There will be fireworks this holiday season at the 2016 World Junior Championship in Helsinki, and hockey pundits are certain: Team Sweden will be responsible for many of them!
For the national program itself, it is time to clear the slate after Finland crashed Sweden’s home country party at the 2014 World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden, where Finland triumphed on a Rasmus Ristolainen overtime goal in the gold medal game.
There are plenty of challenges to get there, but any team that can put together such a talented and balanced group of players while leaving the likes of Oliver Kylington (CGY), Rasmus Andersson (CGY), and Robin Kovacs (NYR) off the roster should be very confident in their ability to end up in a medal game.
And let there be no doubt that this team views itself as gold medal-worthy.
A star over all others
Now, it is unfair to say that this will be purely the “Nylander Show”, as team Sweden is as stocked and ready for this tournament as anyone, but the international ice hockey community is getting a Christmas treat like few before it.
William Nylander is the highest profile player in this entire event. The Toronto Maple Leafs 2014 first rounder is currently topping the AHL in scoring with 34 points in 27 games, all indications are that Nylander is well on track to eventually establish himself as one of the NHL’s most prolific scorers in the coming seasons. Already the producer of 10 points in seven WJC games last winter, opponents may have to design their entire defensive plans around somehow keeping him off the scoreboard in this year’s event.
That alone will likely be a deadly mistake.
If the established William wasn’t enough to keep hockey fans’ hearts pounding throughout the event, there will be a very special holiday goodie in his draft-eligible brother Alexander Nylander joining in on the fun. Regarded as another possible first round pick coming into the season, the younger Nylander actually topped expectations by being the author of 21 goals and 49 points in just 33 games for the Mississauga Steelheads this season. This has him being viewed as a potential top-10 NHL Draft selection next summer. His production to date has him on pace to perhaps rack up the highest scoring season ever by a Swede in the CHL.
Ironically, that honor is held by fellow Leafs’ prospect Dmytro Timashov, who set the all-time record just last season with 90 points (and another 18 in the playoffs) for the Quebec Remparts. Timashov himself could be just the type of key component of a WJC championship team, as what he lacks in glaring speed or an arsenal of shots are made up for by his incredible hockey sense and constant intangibles. Timashov is entering the tournament with 53 points in just 29 games for said Remparts of the QMJHL, and he will be entrusted to be the team’s offensive joker.
Ultimately showing just how stacked a lineup head coach Rikard Gronborg will have at his disposal, there is no telling whether Alexander or Dmytro will actually even play on one of Sweden’s top two lines or power play units.
Hardly another squad in the entire tournament could make the claim to such talents.
Offensive depth for all situations
The aforementioned names are just the beginning for Team Sweden. It is clear that William Nylander will be seen on the ice regularly and for every important phase of the game. He will likely see time on every single power play the team receives in the tournament. Aside from Team Canada, he alone will gain the interest and loyal following of an entire nation of fans already licking their chops to see him in a Maple Leafs’ uniform in the near future. But the team will feature a number of players, the quality of which precious few nations in the tournament can equal.
Expected to provide a good bit of offense are SHL regulars Joel Eriksson Ek (MIN) and Oskar Lindblom (PHI). In addition to his net-front presence, Eriksson Ek has shown himself to be deadly from all around the net and will be a major asset on the power play, likely being the first guy to crash the net. Still, even more successful in the SHL has been the older Lindblom, who has an outstanding 18 points and +15 rating in 27 games for Brynas. He has been known as a complementary player and may very well end up on a line with Nylander. And why not, as Lindblom has also seen time on Brynas’ top line with established international pros.
Big things will also be expected in an offensive sense for two drafted Swedes currently playing in North America, namely Adrian Kempe (LAK) and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson (BOS). For Kempe, who already had two full SHL seasons behind him, the move to the AHL has been telling, as he has already recorded 16 points in just 21 games for the Ontario Reign. Talk is that his NHL debut could come this season, especially on the heels of a strong WJC, which will be his second after a four-goal, eight-point showing last winter. Extremely talented in a playmaking capacity, Boston University freshman Forsbacka-Karlsson has 10 assists and 14 points in 18 games this season. A spot on one of the power play units and a top-six showing could be in the cards for the former USHL standout.
Last winter’s WJC was used to the fullest by Jens Looke (ARI), who had a strong showing with three goals and a lot of strong work in all three zones. Currently collecting points regularly for Almtuna of the Allsvenskan, his role as a Duracell battery on one of the top three lines is as good as engraved. Taking on a bigger role, though, will be last season’s biggest SHL discovery, Axel Holmstrom (DET), who led all SHL playoff scorers with 18 points in 15 games. Producing at a decent clip this season with 16 points in 27 games, Holmstrom is one of the most established pro players in the entire tournament. His leadership and strong physical play in all three zones will also be crucial for a player who once shone brightly on a line with William Nylander at the 2014 U18 World Championship.
Far from just extras, Anton Karlsson (ARI), Fredrik Olofsson (CHI), Lukas Vejdemo (MTL), and Christoffer Ehn (DET), all of whom are of good size and are taking a regular shift for their respective clubs, will round off the various lines with their responsible play. Olofsson, like his older brother Gustav (MIN), plays in the NCAA for the University of Nebraska-Omaha, while Karlsson, Vejdemo, and Ehn have all seen considerable SHL playing time, even if Ehn has since taken on a bigger role playing for Karlskoga in the Allsvenskan.
