U20 World Junior Championships Preview: Team Sweden

It wasn't long ago that the Swedish junior program had slippped into mediocrity, with a significant drop off in quality from their golden generation (Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Nicklas Lidstrom, Markus Naslund, and er..  Tommy Salo).  Sure, the country was still large enough and strong enough to produce star players like Henrik Zetterberg and the Sedin brothers, but they were becoming more rare, and the quality of the depth talent wasn't nearly up to par.   While the core of the national men's team had reached the other side of 30, the junior quality had dropped off considerably.  The top NHL players were well represented by Swedes, but their results at the U20 IIHF World Juniors predicted the good times wouldn't last.  From 1992-96, the Swedes earned a medal every year.  From 1997-2007, the Swedes never won a medal, and only finished 4th three times.  A whole generation of players never tasted success at the international level as a junior, and it took some time to not only recognize the problem, but work to correct it at the national level. 

Now, Swedish junior hockey is in a new age, having worked their way up to the third best junior hockey program in the world (see ranking on the sidebar).  The first real poster boys of this generation of players were Viktor Hedman, Jakub Markstrom and Magnus Paajarvi, and this year's team will be the first without any of them.  But a testament to Sweden's strength is that it's still producing top end talent to replace those players:  Gabriel Landeskog, Adam Larsson, and Robin Lehner will be looked at to fill those spots this year.  They have a lot of motivation, too.  Last year's team, full of unbelievable talent that you look back on and wonder how the heck they didn't win, imploded in the semifinal against a well organized, strong and fast American team.  After losing the two previous years to Canada in the final, it really looked like Sweden's breakthrough year, but it didn't happen.  This year Sweden enters with maybe a little less expectations, but still full of talent, and with the definite ability to win it all for the first time since 1981.

For most of these previews, I've decided to pose some questions to some relevant bloggers/media about their teams.  You may be unaware of this, but there's quite a large online hockey community in the .se world, and the website Hockey Sverige (literally Hockey Sweden) is one of the biggest.  Uffe Bodin is one of the feature bloggers on the site, and he's done a lot of articles on the junior players and the national U20 team.  He was gracious enough to answer some questions about the team, and Sweden's newfound embrace of the U20 tournament.

It wasn't too long ago that Sweden wasn't producing top junior players, and observers were wondering why.  Was it simply just a cyclical issue (a bad period), or was it a structural problem that was addressed?

Bodin:  The Swedish federation got fed up with the poor results, especially at the WJC level. Therefore, they made a commitment to get better results. In the beginning of the century, they changed their whole junior system and started to educate players in a different way. Since then, the level of prospects have been much higher. Especially among goalies and defensemen, the standard of the players have been getting much better. That's a result of getting more goalie coaches into Swedish hockey and changing the education of defensemen. The Federation developed a "bible" for defensemen as a guideline on how to play.  

How popular is the U20 tournament in Sweden today?  Would the national team winning a gold medal make headlines?

UB:  The tournament has grown tremendously since Leksand and Mora hosted the event in 2006/07. The success of the team in the past few years has helped the cause, but also that the National Swedish broadcasters have televised all the Swedish games since then. Also, the presentation of the roster was made live on Hockey Night in Sweden (Ed. note: show is called Hockeykväll) and all the biggest newspapers are present at the tournament. Just a few years ago, it seemed like no one cared. Now the whole nation is caught up in the excitement.

Defence seems like a strong point for Sweden, particularily if Oliver Ekman-Larsson is released (Ed. Note:  He wasn't).  How big of a role will there be for Adam Larsson?  Will he be a top pairing player, second pairing or depth defenseman?

UB:  I think he'll play a key role. He and Oliver Ekman Larsson was the strongest pair i Regina/Saskatoon last year and it wouldn't be too surprising if they'll play together as the top pairing again. Tim Erixon will also get a lot of ice time.

Anton Lander and Carl Klingberg are the only two returning forwards from last year's dynamic group.  Aside from these two, who will be relied upon for offense?

UB:  Calle Jarnkrok, Detroit's second round pick last summer. He's a great playmaker and has been on a tear in the Swedish Elite League of late. He's not big in stature, but is a really smart player. A smaller version of Nicklas Backstrom. Other than him, there's Gabriel Landeskog, who's been a wrecking ball in the OHL this season. He's got a bit of everything in his game and has shown a knack for scoring big goals. He'll play a key role offensively.

Sweden is part of the "Group of Death" with Russia, Canada, the Czechs and Norway.  What advantage might Sweden have over these other teams (particularly Canada and Russia) that might allow them to win the group?

