Coming into the 2013 World Junior Championship as the reigning gold medal champions, Sweden knew right from the beginning that a repeat performance would be no easy task. Not only could a number one goalie not be determined before the tournament began, but not a team in the tournament came in missing what was possibly its four most recognizable and important U-20 pieces, a situation Sweden had to deal with right off the bat.
Already missing the injured or sick Mika Zibanejad (OTT), Jonas Brodin (MIN) and Oscar Klefbom (EDM) – all of whom were first round NHL Draft picks – the bad news hit before the whole team had arrived in Ufa as 2012 sixth overall draft pick Hampus Lindholm (ANA) unexpectedly had to drop out of the tournament due to a concussion. Topping off the concerns, Florida Panthers 2011 second rounder Rasmus Bengtsson also began the tournament on the sidelines.
Still, this gave the team and the scouting community the opportunity to find out what draft hopefuls like Emil Djuse, Linus Arnesson and last minute call-in Robert Hagg could do under pressure and all three ended up delivering. In addition, Anze Kopitar’s lockout teammates in Mora, defensemen Tom Nilsson (TOR) and Mikael Vikstrand (OTT), stepped up to the plate and delivered very well, ultimately assuming the bulk of the defensive minutes quite effectively.
With goaltending duties being shared by Niklas Lundstrom (STL) and the undrafted Joel Lassinantti, Sweden somewhat unsurprisingly made its way through the preliminary round with three regulation victories over the Czech Republic, Latvia and Finland as well as an overtime shootout scare against the upstart Swiss, a game decided on the only successful penalty shot of the game, taken by Victor Rask (CAR). This earned Sweden a bye in the quarter-final round, allowing them a few days’ rest and preparation before facing the tournament's host, Team Russia, a team that barely slipped by the pesky Swiss, 4-3, in an overtime shootout session one night before the semi-final.
This ultimately came to benefit the Swedes, who got off to a quick 2-0 start in the first period of the semi-final while the Russians looked stiff from their long and weary game the evening before. Eventually Russia got back into it, having tied things up at two and then creating a number of opportunities heading up to and throughout overtime, before the game ended in penalty shots. Goaltender Lundstrom was the tournament’s king in this department, however, having not allowed one penalty shot goal against in two shootout events. On the other side, Sebastian Collberg (MTL) continued his international heroics with the decisive goal on a highlight reel deking out of Andrey Vasilevskiy (TBL) to push Sweden back into its second straight gold medal game.
It was at that point that the gas seemed to be a bit out of the tank for Sweden. Despite opening the scoring against the USA in the second period on a broken play goal by the undrafted Filip Sandberg, Sweden had its hands full trying to contain a Team USA that continued to establish the majority of the game’s attack. As is often the case when one team continually finds itself pressuring its opponent, Team USA managed to put in two working man’s goals and then an empty netter in the waning seconds of the game to prevent Sweden from repeating as gold medalists. This was a bitter irony for a number of Sweden’s players as many of them had experienced a very similar scenario against the USA's junior teams at each of the past two U-18 WJC's.
As disappointing as losing gold can be, the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation can be more than proud about the two most recent WJC results and its continually high level of player development.
Top Forward – Viktor Arvidsson
A number of forwards managed to contribute healthily up front, including the aforementioned Rask and Collberg, as well as team captain and Washington Capitals’ draft pick Filip Forsberg and Rickard Rakell (ANA). But hardly a forward kept the opposition as busy as regularly as the small but oh-so-swift Viktor Arvidsson. He tied team leader Forsberg with four goals in the tournament and showed some superior puck possession and skating attributes throughout, most especially in the playoff games against Russia and the USA. For insiders, this should have come as no surprise as the undrafted Arvidsson has played 34 SEL games this season with the league’s current top team Skelleftea, where he’s managed six goals and ten points to date.
