What began so well, became so empty. Despite losing key forward William Nylander (TOR) in the very first game of the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship – a player who many expected to be the absolute star of the event – Sweden managed to battle and convincingly earn its way to an undefeated first place finish in preliminary round play with a clear 8-3 win over Switzerland and 5-0 victory over Denmark, as well as two very special victories over the North American contingent with a 1-0 victory over the U.S. and a confident 5-2 win over the Canadians.
The playoffs started off with a 6-0 win over Slovakia, who had upset Sweden for bronze last winter. At that point things were going as well as possible, but the near-perfect tournament ended there.
For Coach Rikard Gronborg, there was no getting past eventual gold medalist and host Finland, Sweden’s archrival. Despite a beautiful goal by 2016 prospect Rasmus Asplund off a wonderful feed from top playmaker Dmytro Timashov (TOR) fairly early in the game, Finland managed to shut the Swedes down completely after that. A few fairly questionable calls gave Finland just the power play time it needed to win the game, 2-1. Decimated after the loss, the team completely collapsed against the USA in the bronze medal game, where Gronborg decided to go with backup Felix Sandstrom (PHI) instead of an emotionally drained Linus Soderstrom (NYI), who was named the tournament’s Top Goaltender.
Based solely on stats, top scorer Alexander Nylander (four goals, nine points) or crashing winger Adrian Kempe (LAK – three goals, eight points) would both be the worthy and easy picks. But for those watching, no forward had a bigger impact than little tyke Dmytro Timashov, who dazzled crowds with his confident, shifty play and top-flight passing abilities, allowing him to score two goals and seven points while going +4 in the tournament. He has currently totaled 19 goals (tying last season’s totals) and 41 assists in just 31 QMJHL games after having put up 90 points for Quebec in his rookie year in North America. A Toronto Maple Leafs fifth rounder in 2015, Timashov did nothing but raise his stock in showing that his huge junior numbers are indeed indicative of the production the franchise can rightfully expect of him in the future.
For a team that got the job done everyday, five games long, only to bow out with two unceremonious defeats, it is difficult to pick out any one name amongst a solid and homogenous group of NHL draftees. Most impressive, however, was the one NCAA player on the blueline, William Lagesson. An Edmonton Oilers 2014 fourth rounder, Lagesson logged a good amount of ice time and was a physical, shot-blocking force. His presence and involvement could be felt at just about all times while on the ice and he lead Swedish defenders with two goals along the way. Despite the heavy ice time and the two losses to conclude the tournament, Lagesson capped off his tournament with a strong +7 rating.
No doubt about it, especially after the 46-save showing in shutting out the USA, Linus Soderstrom was the man of the hour for Team Sweden. Finishing things off with a 4-1 record, with the only loss being the tough 2-1 downfall to Finland, Soderstrom was named the tournament’s top goaltender after putting up a 1.42 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.
The reasons behind team Sweden’s rollercoaster ride
For the most part, the team showed an incredible ability to cope with the loss of their expected star. In fact, it was the only team to gain all 12 possible points in the preliminary round and toyed with Slovakia in the quarterfinal, thus showing that it was too deep to worry about any one star player. But after having lost the 2013 WJC at home against Finland, there was plenty of reason to think the Swedes would be more than ready to knock off the rival Finns in the semifinal. They weren’t. They simply could not generate the offense, instead continually skating against a wall and looking lost for ideas.
When all was said and done after the 2-1 loss, the talk was about poor officiating. Star goalie Soderstrom was so disappointed and crushed by the loss, that Coach Gronborg went with Felix Sandstrom in the bronze medal game, which saw Sweden bow out 8-3 to the U.S. in one of the most lopsided medal games in recent years. At the end of the day, what could have been a fairy tale tournament for a team out for 2013 revenge will only go to show that this group of primarily drafted Swedes went home empty-handed after a lack of energy and commitment in light of an emotional loss to their archrival. Going back to previous international tournaments, many of these players – without a doubt talented – haven’t been able to medal when push comes to shove.
2016 prospects who helped themselves
One of, if not the top line for Sweden eventually consisted of Asplund, Tymashov, and Nylander. Considering Nylander very quietly led Sweden with four goals and nine points, he did anything but decrease his draft value, although he wasn’t yet capable of carrying the team when it needed it the most, namely against Finland and in the first two periods against the USA. Considering the loss of his brother in Game One, he nonetheless responded and stepped up to the plate, even if his game continues to have more of a ‘perimeter’ character. As for Asplund, he did nothing but continue to work his way into the notebooks of NHL scouts, displaying above-average skating ability and very good hockey sense. His passing and playmaking abilities appear to be better than advertised, with his five points being well-earned.
2016 prospect may have hurt his cause
It has been questioned just how much upside 2016 draft-eligible Carl Grundstrom will have over time. He is a power forward playing his second season of SHL hockey with just a very modest output of seven points in 29 games. He was given ample time in this tournament and even played with some reasonably good playmakers, but only managed one point in seven games while taking three penalties. As one of the team’s younger players, it doesn’t have to mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but plenty of other 2016 draft-eligibles expected to go in the first round this summer improved or confirmed their stock. That was not the case for Grundstrom.
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