UB:  The games against Russia and Canada are going to be intense, no doubt. I think that Sweden will have the advantage of goaltending in both of those games. Aside of Jack Campbell, Robin Lehner is the best goalkeeper in the tournament. That could be a deciding factor in the end.

Any thoughts on the new team contracts being handed out to seventeen year olds, making them choose between playing in North America or for the national team?   Would this mean that players like Gabriel Landeskog and Rickard Rakell would not have made the team in the future?

The contract is supposed to stop players to go to North America before they turn 23. I can see why the Federation is a bit desperate, the spend a lot of money educating players who bolt before their old enough to buy a beer. However, forcing them to sign a contract can never be a good thing. I doubt anyone will sign a contract like that. I don't think that it will affect either Landeskog or Rakell as they had already left the country before this came up to discussion.



Team Sweden
# Player Pos. S/C Ht. Wt. Born Hometown Club
15 Simon Bertlisson D L 5'12" 198 1991 Karlskoga Brynäs (SEL)
25 Jonas Brodin D L 6'1" 172 1993 Karlstad Farjestad (SEL)
29 Patrick Cehlin LW R 5'11" 172 1991 Stockholm Djurgarden (SEL)
6 Klas Dahlbeck D L 6'2" 203 1991 Katrineholm Linkoping (SEL)
4 Tim Erixon D L 6'3" 198 1991 Skellefteå Skellefteå (SEL)
18 Jesper Fasth RW R 5'12" 176 1991 Nässjö HV71 (SEL)
14 Max Friberg LW R 5'10" 194 1992 Skövde Skövde (Swe-1)
98 Johan Gustafsson G L 6'2" 198 1992 Köping Vasteras (Allsvenskan)
19 Calle Jarnkrok C R 5'12" 170 1991 Gävle Brynäs (SEL)
17 Carl Klingberg RW R 6'3" 205 1991 Göteborg Frölunda (SEL)
9 John Klingberg D R 6'1" 172 1992 Lerum Frölunda (SEL)
16 Anton Lander (c) C L 6'0" 185 1991 Sundsvall Timrå (SEL)
22 Gabriel Landeskog RW L 6'0" 196 1992 Stockholm Kitchener (OHL)
5 Adam Larsson D R 6'2" 209 1992 Skellefteå Skellefteå (SEL)
10 Johan Larsson LW L 5'12" 203 1992 Lau Brynäs (SEL)
30 Robin Lehner G L 6'4" 220 1991 Göteborg Binghamton (AHL)
24 Oscar Lindberg C L 6'0" 187 1991 Skellefteå Skellefteå (SEL)
12 Patrik Nemeth D L 6'4" 212 1992 Stockholm AIK (SEL)
1 Fredrik Petterson-Wentzel G L 6'1" 170 1991 Uppsala Almtuna (Allsvenskan)
27 Rickard Rakell RW R 6'0" 185 1993 Stockholm Plymouth (OHL)
2 Fredrik Styrman D L 5'11" 176 1991 Kalix Lulea (SEL)
13 Johan Sundström C R 6'3" 196 1992 Göteborg Frölunda (SEL)
28 Jesper Thörnberg LW L 5'9" 174 1991 Jönköping HV 71 J20 (J20 SE)
20 Sebastian Wannstrom C R 6'1" 185 1991 Gävle Brynäs (SEL)

 

2011 Draft Hopefuls:  D Adam Larsson, RW Gabriel Landeskog, D Jonas Brodin, LW Max Friberg, RW Rickard Rakell, C Johan Sundström, LW Jesper Thörnberg (overage)

Not made available:  Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, EDM; Oliver Ekman-Larsson, PHX; Jacob Josefson, NJD

NHL Draft Picks:  17, including one first rounder (Erixon), and eight second rounders.

Notable cut:  Ludvig Rensfeldt (Brynäs J20; 35th overall in '10 to Chicago)

Staff:  Tommy Boustedt (General Manager), Roger Ronnberg (Head Coach), Robert Ohlsson and Kristoffer Martin (Assistant Coaches).

Sweden has the depth to win out at this level, but whether their high end talent is ready for Canada, USA and Russia's older group of stars could be the deciding factor.  In a one game elimination, Robin Lehner gives them a better chance than most to win a tight game, but they said the same about Jacob Markstrom the past two seasons as well without it coming to fruition. 

Prediction:  3rd in Group B, Bronze Medal.

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