2016 U18 World Championship Preview: Nylander leads Sweden squad heavy with 2017 prospects

By Chapin Landvogt
Alexander Nylander - Mississauga Steelheads

Photo: Mississauga Steelheads forward and 2016 prospect Alexander Nylander finished 19th in scoring in the OHL in 2015-16, posting 28 goals and 75 points in 57 games (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

 

 

In April of 2015, the Swedish national team traveled to Switzerland fully believing it was sending a medal contender to the IIHF U18 World Championship. But aside from a tight victory over future dropout Germany in the preliminary round, which at least got Sweden to the playoff round, there was very little to write home about. The team was dismissed in the first round of the playoffs after losing to Russia, the USA and even Slovakia in the preliminary round. Heads rolled and the program will be featuring a new coach, Torgny Bendelin, on the bench for this year’s tournament.

Nonetheless, a number of that team’s players ended up getting drafted last summer, a few even in the first round, but that was surely not attributed to their performance at the U18. Unceremonious in its departure, the team simply wasn’t a team, nor the sum of its parts.

Since then, the Swedes have licked their wounds and will be sending a club to North Dakota that will feature a number of players who showed up in Slovakia and the Czech Republic for a strong Ivan Hlinka tournament last spring. If, as expected, Alexander Nylander shows up for the party in North Dakota, then Sweden will have to be seen as a medal favorite, if it wasn’t already.

Heading into the preliminary round, Sweden knows that it will have its work cut out for it, but the biggest opponent is host USA, which has dominated U18 play in recent years. Sweden will face Latvia on the first day of play and will finish things off with contests against Switzerland (always a tough opponent) and Russia. Due to the uncertainty of the entry being made by Russia after the doping scandal that became known just last week, Sweden will have to be seen as a favorite entering that match.

Here’s a look at the team Sweden will likely be sending to the U18 tournament.

Goalies

Always strong at the goaltending position, Sweden is looking to feature the tournament’s most high profile goaltending prospect for 2016, Filip Gustavsson. Outstanding at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, it wasn’t certain what kind of shot he would get back home in Sweden, as his powerhouse Lulea program already featured two likely full-season SHL goaltenders. Aside from U20 league play, it was felt he may get loaned out to an Allsvenskan club along the way. In actuality, the 6’2”, 185-pounder managed to get into six games of play and put up an outstanding 2.17 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. It was so good, that he’s currently backing up the SHL team, which is duking things out with Frolunda in the semifinals. Should he not be part of the SHL final, look for him to be crowned the team’s starter at the U18.

Should he not be there for the bulk of the tournament, the Swedes are bringing along three further goaltenders, and any one of Olle Eriksson Ek, Filip Larsson, or Tim Hultstrand could get the nod.

Eriksson Ek is the younger brother Minnesota Wild prospect Joel Eriksson Ek and is first eligible for the 2017 draft, making him unlikely to get much, if any, playing time in North Dakota, but his participation will be in preparation for next spring. The 6’2” Larsson has spent his entire season manning the nets in Djurgarden’s junior program, but aside from a 2.56 goals-against average in four playoff games for the club’s U18 team, he couldn’t keep his goals-against below 3.20 and save percentage above .877 for either the U18 team (4 games) or U20 squad (19 games). Hultstrand put in a lot of minutes this winter and was nothing short of dynamic for Malmo’s U20 squad. In 42 contests, he put up a 1.93 goals-against average and .936 save percentage.

Defensemen

This year’s defensive corps will be quite an exciting one for the scouting community, but more in light of what it may ultimately be displaying for the 2017 draft. Leading the way on the ‘Great Interest’ list is Tim Liljegren, a 16-year-old, half-American who not only measures in at 6 feet, 190 pounds, but also has 19 SHL games under his belt in which he managed to chip in a goal and five points (along with a -7). Whereas fans in Sweden have been spoiled by some interesting play from 16-year-old defensemen in the SHL in recent years (see Oliver Kylington), many feel Liljegren may have the goods to be a top-3 draft pick in 2017.

It may overshadow the play of fellow 16-year-old Tom Hedberg, but the 160-pound spit in the bucket simply has an ability to understand the game that doesn’t grow on trees. An intelligent player with strong skating skills, Hedberg spent 34 games with Leksands this past winter, who he helped gain promotion back into the SHL (at MODO’s cost). In so doing, he collected a goal, five points, and a +5 rating. In addition, he didn’t wind up in the penalty box even once in those 34 games. He should be one of the more interesting players to keep an eye on at this tournament.

Nonetheless, the big name at defense is likely Jacob Cederholm, a cheerful leader who can be the face of your team to the media and also throw around some bodies with his 6’3”, 190-pound frame. His attributes were good enough to get him into nine games with HV71 this season, where he was a good bit out of his league and registered a -5. Still, he was a standout at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and is felt to be a likely top-60 pick this summer as a thoroughly defensive-minded defender.

He should get some solid help from HV71 teammates Jacob Moverare (4 games with HV71) and 16-year-old Erik Brannstrom (3 with HV71), both of whom were very solid U20 league contributors. Brannstrom is of special note as he is first eligible for the 2017 draft and was nothing short of special with eight goals and 30 points in 44 U20 games, numbers rarely seen from a player his age. Meanwhile, Moverare looks to be a hot mid-round commodity in the upcoming draft and has filled in nicely as an all-around defender with a 6’2”, 200-pound frame.

One defender who might end up being a top-four defenseman for Sweden is Adam Tilander, yet another solid Skelleftea product. A poised player with a right-handed shot who reminds some of Calgary Flames pick Rasmus Andersson, Thilander is a team-first player who put up 17 points and a +4 rating in 44 games this winter. Still needing to improve in the skating department, he thinks the game well and isn’t shy about throwing his body around.

