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2012 World Juniors Preview: Team Sweden

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Sweden is one of the great hockey powers, but the World Juniors has been a frustrating exercise for Swedish fans. The passion for the WJCs has only recently taken flight amongst Swedish faithful, but they're all well aware of their history at this event. The team has one gold medal in 39 years of competition, way back in 1981, on the backs of players like Jan Erixon, Patrick and Petter Sundström, and Petter Andersson. In the early 1990s, the team came close, with four silvers and a bronze, and recently the team is on a run of two silvers and a bronze, bookended by two fourth place finishes. Watching the 2010 World Juniors, I was quite shocked when Sweden came up completely overmatched by the Americans in the semifinals, as Sweden looked like they had a roster primed for gold.

Uffe Bodin of answered some questions with regards to the Swedish team for Puck Worlds, and here's what he had to say about the fan frustration:

Yeah, it's like a broken record. A few years ago, no one even cared, because the Swedish teams were generally too bad to even be considered for a medal. But as Swedish junior hockey has raised itself over the past five years it's a topic that reoccurs. Usually you see a bunch of interviews with players from the 1981 championship team about what it takes to win.

Sweden suffers largely due to issues of probably just not being as large of a country as the USA or Russia, and definitely not as large in terms of hockey players when Canada is brought in. The talent is there, but when dealing with such a small age restriction they always seem to be a player or two short of the championship level. However, in recent years, the Swedish junior system is producing high talent in large numbers, and one would think it's only a matter of time for the Tre Kroner to wrap some gold around their iconic yellow and blue jerseys.

NHL teams have certainly taken notice: this year's team only has one player who has been passed over in the NHL Entry Draft, a reflection of the depth of Swedish talent. And almost all of their players have played at IIHF events in the past, whether the U20s, U18s, or the World Hockey Challenge U17s that is the starting point for this international junior competition. This year's team sees six returning players from last year's 4th place team, and four 2011 first round draft picks. It also boasts a trio of highly touted, potential first round draft picks for this coming Entry Draft. All of their players either play professionally in Sweden (and one in Finland) or Canadian major junior hockey. They're a well-tested group, and they're being a bit overlooked heading into this year with the Big 3 getting all the headlines leading up to the tournament.

Still, that age restriction is noticeable for Sweden: they will be counting a lot on 18 year olds for success this year in what is a tournament traditionally dominated by 19 year olds. Bodin notes that the 18 year olds "will definitely be leaders. Jonas Brodin and Oscar Klefbom could very well be the top pairing on D, while I think that Mika Zibanejad, Rickard Rakell and Pontus Åberg all might have top six roles (at forward)."

Sweden is also starting to suffer a bit from their own success in producing elite talents, much like Canada traditionally does, as players like Gabriel Landeskog and Adam Larsson couldn't return this year because they are enjoying successful rookie seasons in the NHL. It is very common for a Swedish teenager or two to not be made available for the tournament due to sticking in the NHL, as Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Magnus Paajarvi also weren't available for last year's team.

After the jump, we take a closer look at the Swedish roster:

Sweden U20 - Forwards
Name Pos. Ht Wt DOB Club League Draft IIHF Exp.
Sebastian Collberg RW 5'11" 170 Feb 23/94 Frölunda SEL Elig. 2012 none
Filip Forsberg RW 6'2" 181 Aug 13/94 Leksand Allsven. Elig. 2012 U18 (1)
Max Friberg RW 5'11" 194 Nov 20/92 Timrå SEL Ducks (5/143, '11) U20 (1), U18 (1)
William Karlsson C 6'0" 174 Jan 8/93 Västerås Allsven. Ducks (2/53, '11) U18 (1)
Johan Larsson C 6'0" 203 Jul 25/92 Brynäs SEL Wild (2/56, '10) U20 (1), U18 (1)
Jaokim Nordström C 6'2" 181 Feb 25/92 AIK SEL Blackhawks (3/90, '10) U18 (1)
Rickard Rakell C/RW 6'1" 198 May 5/93 Plymouth OHL Ducks (1/30, '11) U20 (1)
Victor Rask C 6'1" 194 Mar 1/93 Calgary WHL Hurricanes (2/42, '11) U18 (2)
Ludvig Rensfeldt LW 6'3" 201 Jan 29/92 Sarnia OHL Blackhawks (2/35, '10) U18 (1)
Johan Sundström C/RW 6'3" 201 Sept 21/92 Frölunda SEL Islanders (2/50, '11) U20 (1)
Erik Thorell LW 5'10" 185 Mar 3/92 Färjestad SEL Undrafted U18 (1)
Mika Zibanejad C/RW 6'2" 192 Apr 18/93 Djurgården SEL Senators (1/6, '11) U18 (1)
Pontus Åberg RW 5'11" 194 Sept 23/93 Djurgården SEL Elig. 2012 none

As you can see, the team has plenty of options up front, especially at centre. Johan Larsson will be the team's captain and top line centre, and get used to hearing a lot about Minnesota Wild prospects playing leading roles in this tournament. As Bodin puts it, Larsson is the kind of player that makes life so easy for coaches:

You can count on him playing in every situation out there. He's an offensive threat as well as a great defensive player. I'd say that he's every coach's dream player. He reminds me of Sammy Påhlsson, but with an offensive upside that is much bigger.