Top Defenseman – Mikael Vikstrand
As mentioned above and as experts knew coming in, somebody needed to take the reins on the blueline and that’s exactly what Vikstrand did. Not only did he log considerable amounts of ice time, often paired with one of the team’s less experienced defensemen, but he chipped in four assists and a +4 rating in the process. Back home, the Ottawa Senators’ 2012 seventh rounder has already suited up for 47 games with Allsvenskan pro team Mora, lockout home for Anze Kopitar and Bobby Ryan, where he’s contributed three points and a +8 rating.
Team MVP – Niklas Lundstrom
Amongst the chief story lines for this Swedish entry were the question marks involving who was going to start in goal. Joel Lassinantti started off with a 4-1 victory against the Czech Republic, but a 2-2 overtime situation against Switzerland saw Lundstrom be put in to face and shut down all of Switzerland’s penalty shooters. Lundstrom followed up that feat with a 5-1 victory over Latvia before coach Roger Ronnberg went with Lassinantti again against Finland in an all-important final preliminary game. After allowing three goals on 14 shots, and finding his team in the midst of a 3-3 tie after an initial 3-0 lead, Ronnberg then changed things up by throwing Lundstrom in goal and there was no looking back after that. Lundstrom went on to win 7-4 against Finland and then carried the team paast Russia before allowing only two goals against in the gold medal game. Despite being in nets for a game that would only see the Swedes end with the silver medal, Lundstrom was outstanding in the playoffs and, at times, simply looked unbeatable. More importantly, he came in when the team most needed a goalie to step up and take the bull by the horns, and that’s exactly what he did. This season, Lundstrom has played roughly 33% of his team’s games in the SEL for AIK, a team that is currently fighting to avoid the relegation round. To date, Lundstrom has a 3-9-0 record with a 3.14 goals-against average and .900 save percentage.
Unsung Player – Rickard Rakell
A 2011 first round pick of the Anaheim Ducks, Rakell came in knowing he’d have to provide leadership and that’s exactly what he did, posting six assists, a +1 rating and taking on all comers in gathering 16 penalty minutes. He provided hustle, effort and soul, and it looks like the Ducks liked what they saw as he is currently attending their NHL camp. Before the WJC, Rakell had put up 13 goals and 30 points in 32 games for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers.
2013 prospect to watch – Alexander Wennberg
Super talent Elias Lindholm, the top ranked Swedish prospect for this summer’s draft, didn’t have the tournament he’d have liked, even if he did chip in two goals and four points along the way while being a minus player. He’s going home with a silver medal and his skill set is well-known and liked by many around the scouting community. However, Djurgarden’s Alexander Wennberg did a lot of things at this tournament that surely had scouts gushing. He contributed a modest two goals, three points and a +2 rating, but he got plenty of ice time and showed the hockey world why his coach placed so much faith in him. A tall kid with a frame ripe for adding another 30-40 pounds in the next few years, Wennberg was not only smooth in moving in both directions, but showed great hockey sense, on-ice intelligence and a readiness to throw his body around. With 10 goals, 18 points and a +7 rating for Djurgarden of the Allsvenskan, he’s already been proving that he can play an impact role against men in Sweden’s second highest level of play.
As a final note, coming into the tournament, scouts were surely looking to see what overage, non-drafted players like goalie Lassinantti and Quebec Remparts winger Nick Sorensen could do at this level of competition, especially knowing that Sweden had some questions that needed to be answered at their various positions. Instead, they have to be wondering if Viktor Arvidsson isn’t a guy they should be following much more closely heading into next summer’s draft. Aside from his impact and the season he’s been having for Skelleftea, he seems to have no lack of character and confidence and simply doesn’t allow that 5’8”, 176-pound body of his to play any role whatsoever in preventing him from making an impact. Surely some will be wondering why, if a skilled-but-small kid like Rocco Grimaldi can be a second round NHL Draft pick, then what could come of the slightly larger and similarly skilled Arvidsson now that he’s put his goods convincingly on display at his age group’s most important tournament? In short, this tournament may have just earned him more than a silver medal.