Skelleftea’s Hugo Danielsson and MODO’s Jesper Sellgren should round off the group, with Danielsson’s role as a shutdown defender possibly ending up being bigger than expected.

Forwards

Things could get very interesting for Team Sweden at the U18, as Nylander is now expected to suit up for the team after his Mississauga Steelheads were eliminated from the OHL playoffs. Expected to possibly go top-5 in this summer’s draft, hardly a team in the tournament will have such a tricky and dynamic weapon in their arsenal.

This season has been huge for Nylander, who has pushed off the pressure of being the younger brother of William Nylander, instead forming a well-earned reputation of his own. After six points in five Ivan Hlinka tournament games, it became known that he would spend this season in the OHL. There, he racked up 28 goals and 75 points in 57 games, putting up a +8 rating in the process. He then chipped in 12 points in six playoff games to cap things off. Throw in his nine points and +5 rating in seven WJC games and there is no doubting that Nylander is likely the highest profile player at this tournament.

Up front, the team will feature a good number of forwards who got their feet wet at the SHL level this winter. No less than Lias Andersson (26 games with HV71), Oskar Steen (22 with Farjestad), Jesper Boqvist (10 with Brynas), Tim Wahlgren (10 with MODO), Tim Soderlund (8 with Skelleftea), Isac Lundestrom (4 with Lulea), Linus Lindstrom (4 also with Skelleftea), and Marcus Davidsson (2 with Djurgarden) got in valuable action with the big club this season. In particular, an eye should be kept on Andersson, who is already 5’11” and 200 pounds and is first eligible for the 2017 draft. He had zero points and a -6 with the pro team, but was brought in slowly after destroying the U20 league with 26 goals, 61 points, 93 penalty minutes, and a +20 rating in 39 games. Putting up nearly as strong a showing this season is Boqvist, another 2017-eligible, who put up 59 points in 42 games. Both are felt to be likely SHL regulars next season.

Perhaps the most established forward in this year’s group is Oskar Steen. His six assists and fearless style of play in the SHL opened a lot of eyes. He may very well line up with another fairly pro-established player, winger Jesper Bratt. Already a veteran of 63 Allsvenskan games, Bratt chipped in eight goals and 17 points in 58 games while getting 3rd line minutes on one of Sweden’s most famous clubs. A darting forward with a sniper’s shot, he will be looked at to provide a good bit of the team’s offense in North Dakota.

They will be assisted primarily by returnee Lindstrom, who was overmatched last spring, but will now have the chance to put in a totally different performance. A smaller, very agile player (5’11”, 168 lbs.), Lindstrom came on strong over the course of the season and finished off with 10 points in six playoff games. In total, he had 19 goals and 54 points in 46 games, capping things off with a +17 in the process. He will be counted on for that type of all-around game at this tournament.

An interesting prospect up front is the slender, but very intelligent Elias Pettersson, an Ivan Hlinka second-line center who spent the bulk of this season in the Allsvenskan, where he chipped in three goals, 13 points, and a +6 rating in 30 games of professional hockey. Felt to be too scrawny and wiry heading into the season, he nonetheless surprised with some play beyond his age. He just recently turned 17 and is first eligible for the 2017 draft.

Aside from Nylander, William Fallstrom is currently the sole forward who has been playing his hockey in North America, namely for the Omaha Lancers of the USHL. He is scheduled to attend the University of Minnesota next season, but the Ivan Hlinka veteran has had a hard time finding the net with only five goals on the season. His older brother Alexander, once a Minnesota Wild pick, is a Harvard graduate, so the focus on education is clear in the Fallstrom family. William’s knowledge of the North American game will be invaluable for this club, especially in a defensive capacity.

For certain, though, the players Wahlgren and Soderlund will be counted on for providing second-wave scoring. The mid-sized Wahlgren already stood out at the Ivan Hlinka tournament and had a huge season for the MODO U20 squad, collecting 45 points in 41 games. Soderlund is a smaller player who had 42 points in 48 U20 league contests and is felt to be extremely responsible in all three zones.

Rounding things out on the forward lines will likely be Axel Jonsson Fjallby and Rickard Hugg. Whereas Jonsson Fjallby was a semi-productive complementary player for Djurgarden’s U20 championship team, Hugg is a burly playmaker in the Leksand organization who had 30 assists in 45 U20 league games and is scheduled to be given a shot on a lower line for Leksand in the SHL next season. Hugg is first eligible for the 2017 draft.

Sleepers

Marcus Davidsson is, like so many of his teammates, first eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft. Nonetheless, the 17-year-old not only got a taste of SHL play, but also had 46 points and a +33 rating in 51 games for the champion Djurgarden club in the U20 league. At six foot and 185 pounds, he is still growing and shows an ability to play the game any way it comes.

Although his role may be a strictly defensive one on no more than the fourth line, the hockey community will be given a real treat in seeing 16 year old Isac Lundestrom at this tournament, as he is first eligible for the 2018 draft and has been a hot topic this season on the Swedish scene, especially after debuting in the SHL.

Outlook

Even without Nylander and Gustavsson, two of the possibly biggest names in the tournament, this team could make a run for a medal, especially in light of what could be quite a defensively responsible group of players, particularly on the back end. Should the two stars join in on the fun, then Sweden immediately jumps into the group of favorites, especially in light of Russia’s X-factor standing. Few teams here have the depth, experience, and a star of this capacity both in goal and on the scoring front. This said, we’re tipping on Sweden playing for bronze on the last day of the tournament, as the type of youth this team is sporting usually has a hard time with the daily push they will be subjected to in this grueling tournament.

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin