2015 U18 World Championship: Sweden should be in the hunt for a medal

By Chapin Landvogt
Jens Looke - Team Sweden

Photo: Brynas forward and 2015 prospect Jens Looke was a part of Sweden’s 2015 U20 squad, and he’ll also compete for his country at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship (courtesy of Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)

 

 

In the spring of 2014, Team Sweden headed to the homeland of archrival Finland with visions of grandeur, knowing full well that their blueline of redwoods would provide lots of support for not only a cast of hardworking forwards, but all-in-one weapon William Nylander, their all-star and a go-to guy like no other available to them for that U18 World Championship.

 

Things began very promisingly, culminating in them blowing out host Finland 10-1 in playoff action. Alas, the gun powder had been used in a solid and high-scoring initial round and first playoff game and Sweden could produce little more in being knocked into the bronze medal game by their truest U18 nemesis, the USA, and then being shut down by Canada in the bronze medal game.

A team that had a streak of two silver medals in a row had suddenly been knocked out of medal competition two springs in a row. Last year’s team was perhaps medal-worthy, but consisted of a lot of kids who hadn’t made the playoff round at the prior Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and the scouting community had its doubts, even if the majority of those players heard their names called at the 2014 NHL Draft and have gone on to have very promising 2014-15 seasons.

Now, to ensure this trend of premature endings takes a different sway, the Tre Kronor are heading to Switzerland for the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship with a group of young men who are thoroughly capable of garnering gold. And NHL scouts will surely be licking their chops for the whole ride.

This year, Sweden once again features a number of highly rated talents for the upcoming NHL Draft, primarily defensemen Gabriel Carlsson and Jacob Larsson as well as forward Joel Eriksson Ek. All three have marched their way up the charts this winter and saw time playing in the SHL. The latter, a 6’2” center, even managed four goals and six points in 34 games with the big boys after having dominated the U20 circuit with 32 points in 25 games. As for Larsson, also 6’2”, his all-around cerebral game made it simply impossible for a very deep Frolunda program to leave him in juniors. Despite a gluttony of young and more proven talent on their blueline, Larsson played 20 games, putting up three points and a +4 in the process. Slightly topping that off was Carlsson, a 6’4”, defensively-oriented player who only saw seven games for Linkoping in the regular season, but then played in all 10 playoff games. In total, he registered three points and a +5 rating.

All three will be counted on to carry out top line duties and be difference-makers. There’s little indication that this won’t happen, as their abilities and athleticism are not in question. The trio is ranked 2nd-4th in NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of European skaters the upcoming NHL Draft.

Game plan

Sweden is entering the U18 tournament with a lot of players who saw time in either the SHL or Allsvenskan this season. Few other teams in the tournament can sport that type of pro experience at this high a level. Six of the seven defensemen coming along have seen time in the SHL this season while the seventh saw time in the Allsvenskan. This should give the team an advantage that few opponents can match.

For example, each of Jonathan Leman (MODO, 6’1”, 192 lbs), Alex Younan (HV71, 6’1”, 190 lbs.), and particularly Lucas Carlsson (Brynas, 6’0”, 187 lbs.) offer size, solid puck and skating skills, very sound defensive play and no less than one year of solid U20 league experience while having also seen time with pro teams this winter (Carlsson with 16 SHL games) – and they are each expected to be defensemen 5-7 on this blueline.

Sweden’s round robin group will allow them the advantage of starting off with games against Slovakia and Germany, both of whom should pose little problem in offering preparation for the big matches against the USA and then Russia. In particular, the USA has been a thorn in the side of the Swedish program, both at the U20 and U18 level. Then again, they have often first met in the playoffs and facing them here in preliminary play, likely with two wins under their belts, would seem to be an advantage this program can exploit

Another interesting note is that the Swedish program is particularly popular among Swiss fans as a number of top Swedish players have enjoyed great success in Swiss leagues over time. There is an outside chance that next to Switzerland, they’ll have the most fan support of any nation in this tournament.

