2013 U18 WJC Preview: Sweden should again be a medal contender

By Chapin Landvogt
Robert Hagg - Sweden

Photo: Swedish defenseman and 2013 draft prospect Robert Hagg captained Sweden’s Four Nations squad, and will be counted as a leader for his country’s U18 team (courtesy of Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

Team Sweden can proudly look back upon three straight silver medals. What has certainly left a very bitter taste in the program’s mouth is the fact that all three have been pushed upon them in the gold medal game by Team USA, who has accordingly won three straight gold medals. It isn’t enough that several of the current team’s players not only experienced last spring’s 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Team USA, but several others also found themselves subjected to the 3-1 gold medal game loss to the US at the WJC this past winter.

Coach Rikard Gronborg has put together a team consisting of a few surprises and a lot of kids who have not experienced these losses at the hands of the US to date. Insiders, however, will be licking their chops to see what this crop of players can do, as it includes a good handful of players ranked to go in this summer’s draft as well as several strong candidates for both the 2014 and 2015 drafts.

As usual, Sweden will sport solid goaltending, strong-skating puck distributors on the backside, and three lines of forwards who can get under your skin and keep your goaltender very busy. Interestingly, all of the players on the team spent this past season in Sweden, with the great majority of the players having played in Sweden’s top U20 league. Nonetheless, a good handful of players also saw considerable time in Sweden’s second highest men’s pro league, the Allsvenskan. This experience will be vital in leading the team that fully expects nothing short of a semi-final berth. With Canada the biggest opponent in the preliminary round, Sweden will be placing a good deal of importance on a first-place Group B finish, well aware that any path to gold will very likely have to go through powerhouse USA or the stocked host, Russia, in the playoffs.

Strengths: Skating, stick-handling, hockey sense and on-ice vision. The Swedes continually pump out players who possess these traits in an above-average quantity. This year’s squad won’t be much different. In addition, the goaltending is looking quite solid and, although it is unclear who’ll be starting, chances are Ebbe Sionas will get his fair share of playing time, seeing as how he is the second-ranked European goaltender for the upcoming NHL Draft. In addition, several players who would likely have been first line players for countries like Slovakia, Germany and Latvia didn’t even make the team, namely Farjestad defenseman Wilhelm Westlund (ranked 18th among European skaters) and Djurgarden forward Tobias Liljendahl (70th). These player omissions attest to the depth of the program.

Weaknesses: There really aren’t any in comparison to the other teams in the tournament as Sweden can play against any opponent on any given night and usually win, but this team does appear to lack the star power that recent teams have had, despite the fact that Andre Burakowsky, Robert Hagg and Jacob de la Rose are three of the top 7 Europeans for the upcoming draft. In addition, even if it doesn’t have to be seen as a factual weakness, coach Gronborg is bringing along quite a few underagers as opposed to some of the more obvious 95-born players. The only returnees from last year’s silver medalist are Burakovsky and de la Rose.

Key player: The top-ranked Swedish defenseman for the upcoming NHL Draft is Robert Hagg and this young man reinforced his ranking when he was recalled to the U20 team on emergency in light of several injuries to key defensive players in Ufa. All he did is eventually assume a top four role on the blueline and confidently help his team to a silver medal. On this team, he’ll be the thoroughbred among the defensemen and is expected to play in all key situations. Although he spent most of the season putting up 26 points in 35 total U20 league games for MoDo (managed by Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund), he also ended up gathering one assist in 27 games for the team in the SEL.

Who NHL scouts will be keeping a close eye on: Simply put, everyone. Aside from Canada and the USA, no one has produced more drafted talent the past two years than Sweden. This trend is not likely to be bucked this time around either. Still, the aforementioned Burakovsky, de la Rose and Hagg will get the majority of the attention because everyone will be keen on seeing if they’re truly the type of players who can perform like the Mika Zibanejad, Jonas Brodin, Oscar Klefbom, or Filip Forsberg did in recent years before them. There’s no doubt that the 96-born players will be given a good long look as several appear to be strong candidates for the 2014 and 2015 drafts, respectively. Whereas right winger Oskar Lindblom may be leading that list for some, the performance of expected first-liner William Nylander Alterlius is highly anticipated. The name should ring a bell as the Calgary-born forward is the son of long-time NHL forward Michael Nylander, and is coming off a monster season where he put up 43 points in 27 U20 league games and also chipped in at the senior level in the Allsvenskan, collecting six goals and nine points in 18 games. He is currently only 16 years old.

Unexpected gem: 16-year-old defenseman Rasmus Andersson was included in the team ahead of several more highly touted players, but you don’t really need to ask why when you consider that the 2015 draft-eligible kid measures in at 6’0”, 210 pounds and just scored three goals and 11 points in 38 games for Malmo in the aforementioned Allsvenskan. Looking like a true all-around defender, he appears to be yet another defensive prospect you can add to what is becoming a never-ending wave of quality impact Swedish blueliners.

Next: Switzerland