16 underclassmen on its hockey roster, coach Andy Murray must rely on freshmen to play valuable minutes.
So if the Broncos possessed more experience, Murray might give Sabres defense prospect Mattias Samuelsson, 18, a little less ice time.
But Murray feels comfortable utilizing the newcomer in all situations, most notably a shutdown role against the opponent’s top line. Just 16 games into his NCAA career, Samuelsson has become one of his most trusted players.
“He’s played more minutes than any defenseman on our team,” Murray said. “He has a lot of tough matchup situations against the other teams’ best players.”
Samuelsson, one of 23 players named to Team USA’s World Junior Championship team Sunday, has quickly morphed into one of hockey’s best defense prospects.
“In terms of minutes and responsibility as a freshman, he’s making a major contribution,” Murray said.
Murray said scouts have told him Samuelsson, the first pick of the second round at No. 32 overall in June, “was the steal of the draft.”
“He needs a couple years with us, but he’s going to be a great pro,” said Murray, who spent 10 seasons as an NHL head coach.
What kind of pro could the 6-foot-4, 221-pound Samuelsson become?
“I’d say a 24-minute-a-night guy in the National Hockey League,” Murray said. “He can skate, he’s got good mobility, real smart with the puck, raw physical strength.”
Right now, Samuelsson is about to begin a tournament with his peers in British Columbia. Team USA opens its schedule Wednesday against Slovakia in Victoria.
Having spent two years in USA Hockey’s National Development Program, Samuelsson knows how special it is to represent his country.
“It’s unbelievable putting on that jersey,” said Samuelsson, who also has Swedish citizenship.
No one on Team USA’s roster is taller than Samuelsson, whose size, of course, is a huge asset. The strength of college hockey players has been the biggest eye-opener for Samuelsson during his short time at Western Michigan.
“Everyone’s older,” Samuelsson said. “You’re playing against bigger, stronger guys.”
Samuelsson’s first months at Western Michigan have been a unique experience. His older brother, Lukas, is a sophomore forward on the Broncos and shows him the ropes of college life.
“Every day in practice, the game, you see him on the ice with you,” said Samuelsson, who also played with Lukas at Northwood Prep School in Lake Placid. “He’s always someone you can go to if you’re having trouble or whatever. It’s just special and something that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”
Murray said if he wants to talk to the Samuelssons, “they’re at Lukas’ place” off campus.
“They have a special bond,” Murray said.
Having coached their father, former NHL defenseman Kjell Samuelsson, with the Philadelphia Flyers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Murray knows the family well.
“Kjell Samuelsson was one of the better-liked guys and still one of the better-liked guys in the hockey business,” Murray said. “He was great to coach.”
Murray feels the same way about Mattias Samuelsson.
“The best compliment I can make is he’s come from great stock, he’s a pleasure to be around,” Murray said. “His brother Lukas is the same kind of personality. They’re just great, great kids. I know they enjoy being around each other. They hold each other accountable.”
Naturally, Samuelsson keeps tabs on the Sabres, who have become perhaps the NHL’s biggest surprise this season. The thought of joining the upstart team someday excites Samuelsson.
“I could be there in a couple years,” he said. “That’d be pretty cool. The guys won’t be too much older than me.”