Few people in the NHL had heard of Alexander Edler before the young Swede was drafted in 2004. He played defence on a third-tier team in his rural hometown, a seven-hour trek north of Stockholm and a place known for cross-country skiing and biathlon, not hockey.
Today, Edler is an imposing defenceman with a scoring touch, playing in his first NHL all-star game Saturday. But in 2004, he was so far under the radar his name didn't even show up on a list of 161 European prospects by NHL Central Scouting.
The Vancouver Canucks, through scout Thomas Gradin, got word of Edler, and the former Canucks star made the trek to see him play in what then-general manager Dave Nonis called a "glorified beer league." Vancouver, hearing whispers the Detroit Red Wings were also interested, made a trade with the Dallas Stars for a future draft pick to move up and get Edler in the third round (91st overall). It was an aggressive bet on an unknown entity who had been seen only once by only one team scout – a wager on Gradin's "gut feeling."
At the draft in Raleigh, Nonis said: "Smooth skater, big guy. He needs some time for sure, but in terms of raw skill, he's got quite a bit of it."
Now 25, Edler anchors the Canucks defence after the off-season departure of Christian Ehrhoff, who scored a $40-million (U.S.), 10-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres. Ehrhoff has three goals and 14 assists in 37 games this season; Edler is third in scoring among defencemen with seven goals and 27 assists (48 games).
Edler is the key reason the Canucks blueline has remained strong. Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin said in training camp he felt the defence would not miss Ehrhoff – a sentiment many were skeptical of.
"From when I got drafted until I came here, it all went by so fast," Edler said in an interview after practice this week. "I didn't have time to think about it. Sometimes, I think back and wonder how I got here. Why me?"
Edler started playing hockey at 6, but as a teenager didn't make the cut for elite Swedish schools such as Modo, the incubator of other Canucks stars the Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel) and former captain Markus Naslund. Once drafted by Vancouver, Edler got a spot at Modo, and then played a season of junior hockey in the WHL. By 20, Edler's ascent was rocketing and he got in 22 games on the Canucks blueline in 2006-07, Alain Vigneault's first year as head coach.
"That's really rare," Vigneault said. "We could see back then this guy had a tremendous amount of potential. It was a matter of working with him, getting him to believe he was as good as we thought he could be."
Physical play was a challenge. Edler stands 6 foot 3 and 215 pounds, but it took him several years to learn to use his size – finding timing a particular challenge in laying body blows on speedy opposing skaters.
Critics, and even fans of the team, worry the Canucks are not tough enough to win the Stanley Cup, given they were roughed up by the Boston Bruins in the final last June. But the team has become more aggressive, with everybody throwing more hits, the Sedins included. Edler is tied for 23rd among NHL defencemen for hits (97), the same number as Nashville Predators star Shea Weber.
Last season, when Edler had surgery for back spasms, he was 99th in hitting among blueliners (83 in 51 games).
"He's extremely hard to play against," said Canucks winger Jannik Hansen, a Dane who was drafted the same year as Edler (albeit in the ninth round) and lived with him in Winnipeg, when they played for the Moose in the AHL.
"He can do everything," Hansen said. "He's really good with the puck, but he can also punish you physically. I'm pretty happy he doesn't hit in practice. He's a big boy and he moves extremely well."
Edler, with a soft voice, a beard and moustache of brown-blond hair, is hesitant to make declarations about how high his career could go. Signed on a four-year, $13-million deal that runs through 2012-13, a championship is the goal – as the Cup was so near his and the team's grasp last June.
"We have a good team again this year, and if we play our absolute best, we have a chance to go far," Edler said.