The drama last winter in Sweden at the 2014 World Junior Championship could hardly be topped. Playing at home in front of crowds sized larger than 12,500 per game, Team Sweden defeated one opponent after another with a literal dream team of U20 athletes. Then they faced the tourney’s upstart team, and their archrival, Finland and it seemed the stars were aligned for a victory parade that few Swedish junior teams had ever topped. Winning the WJC in their home country would have been a story ripe for Hollywood.
But as is often the case in the world of hockey, fate’s script was a different one.
Current Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen popped in an overtime goal in a strong individual move to the middle to give Finland the surprise gold medal, silencing a predominantly blue and gold crowd at the Malmo Arena.
With that, one of Sweden’s strongest generations of junior players to date had to settle for their second silver medal in a row.
Nonetheless, this year’s squad is no less medal-likely than the teams nominated in recent years and is chock full of drafted players and a few who should hear their names called at this summer’s NHL Draft. The depth is so impressive that a number of players who didn’t make it onto the team could likely be first- and second-line players for several other participant nations.
The Swedish player that most eyes will be on at the 2015 World Junior Championship is the incredibly skilled William Nylander, a forward who was taken eighth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs at the 2014 NHL Draft. The extremely extraverted media giant looks like he should be starring in a boy band, but he started this season by pressing Toronto’s hand to keep him on the NHL roster, only to return to Sweden to be his MODO club’s second-best scorer, despite having only played 19 of the team’s 31 games. Nylander has eight goals and 19 points to go along with a +5 for a club that is currently 11th among the 12 SHL teams. It is expected that Nylander, who is also very adept at sending absolute bullets in from the blueline, will find himself on the ice each and every time Sweden has a power play. His importance for the team is almost unequivocal as he simply is the guy who makes other players better and more productive. For him personally, there isn’t any reason to believe that he shouldn’t contend for the tournament’s scoring lead. This Swedish team will be counting on just that.
This team also features a number of other NHL-drafted players. Nylander is joined by Linus Soderstrom (NYI); Fredrik Bergvik and Julius Bergman (both SJS); Andreas Englund (OTT); Gustav Forsling (VAN); Robert Hagg and Oskar Lindblom (both PHI); William Lagesson (EDM); Robin Norell (CHI); Anton Blidh (BOS); Jacob de la Rose (MTL); Chris Ehn and Axel Holmstrom (both DET); Anton Karlsson (ARZ); Adrian Kempe (LAK); Victor Olofsson (BUF); and Lucas Wallmark (CAR).
From that group, only Hagg, Norell, Wallmark, and Karlsson are returning from last year’s team, with the latter having received little ice time in the course of last winter’s tournament. In fact, Karlsson was once felt to be about the top player in his draft class, but a lack of production and little brought to the table at the U18 tournament saw his draft prospects plummet, and even this season has been a bit of a wash although, fortunately for him, he has become a part of the Skelleftea program, one that has an incredible knack for winning and developing hockey players.
More importantly, Hagg and de la Rose are now entering their third WJC tournaments and both will be coming straight out of the AHL to do so. They are clearly among the most experienced players in the entire tournament and are being looked at as the go-to guys in the leadership department. The steady Norell is taking a regular shift in a top-five role for Djurgarden’s SHL team, as is his teammate Englund.
Non-drafted overage players include goalie Samuel Ward of Asploven, the likely starter, defenseman Sebastian Aho of Skelleftea, and forwards Adam Brodecki of Brynas and Leon Bristedt of the University of Minnesota. All have played for the nation’s various U18 and U16 programs along the way. The smaller Aho was skipped over in last summer’s draft, but many feel he was among the five most talented players hailing from Sweden in his draft year. He was also a regular on the blueline last season for SHL champion Skelleftea. Brodecki is playing a regular role in the SHL and has five goals and 14 points in 30 games. The smaller Bristedt is a bit of a surprise for some, but tore apart the Swedish junior circuit last season well aware that he wanted his career to go the college route. So far, he has two goals and four points in 12 NCAA contests as a freshman.