Otherwise, this team offers a number of big kids and four lines of forwards who can play in pretty much all three zones. Should the team prove to have a potent power play, something that might not be as possible without a Nylander-style player quarterbacking things and a Gustav Forsling able to fire away one-timers, then management can concentrate on continually preparing the team for a medal game.

Goaltending will naturally be crucial. Felix Sandstrom is 6’2” and was along for the ride last spring. Ranked third in Europe among goalies, he’ll be expected to carry the reigns this spring and, if necessary, win a game or two on his own. Coming from the Brynas program, he saw most of his playing time for the U20 team, putting up pedestrian stats along the way, but did manage to play two regular season games in the SHL and one in the playoffs. In those two games, he registered a 1.09 goals-against average and a .963 save percentage. Numbers like that here could be the difference. Otherwise, both the 6’4” Adam Werner and Orebro product Daniel Marmelind have represented Sweden internationally and spent the winter strutting their stuff successfully in Sweden’s U20 circuit despite both being 17 years of age.

Other keys

The play of underagers Rasmus Asplund, who was part of the WJC team, and Carl Grundstrom, may be the be-all, end-all cherry on top for this team. They are both eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft and are currently looking like they’ll be top 10 picks. Both spent the majority of this winter with their SHL team and when they were in juniors, played dominant offensive roles at the U20 level – as 17 year olds. Both will likely be made use of as top-six forwards in Switzerland and bring not only the youthful enthusiasm of kids who constantly want to prove something, but skill sets that rival any of their older teammates.

Put simply, they are the type of talents that a Germany or Latvia could only dream of and will already be seen as cogs in this Swedish team’s motor. Interestingly, Asplund was part of Farjestad’s SHL club for most of the season right from the start, playing a minimal role, but experiencing all of the ups and downs the team went through. The 6-foot, 190-pound Grundstrom was brought up midseason and didn’t look back. He went on to gather five points in 24 SHL games.

Who the NHL scouts will be watching

The better question is who won’t the scouts be watching? This team is stacked with prospects and the aforementioned leaders will surely be guys that NHL teams will use this tournament to make decisions about.

However, no Swedish player will be under more scrutiny than Oliver Kylington, who entered this season as Sweden’s clear top prospect. After all, the defenseman already had a practically full SHL season under his belt at the young age of 16. His tool box is undisputed and the kid has all the physical attributes to promise a long NHL career. Still, his Farjestad club started the season off miserably and despite decent showings and five points in 17 games, he was demoted to AIK Stockholm of the Allsvenskan, which struggled like few would have imagined. There he saw lots of minutes and was again decent, but not spectacular. An injury before Christmas ended his WJC hopes and then it took a while to get back into the swing of things, something that was noticeable at the Five Nations Tournament a few months ago. All this considered, scouts still realize that in five year’s time, he could already be a top 3 defenseman in the NHL – or a kid who just never got his gig organized from a mental standpoint. This tourney will be his chance to shine and reroute the windy path this draft year has adorned him with.

Hulking winger Filip Ahl was being looked at as a possible first-rounder all winter long. After a lull around the Christmas holidays, things picked up for him again and there are plenty in the scouting community who think he could be a bigger Adrian Kempe of sorts. At 6’4” and 215 pounds, what’s impressive with him is that he likes to terrorize opponents on the forecheck and can, when given the space, gain some heavy speed moving forward. He also gathered two assists in 15 games with HV71 at the pro level while powering out 42 points and 54 penalty minutes in 34 U20 level games. He’s expected to be a top-six player in Lucerne.

Defenseman Jesper Lindgren simply must be mentioned because, despite his 6’0” and 160-pound size, his play is so very reminiscent of Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, that fans and scouts alike haven’t dared use any other comparison. He got in four games with MODO in the SHL and put up 33 points in 39 games for the U20 club. Most importantly, he has that anticipation and first pass that make him look like an offensive defenseman supreme at some point down the line. But will it be the NHL? With kids like him, there’ll be a number of factors playing a role. He could be the next Karlsson. He could also be the next David Rundblad. This tourney will give everyone a good sense of what he’s capable of against similarly talented players.

