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AIK's return to top league kicks off Elitserien season

The past eight seasons, Stockholm has only been host to one Elitserien team, the perennial contenders Djurgården.  AIK Stockholm, who play out of the same arena (Hovet), has been relegated to the second league (Allsvenskan), and even the third league (the oddly titled Division 1) of Swedish hockey.  But the team, tired of losing money, decided to invest in top talent to bring them back to the Elitserien starting in 2008-09, and after just two seasons, they've achieved their goal.  Now, the trick will be to stay there:  AIK's roster is young (2nd youngest in the league at an average age of 24.78), and lacking in familiar names.  Luckily for them, they've got a well-decorated captain in Dick Tarnstrom, a former national team head coach in Roger Melin, and a strong goaltender in Christopher Heino-Lindberg.  A playoff spot (top 8 placing in a 12 team league) seems out of reach, but placing 10th would help the team avoid going through the Kvalserien, a series that was their goal the past two seasons. The Kvalserien is the relegation tournament, where the bottom two teams in the Elitserien play the top two teams in the Allsvenskan, and the top two teams earn a spot in the Elitserien the next season.

Their opponent to kick things off, Linköpings HC, are in a more stable position, having finished third in the regular season last year and making the semifinals.  The team did lose leading scorer Tony Mårtensson to SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL last year, but retained former NHLers Jan Hlavac up front, Niclas Havelid on defense, and Finnish goaltender Frederik Norenna.  According to Elite Prospects, the Linköpings roster has over 5000 games of Elitserien experience, and over 1800 NHL games as well.  AIK has just over 2000 games of Elitserien experience, and just Tarnstrom's 306 career NHL games to their name.  It's not an easy matchup for AIK, but when you gain promotion from the lower league, you're going to expect a gap in talent. 

Rather than getting into the cycle of spending big money to compete this coming year, AIK is going to try and stick with a relatively cheap roster while developing some young talent.  2010 draft picks Patrick Nemeth, Andreas Dahlström, and Joakim Nordström should all see some time with the team this year.  The team is also almost exclusively made up of Swedish players:  the only foreign content is Canadian defensman Josh MacNevin, who has mainly played in secondary leagues like the Allsvenskan, Italy's Serie A, Germany's 2nd league and the ECHL.  He has 10 games of AHL experience and one season in the DEL, so at 33 years of age he'll be playing at the highest level he's ever been at. 

So AIK's chances of victory in their first game back might seem low, but in one game, on home ice, you never know.  The rest of the games in Round 1 go Thursday and Friday, so AIK/Linköpings is the only action today.  The feature game of the first round definitely looks to be Djurgården hosting the Le Mat Trophy Champions HV71 on Thursday.  The full schedule of games can be found on the Elitserien's website.

Bill Meltzer of NHL.com has your season preview.  He likes HV71, Djurgårdens, and Linköpings as contenders for the Le Mat Trophy, and I can't say I disagree.