Key Players aside from Nylander
Lucas Wallmark, F – Featuring some hockey sense that is often considered to be off the charts, Lucas came onto last year’s WJC team and proceeded to be one of its top players, collecting three goals and eight points with a +5 in seven games, serving as a power play specialist along the way. He then was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes, got serious with a new workout plan and not only has 13 points in 30 SHL games, but also nine points in six CHL contests. He’ll undoubtedly be looked at to repeat last winter’s performance and be a driving force in the team’s attack, something they’ll need from this returnee. Nonetheless, he’ll be no Lindholm or Forsberg, as he’s not a player whose strengths lie in his skating. He also won’t have players of that caliber to work with like he did last winter. It’ll also be interesting to see how he adjusts to the smaller rinks, on which he has little experience to date. One way or another, the team needs him to produce offense.
Robert Hagg, D – Lots of experience and gobs of heart, the all-round two-way defenseman will be an absolutely critical player for this squad. Already in his third season of pro hockey, Hagg currently has two goals and 13 points in 30 AHL games. His rough-and-tumble play has also led to 34 penalty minutes. Very pleased with his quick rate of progress, Philadelphia management would have no problem seeing the third time be a charm for this quiet but determined defenseman, who currently has two silver medals to show for his WJC efforts. For Sweden, he’ll be out on the ice for every situation imaginable and it should surprise no one if he is one of the tournament’s top three players in overall ice time.
Jacob de la Rose, F – He’s never really been the scoring star and his five points in 32 AHL games continue to attest to that, but de la Rose is very versatile and does what a leader needs to do in coming up big when it matters most. This has often been the case with this big and burly winger who creates space for his teammates. His experience at the international level is matched by few in this tournament and he’ll be counted on to be out there in all dirty situations and when the team needs to hold a lead. Aside from that, he’s a true complementary player and can be mixed and matched with any trio, regardless of what their assignment will be.
Adrian Kempe, F – The Los Angeles Kings‘ first rounder has a little bit of everything and loves to be in the middle of things. Like Nylander and Victor Olofsson, Kempe is coming from a MODO club that hasn’t been very successful in the standings, but this second-year pro continues to be one of the team’s few difference makers. Often playing together with Nylander, Kempe has 15 points and a 0 rating in 30 SHL games, already surpassing his 11 points in 45 games last season. He’ll be looked at as a top-six winger in Canada and his play against the tourney’s rougher opponents will be a key in any medal hopes Sweden has. At this point, it’s strongly felt that Kempe will be heading to North America next season.
Who will not be there
Jonas Johansson, G – The 6’4”, 200-pound goaltender was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the third round this past summer and was last winter’s third stringer for the silver medal squad, but it was felt that he’d be the clear-cut starter in this tournament. Due to an injury just suffered in preparation for the event, he’ll be replaced by Fredrik Bergvik from the Frolunda program. His absence will create the biggest dilemma for Sweden’s coaching staff.
Oliver Kylington, D – For many, Kylington is seen as one of the top 10 players available in this summer’s draft. Normally a compliment in and of itself, the strength of this draft would indicate that he’d likely be a surefire top three pick in any of the past 15 drafts or so. The strong skating and offensively adept defenseman is in the midst of his second SHL season for Farjestad, but the team’s poor play and the youth he has shown to possess have led to him being loaned to AIK Stockholm in the Allsvenskan. This hasn’t been a bad thing. Whereas he did have two goals and five points in 17 SHL games, he also had a -2 and was caught in the doldrums of a team that just couldn’t get on track. With AIK, Kylington has received more responsibility and has answered with three goals and six points in addition to a +4 in 10 games. His future is bright and many fans had hoped that this would be the tournament in which he’d showcase his skills. Due to an injury suffered possibly in Sunday’s exhibition vs. Canada, he’ll no longer be part of the team. Even though the team had brought an extra defenseman, it’s felt Sweden may actually nominate a forward to replace Kylington.