Goalies and defenseman galore
Goaltender Linus Soderstrom already manned the nets for Team Sweden last winter over seven games and put up a 2.31 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. Despite this and the fact that he has got a 1.90 goals-against and .927 save percentage in 12 games for the Allsvenskan pro club Vita Hasten, the New York Islanders draft pick won’t even be the likely starter at this tournament.
That honor will likely go to Felix Sandstrom (PHI), who has been better than average for the upstart Brynas club in the SHL, which is currently third in the league after 27 games. Sandstrom has played in 11 games, having won six of them and tied another. Nary a team in the tournament can turn to two goalies of this magnitude.
Life will be made easier for them by a defensive unit that not only is defensively-oriented and well indoctrinated in a puck-possession system, but also features seven defensemen seeing regular ice time in the SHL. The top power play unit will see none other than Chicago Blackhawks prospect Gustav Forsling patrolling the blueline. Possessing one of the heaviest shots of any player outside of the NHL, Forsling is entering WJC action with 12 points and a +12 rating for fifth-place Linkoping of the SHL. He collected three goals and eight points at last winter’s World Juniors.
But that is just a side note in light of the forest of redwoods that will be clearing the crease for the blue-and-gold goaltenders. Six of the eight defenders range between 6’2” and 6’4”, with William Lagesson (EDM) and Jacob Larsson (ANA) being the shortest amongst that group. They, along with Gabriel Carlsson (CBJ), Andreas Englund (OTT), Adam Ollas Mattsson (CGY), and Marcus Pettersson (ANA) all bring the type of size, physicality, transitional acumen, and on-ice intelligence that every coach dreams of. Many are curious about how Larsson in particular will perform at this stage after having been a late first round pick for an Anaheim club that knows all about grabbing top-flight Scandinavian defensemen. Larsson almost unexpectedly has nine points and a +12 rating in 26 games for Frolunda of the SHL this season.
More importantly, in a group that features Canada and the USA, there will be no backing down or lacking the physical strength to prevent and move the crease-crashing antics that come with North American opponents. The fact that seven of the eight defenders are regular SHL players speaks highly of the team’s chances heading into the tournament.
Keep a close eye on…
Last winter and summer, there was one name that kept coming up as a player for the future who wasn’t necessarily on everyone’s radar, due in part to an injury-riddled season and a lack of international performances. His name is Lukas Vejdemo and the 6’2”, 194-pound all-purpose forward was eventually taken by the Montreal Canadians in the third round of the 2015 NHL Draft. Vejdemo has managed to stay healthy this season and has been much more than advertised. With eight assists, 11 points and a +7 rating in 27 games, the youngster has made himself a fixed part of the Djurgarden lineup in the SHL and is impressing most particularly in his ability to understand the importance of the two-way game.
For a franchise that once featured Guy Carbonneau, Vejdemo is providing a lot of reason to get excited and may be just the difference in a shutdown capacity for a team that will otherwise be able to send a lot of scorers out on the ice. He could be for the defensive duties what William Nylander should be for things on the offensive side.
Scouts will be watching…
What we know is that they will watch everyone on the team, which already features three drafted goalies, seven drafted defensemen, and 12 drafted forwards. That is an entire lineup of NHL-drafted players who are currently playing everywhere from NCAA hockey to the SHL in Sweden.
Still, in addition to the highly touted Alex Nylander, Sweden’s roster features two more forwards expected to be possible first round picks this upcoming summer. Both Rasmus Asplund, who captained the U18 squad, and Carl Grundstrom, a power forward who is already physically imposing in taking paths straight to the net, are in their second year of SHL action. They each have already outscored their previous totals, even if neither is being counted on in an offensive capacity by their respective SHL clubs. A big role at this WJC isn’t expected either, but both will be here for the ride as they will likely be go-to players at next winter’s event.
One player that would likely have garnered some scouting love was Skelleftea defenseman Sebastian Aho. The as yet undrafted Aho would have filled the role of power play quarterback for this Swedish squad, but he was injured in a pre-tournament game and will miss this WJC. For many in the scouting community, it is felt that his not having been drafted through two drafts of eligibility remains one of the more eyebrow-raising anomalies in quite some time.
Coach Gronborg will be making use not only of an exorbitant amount of NHL-drafted players, as mentioned above, but also a group that features nine returnees, most importantly goaltender Soderstrom. He has got a relative dream team of defensemen and forwards to lean on and, barring injury, should be able to find answers in that locker room for every situation.
Group A play features matchups against Canada and the USA, which of course makes this one of the toughest groups to play in. Switzerland has been a tough opponent at times for Sweden, so the team cannot afford to take them lightly. Beating a motivated neighbor in Denmark is a must. But all in all, just getting to the playoff round will be the key as Sweden compares highly favorably to just about all of the opponents in Group B play and should be in full swing once those playoff games take flight.
Knowing that anything can happen, the desire for revenge over Finland for the loss the program had to experience on home ice in early January of 2014 is absolutely enormous. There is nothing the team would want more than the chance at just that in the gold medal game. The Finnish side is strong enough to get there as well, and there would be a great deal of poetic justice if the archrivals were to meet there again.
Regardless of who they face and what color medal it is, we are tipping on this Swedish squad taking a medal home with them.
Follow Chapin Landvogt’s coverage of the 2016 World Junior Championship at HF