2011 WJC: Talent and depth mean you shouldn’t sleep on Sweden’s WJC chances

By Jason Menard

Sweden has been knocking on the door for three straight years now, finishing in medal contention, but unable to break through to claim gold. However, led by a player that seems to balance the best of North American and Swedish hockey, the Kitchener Rangers’ Gabriel Landeskog.

Due to the challenges of travel, Landeskog remained in North America while his team prepared overseas for the tournament. Once the club arrived on this side of the Atlantic, Landeskog joined the roster and the OHL‘s top-ranked draft-eligible prospect will be counted upon to play a key two-way game in his first world junior experience.

However, Landeskog will have some help leading the club towards its first gold since 1981 (and only its second gold overall). Four players return from last year’s bronze-medal-winning club: Landeskog’s fellow 2011 draft-eligible Adam Larsson, Tim Erixon (Calgary’s 2009 first-round selection), Anton Lander (a second-round pick by Edmonton in 2009) and Carl Klingberg (second round, Atlanta, 2009).

Larsson, who Central Scouting rated the 2011 draft’s top Swedish prospect (Landeskog was rated amongst OHLers) and his Skelleftea teammate Erixon will provide a steadying presence on the blue line, despite Larsson’s relative youth. Both players have been through the unique challenges that the World Junior Championships present and will likely log big minutes throughout the tournament.

They’ll be joined on the blue line by Fredrik Styrman, Klas Dahlbeck, John Klingberg (Dallas 5th round), Patrik Nemeth (Dallas, 2nd round), Simon Bertilsson (Philadelphia 3rd round), and Jonas Brodin. The Swedes have assembled a large and gifted blue line. Only Styrman finds himself on the shorter side of six-feet and he’s 5’11. Erixon, Larsson, Nemeth, and Dahlbeck are all 6’2 or greater and 200-plus pounds.

This size on the blue line should help them compete with the tournament favorites like Canada and the U.S., especially on the smaller North American ice surface. However, all members of the Swedish blue line crew are playing in Europe, so it will be important for Team Sweden to use its pre-tournament games wisely to acclimatize them to the new dimensions.

They’ll be protecting a welcome surprise to the roster, as the Ottawa Senators released netminder Robin Lehner (2nd round, Ottawa) to participate in the tournament — an interesting development considering the club refused a similar request last year when Sweden wanted to add Erik Karlsson to the roster. The 6’3 goalie will provide a huge boost between the pipes, both in terms of presence and in experience. Lehner’s had a cup of coffee with the Senators at the NHL level, but he’s been a vital cog for the Sens’ AHL team in Binghamton. Lehner will be Sweden‘s number-one netminder and should see plenty of time between the pipes all tournament long.

Atlanta prospect Fredrik Petterson Wentzel and Minnesota draft pick Johan Gustafsson will back up Lehner, but as Sweden‘s in the WJC Group of Death with teams like Russia, Canada, and the Czech Republic, every game will be vital and the Swedes will likely start their best at all times.

Up front, Lander will wear the ‘C’ for Sweden — a role he filled last year as well — and he’ll be counted upon to at least match, if not exceed, his five-goal, eight-point performance from last year’s WJC. Save for Landeskog and fellow 2011 draft-eligible Rickard Rackell (OHL, Plymouth) the entire Swedish forward corps is comprised of players from the European leagues.

Notably absent from the Swedish squad is Magnus Paajarvi (EDM), Jacob Josefson (NJ), and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (PHO), and while these players would have been nice to have on the roster, the Swedes have enough offensive talent to make up for their absence. Calle Jarnkrok, a Detroit Red Wings‘ second-round selection will be looked upon to be an offensive presence for this squad and his playmaking skills should present well during the tournament. Mike Zibanejad was ranked third overall by CSS in terms of Swedish draft prospects and he’ll have to step up his game as well for the club to contend.

While Sweden’s chances at World Junior gold have been underrated by some, they remain a gold-medal hopeful and following a few years of national commitment to growing the youth programs in Sweden, combined with the disappointment that came from last year’s surprising loss to the U.S. in the semi-final game, Team Sweden will have the motivation to combine with the club’s impressive depth and talent to make a significant run at this year’s tournament.

Factoring against them is the fact that they’re in the aforementioned Group of Death. Canada and Russia are always tough, and the Czech Republic has been known to show well at this tournament. Only Norway appears out of its element at this tournament, so should the Swedes advance to the knock-out stage, they’ll be well battle-hardened for the medal round.

Finally, when you consider that Lehner will be in the running with Jack Campbell of the U.S. for the title of the tournament’s top goaltender — he’s able to steal a game all by himself — and fans shouldn’t sleep on this club’s potential. After three years of finishing with a medal (two silvers, one bronze), the Swedes may be ready to cash in on their promise and turn that potential into gold.