Up front, it will be of particular interest to see what role Jens Looke is given. He started the year coming out of nowhere with six points in his first 12 SHL games for Brynas. Despite making and playing with the WJC team and spending all season in a grinder’s role at the SHL level, he didn’t register another point. The 6-foot, 187-pound winger will be asked to bang and take on a leadership role in the tournament. For scouts, the question will be if he can show any indication of greater offensive upside, as the faucet became dry far too early in the season and there are concerns about whether a team should use a top-90 pick on him in this deep of a draft.

Rounding things out

This tournament has its fair share of hockey bloodlines, and Sweden has one name most NHL fans will surely recognize. The 5’11”, 170-pound Jon Dahlen is, like his now coaching father Ulf, a tricky and agile forward who saw five games of play for Timra’s Allsvenskan club. For their junior U20 club, he put up 25 goals and 50 points in just 40 games. He also killed it for the club’s U18 team, for whom he not only put up 14 points in eight regular season games, but also another eight goals and 11 points in eight playoff games. Special are his offensive instincts and it seems he’s got a good bit of his father’s trickiness. Eligible for this draft, you won’t (currently) see his name in the CSS rankings. He aims to change that.

In addition to the very large Ahl, Sweden is bringing another huge body in 6’6”, 215-pound forward Gustav Olhaver. The Rogle product scored aplenty in U18 play, but wasn’t counted on for scoring at the U20 level, having registered just 12 points in 41 games. Ironically, despite the size, he only had 10 penalty minutes and is generally understood to be a blooming power forward in that still awkward and gangly phase of development.

Forwards Linus Olund (Brynas), Sebastian Olsson (Skelleftea), and Lukas Zetterberg (Vasteras) each saw time with their pro clubs and are currently seen as lower line players for this club, but were clear-cut leaders for their junior teams. Olsson in particular could be interesting, as he did have two points in 10 SHL contests for his club, which is currently playing for the SHL championship.

Djurgarden prospect Jonathan Davidsson, 5’11” and 185 pounds, spent the whole year playing for the junior program, having put up 45 points and a +24 in 39 U20 league games. These are extraordinary stats for a 17/18 year old kid. That he didn’t get a look in the SHL may have surprised some, but this could be the tournament where he breaks out. It’s safe to say that he’d be a first line forward for a number of the countries who will be playing in Switzerland.

Strengths

Pro experience, size, speed, rock solid defensemen, offensive capability, a strong goaltender – Sweden has as much claim for a gold medal as any team at this U18, and on paper has a better argument than any of Russia, the Czech Republic, Finland and perhaps even the USA and Canada.

Weaknesses

The congruity of the team will have to show itself. There is reason to believe that there may be too many chiefs and not enough indians, although Swedish management almost always puts together teams that avoid this issue. Despite a deep forward crew, it will be interesting to see how the team goes about not having a spearhead like Filip Forsberg or William Nylander amongst the group.

Outlook

This collection of talent, in which almost every young man on the team is listed in the CSS rankings for either the 2015 or 2016 drafts, will now have to show to what degree it can play as a team. A few prior clubs had a lot of experience together and this is only partially the case for this group. Nonetheless, there’s little doubt that this team, on paper, is one of the four best in the tournament and is heading in as a more likely gold medal candidate than did last spring’s squad.

More importantly, it looks like they have a true number one goaltender in Sandstrom, something prior Swedish teams haven’t necessarily enjoyed. The few underagers they will be sporting are among the best players they have and will in no way shy away from the competition. At the same time, players like Ahl, Looke, and Davidsson can use this tournament as a platform to boost what at times has been a waning draft rank status throughout the season.

Finally, Sweden’s blueline always features players interesting for NHL clubs, but this one is certainly the most notable in recent years with three of the young men featured among Europe’s top six draft prospects.

In light of all this, a medal game at this tournament without Swedish participation is just about unthinkable at the moment. In fact, if any of Canada, the USA or Russia stumble at some point, maybe against Sweden, this team is going home with no less than a silver medal.

Follow Chapin Landvogt’s work from the U18 World Championship at Hockey’s Future