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?
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?
|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)
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.