Rasmus Andersson, D – The native of Malmo has played pro hockey for two seasons and watched the WJC take place in his hometown last year, well aware that he could have just as easily been out on the ice with his countrymen. Considered for years to be one of this summer’s top 10 defensemen available, he’s now testing OHL waters with the Barrie Colts, for whom the snarly defenseman now has seven goals and 31 points to go along with 38 penalty minutes in 32 games. For most countries in this tournament, Andersson’s success on North American ice alone would have him being a player you can’t get past nominating. But Andersson’s absence is a true testament of just how deep this Swedish club is.
Andre Burakovsky, F – Last year’s hometown boy hailing from Malmo, Burakovsky has spent this fall working his way – somewhat surprisingly – into the Washington Capitals‘ lineup. Although not necessarily suiting up or playing regularly on a nightly basis, he does have four goals and 13 points in 26 games in his rookie season and will not be released for the WJC. For fans and Swedes alike, this is a bit of a bitter pill as his skills combined with his North American and WJC experience could have meant a world of difference for a program that is here to win gold.
Dmytro Timashov, F – Don’t let the Slavic name fool you, nor should his average size dissuade you. At the moment, the former Ivan Hlinka Tournament forward is tearing apart the QMJHL with thirteen goals and 52 points in 33 games. A bit hard to believe, but he is on pace to have the highest scoring season ever for a Swede in the CHL. In light of his offensive talents and success, one does have to wonder why less-established kids like Ehn, Asplund, Bristedt and Karlsson have been brought along for the ride. However, with the injury to the aforementioned Kylington, he could be getting a call sometime today.
For fans looking forward to the 2015 NHL Draft, this line-up will not include some of Sweden’s absolute hottest prospects, namely Robin Kovacs, Carl Grundstrom, Jesper Lindgren, Filip Ahl, Felix Sandstrom, and Joel Eriksson Ek. All of these players could have their names called within the first two rounds and likely all of them would have the talent to compete for several of the other participating nations.
Who NHL scouts will be focusing on
Jens Looke, F – One of the top 2015 draft-eligible players coming out of Sweden, the 6-foot, 187-pound winger is a crash-and-bang type who doesn’t hesitate to go where it hurts to get things done. Unexpectedly making the SHL team in Brynas right from the get-go, Looke quickly gathered two goals and four points but has been quiet offensively of late, despite having played in 28 of the team’s games. A player with some good upside, he’ll have a good shot at a third-line role with this Swedish club, especially against physically stronger teams.
Rasmus Asplund, F – He’ll likely get little ice time, but Asplund is pretty much Sweden’s top 97-born prospect and is first eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft. He’s being brought along for the experience as the country will surely be building around him in the years to come, but this doesn’t mean he can’t hold his own. In addition to his 21 points in 15 U20 junior games for Farjestad, he’s also appeared in 17 SHL games this season, having collected one assist. He’s an up-and-coming prospect, and if he manages to play a bit, the scouting community will be paying close attention.
Around the boards – keep an eye on…
Julius Bergman – Taking a different route than most of his teammates, Bergman headed over to the London Knights this fall after being taken almost surprisingly early in last summer’s draft. There, he’s put up 20 points in 30 games and has acclimated nicely to the smaller ice surfaces. He could end up getting a much bigger role in this tournament than some might think.
William Lagesson – After being one of Sweden’s top defensemen at the U18 tournament last spring, Lagesson was drafted in the fourth round and is now taking a regular shift for the Dubuque Fighting Saints. He has 12 points, including 11 assists, and a +9 in 22 games. A ruffian at heart, he’s also got 48 penalty minutes. Having never played pro hockey, he is NCAA-eligible. Sweden’s coaching staff felt he was a must and the team has had recent success with Swedish defensemen playing in the USHL.
Gustav Forsling – Until he came up big with the U18 team in Finland last spring, many felt Forsling’s modest size and lack of pro experience would possibly lead to him not being drafted whatsoever. The Vancouver Canucks felt differently and must be quite happy about that right now. Forsling has spent the whole season with Linkoping’s SHL team, taking a regular shift, and has scored three goals. Learning on the fly, the left-shooting defenseman who shows a great deal of confidence in the way he plays has a howitzer of a shot from the blueline. Expect to see him getting regular power play minutes for this Swedish club, as his shots from the middle of the blueline have a knack of finding their way to the back of the net.
Axel Holmstrom – He’s 6’1” and 200 pounds. He put up 11 points in seven U18 games. He’s been a scorer throughout his junior career. Still, until the Detroit Red Wings took him in the seventh round this past summer, he continued to be a player who was often overlooked. He now has five goals and 12 points for the first place Skelleftea squad in the town he’s grown up in. He continues to exceed expectations and no one should be surprised if that’s also the case in Canada over the next 12 days.
Victor Olofsson – He wasn’t among the ‘sexiest’ draftees this past summer, thought to be a long shot in general, but ultimately heard his name called by the Buffalo Sabres in the seventh round. To date, Olofsson has been one of the best late-rounders whatsoever, having spent the whole season on MODO’s SHL club, often in a top-six role. Average in size, he simply has a mind for the game and wrist shot that is gaining more attention. He’s also managed nine goals and 16 points in 30 games and has shown no signs of backing down from any challenge. That attribute has him on this WJC club.
Biggest strengths: Sweden is coming off of two silver and a gold medal in their last three tournaments. They’ve been arguably the most successful program in recent years. Their team is bulging with draftees, promise, and a good bit of experience. Their defensive unit is as good as any and better than most while their forward corps has a nice mix of several ‘stars’ and a lot of hungry talents to do the dirty work. Thanks to Hagg and de la Rose, there is the type of leadership and experience that few teams here have, even if neither is likely to be a tournament scoring star.
That role is there for Nylander to take and all indications are that he’ll be doing just that. In addition, the team’s coaching continues to be amongst the best on the planet and will likely have the right answer at any given time. Of course, it’s nice when the staff can lean on a dozen kids 6-foot tall or bigger as well as a group that includes 16 regular SHL players.
Biggest weakness: This year’s team has a big question mark in goal. There really isn’t one player who is expected to take the bull by the horns and the opportunity is there for just that. Ward has the most pro experience, and Bergvik is bit older, but has solely played junior hockey this season. Whether New York Islanders’ 2014 third round pick Linus Soderstrom, who recently played four games for Sodertalje in the Allsvenskan after primarily appearing for Djurgarden’s U20 squad, can be the guy for a medal is something a few people see as a good possibility. In any case, this is a situation that only the coaching staff can see through at the moment, even if Ward appears to have the upper hand at the moment, and all of the other contenders have a much more clear-cut picture of who their #1 is expected to be in this tournament.
Without a doubt, this team is not only a medal contender, but a likely finals participant. But the Swedes have lost two test games in Canada this past week and have had trouble scoring in the process. That is a worry many Swedish pundits had when the team was announced. Nonetheless, group play should be a good opportunity to get revved up, as they’ll get to avoid the North Americans and archrival Finland entirely. They managed to beat Russia twice in last winter’s tournament and on paper, all of the Czechs, Switzerland and Scandinavian neighbor Denmark will have a very difficult time facing the four lines Sweden can roll out on the ice. Still, once things get serious in playoff action, the Swedes will have to find a way to get past the North Americans, Finland and possibly Russia again. The current team consists of a lot of players who, at the U18 level, were never able to do this for a medal.
And that is why, despite all the NHL draftees and players with SHL experience on this team, anything more than a bronze medal would be an outstanding achievement.
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