Team Sweden heads into the World Junior Championships with something to prove. They finished out of the medals last year with a very stacked team after losing in the semifinals to the eventual champions, Finland, and then giving up the bronze medal to the USA without much of a fight.
Two years ago in Toronto, they lost to Russia in the semifinals and gave the bronze medal to Slovakia in a much more embarrassing loss.
Those two bad years came after a gold and two silvers dating from 2012.
The tournament format this year looks like a gift that will help Sweden fix that problem, but there are pitfalls in the road to the medal round.
Sweden play in Montréal, in Group A, and the only really tough competition in the group is Finland who have a young team of draft-eligible prospects not quite as exciting as last year’s crop. Sweden should win this group. If they do, they play the fourth ranked team from Group B which should be Slovakia. If they don’t win it, the difficulty level of their competition in the quarterfinals takes a big, big jump to either Russia or USA, assuming Canada wins Group B, which seems plausible.
None of this is certain. Russia has a very hot goalie, the USA has some very good forwards, and either of those teams could be excellent or blow the wrong game, or Canada might fizzle this year the way they sometimes do.
But if everyone stays on script, the Swedes are looking at a trip straight to the semifinals.
They have a very good goalie themselves in Felix Sandström, who plays for Brynäs in the SHL. He should have been the number one last year, and missed out on most games with the ‘flu that dogged the Swedish team. The Swedes coped okay, they got decent results from the backup, but Sandström should be the man in net for the whole tournament this time around. And that’s good since likely backup Filip Gustavsson did not distinguish himself in Sweden’s tuneup win over Slovakia 4-3.
The Swedish team has a sinister quirk that shows up when you have a smaller pool of players to draw on than Canada has. Almost the entire team are left-handed. All of the defenders, and all but three forwards are left-shooters.
There will be no maximizing handedness on defence with this team, and the four left-shooting centres, are not always going to find right shooting wingers on their right side. It is not a major problem, but it will be interesting to see how the power play units are formed around this issue.
One mitigating factor is that one of the three right-shooting forwards is Alex Nylander, who is 12th in the AHL in power play assists, one behind Kasperi Kapanen, a much more experienced player. Nylander’s AHL points are not blowing anyone away, until you realize he is the youngest player in the league, and he is second in points for players under 20. He is obviously very good on the power play, and the Rochester coach has commented recently that he is gaining ground in the rest of his play too.
Leading this year’s Swedish team is a large clutch of players who had NHL tryouts and were sent back to Sweden for another development year. The biggest names are team captain Joel Eriksson Ek up front and Jacob Larsson on defence.
Along with Larsson, Gabriel Carlsson and Oliver Kylington, who has the advantage of a lot of small-rink experience, core backbone of the team on the blueline.
The name on everyone’s lips, and the shining star of the future everyone wants to see is Rasmus Dahlin, who is only 16, has played some SHL and made the final cut. He is an offensive threat against SHL goalies, and while that describes Sandström, most of them are older, wiser, and harder to beat with the puck. Dahlin can do it.
Here he is in the win over Slovakia opening the scoring for Sweden:
The man to watch for Leafs fans is Carl Grundström, assistant captain and second-round draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He is expected to be on the top line with Lias Andersson and Elias Pettersson, two of the younger players on the team. They had great success together at the most recent junior tournament in Sweden, and the expectation is they will be kept together as a line.
The final roster is as follows.
Felix Sandström, Brynäs
Filip Gustavsson, Luleå
Adam Werner, Björklöven (Färjestad)
Gabriel Carlsson, Linköping
Jacob Larsson, Frölunda
Oliver Kylington, Stockton Heat (AHL)
Lucas Carlsson, Brynäs
Kristoffer Gunnarsson, Frölunda
David Bernhardt, Djurgården
Rasmus Dahlin, Frölunda
Filip Ahl, Regina (WHL)
Lias Andersson, HV71
Rasmus Asplund, Färjestad
Jonathan Dahlén, Timrå
Joel Eriksson Ek, Färjestad
Carl Grundström, Frölunda
Fredrik Karlström, AIK
Jens Lööke, Timrå
Alexander Nylander, Rochester Americans (AHL)
Sebastian Ohlsson, Skellefteå
Elias Pettersson, Timrå
Tim Söderlund, Skellefteå
Andreas Wingerli, Skellefteå
Sweden starts their tournament today with a game against Denmark at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Denmark always plays Sweden tough, so it should be a good first game for them.