As for line combinations, Head Coach Roger Ronnberg really has a ton of options here. A lot of Sweden's forwards have played multiple positions in the past, so the cupboard is wide open. I think we'll see Zibanejad as the second line centre, and maybe see his highly touted teammate Åberg on his left wing. While every coach will talk about 'finding the right mix', I honestly feel there's a lot of 'wrong mixes' could be pretty darn good as well.

This is going to be a fun group to watch.

Sweden U20 - Defence
Name Ht Wt DOB Club League Draft IIHF Exp.
Matthias Bäckman 6'2" 170 Oct 3/92 Linköpings SEL Red Wings (5/146, '11) none
Jonas Brodin 6'1" 181 Jul 12/93 Färjestad SEL Wild (1/10, '11) U18 (2)
Fredrik Claesson 6'0" 198 Nov 24/92 Djurgården SEL Blue Jackets (5/126, '11) U18 (1)
Petter Granberg 6'3" 205 Aug 27/92 Skellefteå SEL Maple Leafs (4/116, '10) U18 (1)
Oscar Klefbom 6'4" 201 Jul 20/93 Färjestad SEL Oilers (1/19, '11) U18 (1)
John Klingberg 6'1" 172 Aug 14/92 Jokerit SML Stars (5/131, '10) U20 (1)
Patrik Nemeth 6'4" 216 Feb 8/92 AIK SEL Stars (2/41, '10) U20 (1), U18 (1)

Jonas Brodin is already a high level defenceman in the Elitserien at age 19, and without a doubt he's the leader of this group (there's that leader phrase going to a Wild prospect again). This isn't quite as star-studded of a group as Sweden has sent in recent years, but it's a testament to the depth Sweden has built up amongst defencemen in this generation that this is still a very good group. If Brodin's Färjestad teammate Klefbom is slated to be his defensive partner, expect Dallas Stars prospects Nemeth and Klingberg to form the second pairing, and possibly the team's shutdown pair. They are the two returning players of the group and have always shown well internationally.

And if you haven't gotten the idea yet, Brodin is pretty darn good. From Uffe Bodin:

Jonas Brodin is without a doubt one of Sweden's most important players. He has had a huge season for Färjestad and was very impressive when he played his first few international games for the men's national team in Finland last month. He looks very much like a young Nicklas Lidström in how he reads the game and where he puts himself on the ice. He's never caught out of position. He still needs to become better offensively and bulk up before he's ready to play in the NHL, but I wouldn't be too surprised if he made Minnesota out of camp next fall.

Sweden U20 - Goaltenders
Name Ht Wt DOB Club League Draft IIHF Exp.
Anton Forsberg 6'3" 183 Nov 27/92 MODO SEL Blue Jackets (7/188, '11) none
Johan Gustafsson 6'2" 207 Feb 28/92 Luleå SEL Wild (6/159, '10) U18 (1)
Johan Mattsson 6'4" 201 Apr 25/92 Sudbury OHL Blackhawks (7/211, '11) none

Well, just guess which one is the #1 goalie here. Yep, the Wild prospect. Johan Gustafsson is having a great year in the Elitserien for a teenage goaltender and is one of the better goaltenders at this tournament. It's been a trend in recent years for Sweden to have one of the best goalies, and while Gustafsson doesn't come with the same hype as the recent starters like Robin Lehner and Jakub Markström, he's a pretty solid bet all around. Here's Bodin's take on Gustafsson:

He's a big goalie with a strong head who never seems to be rattled. Just like Brodin, he made his national debut for the men's team last month in Finland and was really impressive in a win against the Finns. He's been playing very well for Luleå, but it's a team that plays a very defensive brand of hockey, which has helped his stats a bit.

Anton Forsberg appears to be the backup, with Mattsson available as an emergency recall.

I've been mulling over how I feel the tournament will shake out, and I've gone back and forth on Sweden's fate a few times. This is a very solid top to bottom team that has in recent years peaked a bit early. This IIHF feature on Sweden talks about how the team wants to continue to build and not get complacent after a hot start. However, finishing first in one's group should always be the goal, and Sweden has been pretty good at doing that in recent tournaments.

Here's their schedule:

Sweden U20 Schedule
Date Venue Opponent Score/Time
Dec 20 Olds Denmark Dk_medium
W, 8-0
Dec 23 Edmonton Canada Ca_medium
7:30 PM MST
Dec 26 Calgary Latvia Lv_medium
3:30 PM MST
Dec 28 Calgary Switzerland Ch_medium
3:30 PM MST
Dec 30 Calgary Slovakia Sk_medium
3:30 PM MST
Dec 31 Calgary Russia Ru_medium
8:00 PM MST

Prediction: 1st in Group A.