Three’s Company in the SEL

By Peter Westermark

The Elitserien is at its halfway mark and three clubs have taken possession
of the top three spots, creating a gap to the fourth place in the league.
Perennial powerhouses Djurgården and Färjestad are hovering around the top
spot, as usual. They are joined by HV71, who made a splash in the transfer
market this past summer when they signed players like Finnnish forward Kalle
Sahlstedt and Johan Davidsson, who returns to the club after failing to
establish himself in the NHL.

Another big factor in HV71’s rise to the top has been young goaltender
Stefan Liv who is boasting a 2.17 goals against average and an impressive
92.1 save percentage. Liv, who is drafted by the Red Wings, has also starred
for the Swedish national team and could be named to the olympic team later
this month. He would suit up as the number three goalie in a ”see and
learn”-role behind Edmonton’s Tommy Salo and Pittsburgh’s Johan Hedberg.
Liv, who has grown up watching Dominik Hasek carry teams on his back, looks
like he has been influenced by the Czech star but plays a more conventional
style.

Another revelation for the team has been norwegian forward Per-Åge Skröder
who was a fringe player in the Elitserien until he joined HV71. He is
leading the team with 21 points in 25 games.

Back-to-back champions Djurgården is again near the top of the league,
despite losing a dozen players over the summer, which usually means that the
new players with the team are doing quite well. Mikael Håkansson, who played
last year with the St.John’s Maple Leafs in the AHL after not making it in
Toronto, has 23 points in 26 games and is leading the league in points.

Flashy winger Nils Ekman signed with Djurgården after not coming to terms on
a contract with the New York Rangers and he has scored 15 points in 15
games. Ekman is an Elitserien rookie, and the favorite to win rookie of the
year honours. Despite being Stockholm born and trained, Ekman played in the
Finnish SM-Liiga before trying his luck in the NHL. Word at the time was
that Ekman was a cocky kid, which might have steered Swedish General
Managers away from him, as nothing but a ”team first and me last”-attitude
will do in Sweden.

Players like Nichlas Falk and Michael Johansson, instrumental in Djurgårdens
success for years, are still going strong with about 20 points a piece so
far. Creative 20-year-old defenseman Niklas Kronwall, a first round pick by
the Detroit Red Wings, has had a so-so season points wise with four goals
and two assists so far. Kronwall is learning on the job and will become an
offensive force sooner rather than later, but he’ll have to face questions
about his size and strength until he has earned a full-time job on the
roster in Motown. Kronwall is listed at 5´11 and 173 pounds.

In Karlstad, Färjestad are playing at a brand new arena that will be one of
the hosts of the World Championships this coming spring. The team has not
disappointed on the ice, having lost only four games out of 25 so far in
regulation time. Center Jörgen Jönsson gave up his NHL-career to return home
but that will not stop him from playing in North America this season. He is
one of ten players, the only one currently playing in the Elitserien which
has been named to the Olympic Team. He will be there on the merit of his
versatility and complete game. Färjestad has not been disappointed with him
so far, but seven goals and nine assists are well below Jönsson’s standards.

Mathias Johansson, a fellow center, hoped to sign a contract with the
Calgary Flames this past summer but was told that they didn’t require his
services. He has also had a hard time contributing offensively as he has
scored only 7 points in 25 games. The 27-year-old Johansson has been with
Färjestad for over a decade and should maybe look around for a new challenge
to rejuvenate his career.

With fifty percent of the regular season left to play, it is too early to
start to think about the playoffs but these three teams are top candidates
to become the champions in Sweden this season, all have solid goaltending
and good depth on the team.