2014 WJC Preview: For Sweden, nothing less than gold will suffice

By Chapin Landvogt

Elias Lindholm - Carolina Hurricanes

Photo: Carolina Hurricanes forward Elias Lindholm is one of several NHL prospects to be a part of Sweden’s roster taking part in the 2014 World Junior Championship (courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

After the heroics provided by current Ottawa Senators forward Mika Zibanejad at the 2012 World Junior Championship, when he broke in alone on Team Russia’s net in overtime and deked out Russian goalie Andrey Makarov to decide the tournament in Sweden’s favor, Team Sweden faced a pre-tournament rash of injuries on its way to Ufa in 2013. The team nonetheless went about gaining a silver medal against a USA squad that has become somewhat of a nemesis at various international levels in recent years. Now, Sweden's 2014 WJC entry is entering the tournament, hosted by the country’s third largest city of Malmö, with only one goal on its mind: taking gold on its home turf.

And much speaks for the team being able to do just that. Coach Rickard Gronborg, the former U18 coach who is now taking over for Roger Ronnberg, who now coaches Frolunda in the SHL, will be able to take advantage of an extremely skilled group of young men, many of whom have several years of WJC experience. He’ll even be able to lean on the NHL-experienced Filip Forsberg (NAS) and Elias Lindholm (CAR), who have each seen at least 12 games of NHL play this season. Furthermore, the team boasts a strong goaltending trio. Columbus Blue Jackets 2012 second rounder Oscar Dansk has taken a further step this season, taking the bull by the horns in goal for the Erie Otters, where he is a teammate to Canadian phenomenon Connor McDavid. There the 6’2”, 186-pound netminder is sporting a 16-3-1 record with a 2.17 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. All eyes will be on him to shut things down.

What this Swedish team has in abundance is NHL-drafted players. No less than the aforementioned Forsberg, Lindholm and Dansk, as well as Marcus Hogberg (OTT), Gustav Olofsson (MIN), Linus Arnesson (BOS), Christian Djoos (WSH), Robert Hagg (PHI), Robin Norell (CHI), Sebastian Collberg (MTL), Alexander Wennberg (CBJ), Nick Sorensen (ANA), Jacob de la Rose (MTL), Andre Burakovsky (WSH), Andreas Johnson (TOR), Erik Karlsson (CAR), and Oskar Sundqvist (PIT) have already been selected by NHL teams.

Burakovsky has spent this season with Dansk and McDavid as part of the Erie Otters, where he’s collected a whopping 23 goals, 47 points, and +19 rating in 31 games. Calling Malmo his home town, one can only imagine just how incredibly important this tournament is to him.

Both Johnson and Sundqvist have had bigger SHL impacts this season than their teams could have possibly imagined. Johnson, a seventh rounder, has spearheaded Frolunda’s attack with 14 goals and 22 points in 31 games while Sundqvist has played solid in all three zones for Skelleftea, where he has three goals, eight points and a +3 rating. All the while, de la Rose has made the step up to the SHL with Leksand, having contributed five goals and 10 points in 31 games. This is considerable considering he had only 12 points with them all of last season – in the Allsvenskan.

Non-drafted overage players include Ludvig Nilsson of Timra, Filip Sandberg of HV71, and Lukas Bengtsson of Mora. While the former two are being looked to as role players at this WJC, Bengtsson has really arrived on the scene this season, having already collected six goals, 16 points, and a +8 rating in 26 Allsvenskan games. He’s considered a top candidate to move to the SHL next season and is surely going to be watched closely at this tournament by a number of scouts, especially if he’s handed the power play role he’s expected to receive.

Key Players

Filip Forsberg, F – The 11th overall draft pick at the 2012 NHL Draft was long thought of as a likely candidate to be a top-five pick. The Washington Capitals grabbed him and then dealt him to the Nashville Predators for a disgruntled Martin Erat, who is now disgruntled in Washington. The gritty and heady Forsberg has gone on to put up a goal and five points in 12 NHL games while impressively collecting three goals and eight points in seven AHL contests. He’s now entering his third WJC, somewhat unexpectedly in fact, and the belief in Sweden is that he’s ready to dominate as few have.  His combination of abilities and experience make him the natural on-ice leader.

Elias Lindholm, F – A two-way player with incredible hockey sense, Lindholm went fifth overall to the Carolina Hurricanes in last summer’s draft. He has now spent a good portion of this season in the NHL thanks in good part to his responsible play and the team’s situation on the offensive front. In his 21 games to date, the right-shooting forward has three goals and seven points. He’s also chipped in three points in six AHL games. His WJC last winter was somewhat mild and the team will look to him to spearhead the first or second wave of attack and play a number of times on the power-play. He undoubtedly has the skill and experience to be considered amongst the top players in the tournament. How will he play against boys after having worked so hard against men this fall?

Alexander Wennberg, F – Some could say the forward with movie star looks used last winter’s WJC to really arrive on the scene. His all-around game, brisk checking, and fresh creativeness left viewers waiting for each and every one of his shifts. The big and physical forward then heard his name called as the 14th overall pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets. It’s been a wild ride ever since, one that’s seen him line up with fellow teammate Andreas Johnson in Frolunda, where he’s scored 12 goals and added three assists in 31 games. He’ll now be a mainstay on one of the top two lines and his all-around game will be hard for any opponent to deal with.

Sebastian Collberg, F – After being grabbed by the Montreal Canadiens 35th overall at the 2012 NHL Draft, Collberg has had a rocky road to establishment, which hasn’t really been achieved yet. He has spent time with Frolunda in the SHL both this and last season. Finding the road to effectiveness has been another challenge, though. This season he has just one goal and four points in 24 games for Frolunda. What cannot be denied is his international success. If there’s ever been a player you can call “an ace in the hole”, then Collberg is it. His penalty shot heroics are already the things of Swedish ice hockey legend. His offensive production at the U20 level alone is off the charts, having scored eight goals and 13 points in 12 WJC contests to date. When things get tough against the tournament’s top competition, all eyes will be on Collberg to pull another rabbit out of his hat.

Robert Hagg, D – With the defense being the most questionable part of the team, Hagg will have to carry the bulk of the defensive load, which means he’ll be seeing the opponent’s best players on just about a shift-by-shift basis. He was a late addition to last winter’s WJC club, but slid into a nice top-four role by the time the gold medal game came around. This combined with 27 SHL appearances lead the Philadelphia Flyers to draft him 41st overall. This season, he has a goal and five points along with a -3 rating in 32 games for Modo of the SHL. If he falters in this tournament, it’s hard to think that any of the other seven defensemen will be able to pick up his weight of responsibility.

Who will not be there

Gustav Possler, F – Arguably the biggest surprise coming out of the gate, Possler was on fire to start the season for Modo. The Buffalo Sabres' 2013 fifth rounder was able to collect eight goals and 14 points in a 16-game span before suffering a knee injury. He tried coming back, but just wasn’t the same and it became apparent that Possler had to undergo an operation that will have him out at least six months. It was felt that a healthy Possler would have been a lock to make the team in the form he was in.

Edwin Hedberg, F – A strong team player who regularly gives it his all, Hedberg is a player whose fall play has brought him into discussion and he was one of the last cuts, namely because Lindholm and Forsberg became available. A guy who is not afraid of the rough stuff and just seems to play bigger than he is, Hedberg has popped in three goals and eight points in 30 games this season.

William Nylander, F – The son of long-time NHL forward Michael Nylander, William has long been considered Sweden’s top NHL Draft prospect next summer, but the extremely skilled and slight of figure forward has had a real hard time showing people why this winter. Having gotten off to a slow start, Nylander ultimately put up four goals and four assists in 18 games for the Allsvenskan club Rogle (where he played with his father) before moving to Modo of the SHL, where he’s gathered two assists in 10 games. This is a far cry from the type of season Elias Lindholm had last winter, when he put up 30 points in 48 SEL games. He never came into real consideration for this squad.

Ludwig Bystrom, D – The Dallas Stars’ 2012 second rounder already has 81 games of SHL experience and has seen regular minutes for Farjestad in the SHL this season, having collected two goals, eight points, and a +10 rating in 30 games. Like Hedberg, he was amongst the final cuts. Generally, hardly a team in the tournament could afford to cut a player of Bystrom’s abilities and he’d likely be the top defenseman for several teams who look like they’ll be battling to avoid relegation. He possesses a little bit of everything in his package and it’ll be interesting to look at things in hindsight to determine if leaving him off the team is a mistake.

Who NHL scouts will be focusing on

Lucas Wallmark, F – Wallmark has the type of top-flight hockey sense and vision that just can’t be taught. He can score goals and set them up just as easily. This season, he has stuck in the SHL and made an impact, showing the regular ability to fight for the puck. In addition, he has shown himself to be responsible defensively. He went undrafted last summer and there were a number of reasons suspected, most related to some off-ice issues, but the skilled forward has likely shown to date this season that there may be no skipping him in next summer’s draft. After putting up seven points in six Allsvenskan games for Asploven, Wallmark moved up to Lulea, where he has two goals and seven points in 27 games this season.

