Coach Per Mårts’ young Swedish team is aiming for gold this year. The team has been pegged as the most talented one in years and there are star players on all positions.
Set in net
Sweden had strong goaltending on paper last year with Sabres prospect Jhonas Enroth. This year, the goaltending situation is just as good, or even better. Florida’s second rounder from the most recent NHL Entry Draft, Jacob Markström, will be in place between the pipes. Markström must be on top of his game for Sweden to win the gold medal. The tall goaltender is known for his mental strength and overall skill, but will have to do better than in his most recent important international tournament, which was the U18 World Junior Championship in April this year.
Mark Owuya will be backing Markström up. Owuya, who became quite known after applying to Sweden’s version of American Idol under the artist name of “Mark in da Park”, has this season proved that he is able to focus on more things than his career as a rapper. Owuya has been very solid with Almtuna, playing senior hockey in the second best league in Sweden.
Sweden’s defensive line-up is very talented this year with three potential, and perhaps even likely, firstround picks in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Eyes will be on stud defenseman Victor Hedman, but defensemen David Rundblad and Tim Erixon, both property of SEL team Skellefteå, will also be closely monitored by the scouts.
Many gifted offensive defensemen
The key player defensively will, however, without any doubt be Hedman. Last year he was voted into the All-Star team and it is pretty likely we will find him there again. His season in the SEL has been strong, averaging about 20 minutes of ice time and playing alongside former NHL defenseman Mattias Timander on MODO’s top line. He has taken another step offensively in the SEL, now allowing himself to join the rush more often and releasing his heavy shot more frequently from the blue line.
Although Hedman is the most gifted defenseman overall on the team, the most dangerous offensively is Ottawa Senators first rounder Erik Karlsson. A much smaller defenseman at 5’11, he is blessed with excellent hockey sense and offensive abilities. Karlsson will be central for Sweden’s power play and likely put up a good number of points on the boards. As always, Karlsson tends to be overdo things defensively and at this level defensive blunders could hurt the team severely.
The previously mentioned duo Rundblad and Erixon are both underagers and offensive-minded defenseman. They are mobile, have good size and hockey sense. Defensively there is room for improvement for both. An older and more defensive minded player is bruising defenseman Nichlas Torp. Torp, who is Montreal property, is the only really physical defenseman on the team. He has a mean streak, plays aggressively and has decent timing in his hits.
Rounding out the defensive line-up we have the two 89-born undrafted defensemen Sebastian Erixon and Viktor Ekbom. Erixon who is playing regularly at elite league level nearly made the team last year, while Ekbom has been a positive surprise representing Oskarshamn in the Swedish second tier league.
Backlund and Möller provide offense
Offensively, Sweden’s team should be pretty much as skilled as last year’s, if not better. Flames prospect Mikael Backlund is returning and should once again be a key player. In last year’s tournament he scored a couple of big goals and Backlund is at his best when it matters the most. Even more interesting, perhaps, is regular NHLer Oscar Möller who is joining Sweden for this tournament. Möller’s self confidence should be really good and he is expected to contribute offensively as well as defensively. Scoring ability will also be provided by prospects like Mattias Tedenby and Magnus Pääjäri-Svensson. Both are similar in the regard that their speed is their greatest asset and they have also the technical and scoring ability to go. Also, they will keep the opposing defensemen on their toes with their intensity in the offensive zone, while they have both been known to not be able to play with the same determination defensively.
Pääjärvi-Svensson is currently seen as a top 10 pick in the 2009 draft and there are more potential first rounders among forwards. One of those is the very skilled Jacob Josefson. A 91-born center with very good overall ability, Josefson plays a mature game and with great confidence. Another player to follow closely, also with good all-around ability, is Marcus Johansson. A late 90-born, Johansson has been playing very well with Färjestad in the Swedish Elite League, contributing at both ends of the ice.
An expected key player at center position is Joakim Andersson. Having already an U20 WJC tourney in the bag, Andersson is known for his mature and solid two-way game. He is able to put up points, but also do his best for the team. Two of Andersson’s previous teammates at junior level, Nicklas Lasu and Simon Hjalmarsson, will also be interesting to follow. Lasu is an agitating and gritty forward with some offensive skills. Hjalmarsson, on the other hand, is perhaps more flashy and can be dominant with his speed, technical skills and scoring ability.
Another player who could challenge Backlund and the others in the scoring race is the most explosive forward of all in the squad, David Ullström. Ullström has great size, but stands out even more because of his skating ability and his end-to-end rushes, stickhandling smoothly through heavy traffic. A very spectacular player who also has a mean streak at times can deliver big hits. At this point it is, however, uncertain how much ice time Ullström will see, since there are so many offensively skilled players on the team.
Ullström’s teammate back home in Sweden, André Petersson, is just as flashy, although a softer and smaller version of Ullström. Petersson’s game is all about stickhandling and scoring. He has arguably the best hands of the bunch and can score highlight-reel goals when he is in the mood. But there have always been some consistency issues with Petersson’s game and some lack of effort to back-check.
Two of the lesser known players on the team are Carl Gustafsson and Anton Persson. Gustafsson stands out as the smallest player on the team and one of the shortest in the entire tournament. He is a well-trained athlete with good two-way ability. He’s a team player who can also contribute offensively and he actually plays a decent physical game despite his smallish stature. Persson, on the other hand, is likely to be used as a pure role player, doing what he does best, which is killing off penalties and playing it safe defensively.
Many potential first rounders
The level of talent is very high on this year’s Swedish roster. There are many young, still to be drafted, players and several of them are projected to be first round picks this June. There are also many players that are seeing regular ice time in the Swedish Elite League and overall the team stands out as a very offensively gifted team. Last year, there were more role players and defensive minded players, especially among defensemen. Whether coach Per Mårts picked the correct team remains to be seen, but he had a tough job selecting a team and being forced to leave many solid players at home. One of them is the first rounder from the previous draft, Anton Gustafsson (WAS), who initially struggled with injuries, but ironically has been averaging a point per game since the Swedish U20 WJC team was announced.