Team Sweden named the team that will compete for the finest honours in junior hockey this week and, unlike last year, a fifth place finish will be satifactory for a squad that lacks star quality and quality 1981-born players. Instead, the tournament that will take place in Moscow, Russia, could be seen as a learning experience for a number of budding stars born in 1982.
There were few surprises in the squad, one mild one is that highly touted power forward Jens Karlsson will be left home as a ”non travelling reserve.” Karlsson was considered a possible top ten overall pick in the 2001 Draft at the start of the season, but his stock may be falling as he has only seen spot duty with Frölunda in the Elitserien. Instead, his younger teammate Fredrik Sjöström has not only skated past Karlsson on the Frölunda depth chart, but also on the Team Sweden depth chart. Sjöström, a winger born in May 1983, is the youngest player on the Swedish entry and he has recorded five points in 26 Elitserien games, which can be compared to zero points in nine games for Karlsson.
As usual, Sweden lacks a big name in goal but at least this year they get a player who has seen plenty of action on his clubteam. Johan Backlund, an undrafted 19-year-old from Skellefteå, has been backstopping his team in the Allsvenskan after 36-year-old veteran Dick Andersson went down with a serious knee injury. Backlund is first in the Northern Allsvenskan in save-percentage with a 90.4% rating, and third in goals against average with 2.58. The other goalie is Frölunda´s Henrik Lundqvist, an 18-year-old drafted by the New York Rangers last summer. Lundqvist stepped in early in the Elitserien season and appeared in four games for Frölunda before former NHL-goalie Pat Jablonski arrived on the scene in Gothenburg and made Frölunda coach Tommy Boustedt opting to assign Lundqvist to Mölndal in the Southern Allsvenskan to make sure that the promising youngster got playing time. It is not clear going in to the tournament who will be the number one, it is quite possible that Head Coach Bo Lennartsson will use a rotation-system in goal.
Detroit Red Wings first round pick Niklas Kronwall will be expected to be the leader on the blueline. He has experience both from last years World Junior Championship and from international hockey at the senior level. Kronwall, however, has been hampered by injuries this season and has struggled at times to play his intelligent two-way game. Only three points, all assists, in 16 games for Djurgården has to be considered a disappointment. The other big name on the blueline is Leksand´s Lars Jonsson, an 18-year-old 6´2, 200 pound defenseman who was drafted seventh overall by the Boston Bruins last summer. Jonsson has an abundance of raw talent, and he has been getting regular icetime in the Elitserien recording one goal, one assist and 10 penalty minutes in 21 games.
One of the more interesting names on the squad could be 19-year-old Andreas Holmqvist from Hammarby. The 6´4, 190 pound defenseman in leading all Allsvenskan players with a plus-minus rating of +25, and he is also the only blueliner on the Swedish squad with a right-handed shot. Only slighty smaller is last year´s phenom – fiery 5’7, 145 pounder Magnus Hedlund from Mora – who returns this year. AIK´s David Johansson, who spent last year in the Western Hockey League, is also included in the squad.
If Niklas Kronwall is expected to be the leader among defenseman, Jonas Andersson should be one of the players assuming that role among the forwards. Andersson, who is playing for the Nashville Predator´s farm team in Milwaukee has a wealth of experience when compared to most other players on the team. He has not been a big scorer in the IHL this year, the winger has three goals and three assists in 16 games, but brings good size at 6´2, 190 and the experience of playing against North American opponents.
Only one player, winger Björn Melin from HV71, played in the World Junior Championships last year. Then again, he was the only player last year with a birth certificate dated later than 1980. Melin has had a tough season, recording only one assist in 29 games. Of those 29 games, Melin has at most participated in 14, and spending a huge amount of time on the bench is often the reality for Swedish youngsters in the Elitserien still learning to play the game.
Perhaps realizing that ice-time is hard to get in the Elitserien, many young players have instead opted to play in the Allsvenskan. Among those who have made that decision is 2000 NHL Entry Draft first round pick Martin Samuelsson, who is one of three players from Hammarby on the squad – Holmqvist and diminutive 5´8 center Tim Eriksson begin the other two. Unlike their teammates playing in the Elitserien, the Hammarby trio is getting lots of icetime as member of a powerful first line. After 23 games, Eriksson is leading the team with 25 points, his right winger Samuelsson is fifth with 17 points, and Holmqvist has recorded nine points so far.
Daniel Widing is another interesting winger. He is one of only two forwards – Melin being the other – with a right-handed shot. Widing has seen spot-duty with Leksand in the Elitserien, but has a hat-trick included in his total of five goals so far this year.
In all, nine players are born later than 1981 – eight are 1982-born and Fredrik Sjöström is the lone 1983-born player on the team.
Full roster can be found at www.swehockey.se