Anton Karlsson, F – Younger brother to teammate and 2012 Carolina Hurricanes fourth rounder Erik, Anton is the youngest player on the squad, but one of the most physical players. The 6’2”, 194-pounder has been a horse for Frolunda’s U20 team, pumping in 10 goals and 18 points in 22 games while also gathering a whopping 57 penalty minutes and +4 rating. The current captain of the U18 team, Anton is believed to be a likely first rounder in this summer’s draft and has more than a few people feeling he’s a better all-around player than top Swedish prospect, William Nylander.

Jonas Johansson, G – The 6’4”, 200-pound goaltender looks like the third stringer this winter, but he was very strong at the U18 tournament in Sochi, where he had a 2.23 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in four games. This season, he has played for Brynas primarily with the organization's U20 squad, where – to put it simply – he just can’t be beat. He’s currently sporting a 1.83 goals-against and .929 save percentage in 11 games. It’s felt he’ll make his way to the SHL before the season is out.

Around the boards – keep an eye on…

Nick Sorensen, F – A name mentioned in this spot last December, the Danish-born Swede has grown to be 6’1” and 175 pounds. He’s rarely been able to free himself of the injury bug, possibly instigated by his hard forechecking ways, but is in the midst of his third season for the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, where he currently has 13 goals, 27 points, and a +10 rating in just 20 games. A veteran of this tournament, he’ll be viewed as one of those cog, role-playing players who can be used in any situation, especially then when the going gets rough.

Gustav Olofsson, D – One of the few Swedes to go the USHL and then NCAA route to a WJC appearance, the feeling is that Olofsson will be given a hefty amount of responsibility in this tournament. Maybe his having been drafted by the Minnesota Wild in the second round of this past 2013 draft plays a role in it all; Olofsson hasn’t played a great deal of hockey this fall, having only seen action in 12 games for Colorado College, having collected two goals and four points. Taking things at face value, he is a tall, 6’2” and 190 pounds and loves to use his body and take the body. He has adapted well to the North American style and makes the safe, simple play – a quality Gronborg apparently places a high value on.

Christian Djoos, D – Sound defensively, the 6-foot, 150-pound defensemen is undersized, but in the midst of his second full SHL season. It can’t be denied, though, that his production there, much less his size and overall skating ability, isn’t necessarily on par with Bystrom, who has been left off the team. Having been a part of Sweden’s program for several years, Djoos had three assists at last winter’s WJC and some feel he’ll be given a bigger offensive responsibility than his SHL production would indicate he should be receiving.

Biggest strengths: Sweden is entering the tournament with a bonafide #1 goalie and a strong, pro-experienced #2. It has a top, draft-eligible prospect waiting in the wings, one who could be better than the other two in five years’ time. The team has great chemistry and a great deal of experience, able to sport a little bit of everything, including two topflight scoring lines. The power-play could be the deadliest anyone can offer in this tournament. Throw in the fact that the team has home-ice advantage in every game in front of a hockey-crazy nation and has managed to beat the USA 4-2 and Canada 3-0 in its most recent exhibition games – without Forsberg and Lindholm – and there’s really nothing stopping anyone from calling the Swedes the clear-cut favorite to reclaim gold heading into the tournament.

Biggest weaknesses: You’ll be hard-pressed to find any weaknesses here, but whereas the team features maybe the best goaltending trio and deepest corps of forwards of any nation, the defense will have to prove it’s really all it can be. The proof will be in the pudding. There’s little question that the defense has the name-power that most defensive corps do not, but when it comes to the big three opponents of Canada, Russia and the USA, will it be able to handle the onslaught that these three nations can create at any given time?

Synopsis

It’s hard to imagine that the defending silver medalist is any bit worse than it was last winter when it was dealing with a heavy depletion on the defensive end and fewer experienced pieces elsewhere, but will the pressure of playing at home be a motivator or as suppressive as it seemed to be for Russia in Ufa? The team looks like it’s one of the best Sweden has thrown on the ice in the past 15-20 years and it shouldn’t have any problem getting through the preliminary round almost completely unscathed. Only Russia and arch-rival Finland appear to be able to give them much of a challenge, but most of the players on this team have suffered some heartbreaking losses to North Americans, most particularly the USA, in recent U20 and U18 tournaments. Can they get over that hump at home? It’ll be a must as the likelihood that they will need to face one if not both of the North American squads in the playoffs looks immense heading into the tournament.  A loss to either of them would then be an end to the dream at that point, one way or another. It’s gold or bust in light of this lineup, and the support the team will enjoy in the community and in the stands.

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin

 

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