It’s not unusual for hockey pundits to praise Swedish youth development. Despite this, the results in the World Junior Championships have not reflected this. In the last 38 years, the junior national team has only won the title once. In 2012 the roster featured names like Mika Zibanejad, Rickard Rakell, John Klingberg and Filip Forsberg. But in 2012, these weren’t the superstars of the team. Instead, Max Friberg and Sebastian Collberg led the team offensively, while Johan Gustafsson was steady in the net. These players now play in the SHL, German league, and the Austrian league. One of the lessons to be learned is that while some players light up like never before, it might be the supporting cast that one day will take over. Keep your eyes open for the more unknown players!
Nevertheless, expectations are high for this year’s edition of “Småkronorna”. Småkronorna meaning “the little crowns”, as a nod to the men’s name Tre Kronor. As in every tournament they are expected to at least get to the gold medal game. Anything less is equal to failure. Head Coach Tomas Montén is in charge of his fourth tournament. So far he has done an alright job, getting a silver two years ago. But since expectations are higher than that, we could look at his last tenure for the junior team if they do not at least get bronze. There are already some concerns over his tactical abilities.
Starting Hot, Finishing Cold
Historically, Sweden comes out all guns blazing from the get-go. Småkrorna is extremely dominant in the group stage. The last time they were defeated in regular time in the group stage was on New Years’ Eve 2006 against Slovakia. You read that right. The Swedish team is on a 12-year streak in the group stage. The young Swedes were able to keep the streak up for this year too.
If you are now thinking “So what if they win all their games in the group stage, it’s the playoffs that matter” then you are right. The round-robin is a slow-paced ballad, and the playoffs are rock ‘n roll. It’s tougher, faster and not everyone can handle it. More importantly, that’s where legends and kings are made. But the Swedes tend to fizzle out come playoff time. To many, it seems like a curse. No one wants to be the eternal Tampa Bay Lightning. Even if the first four games might seem like a breeze, it’s better to be battle-hardened against the winners of the more difficult group.
More of the Same, but Better
Tomas Montén comes to Czechia with a traditional Swedish team: heavy in the back, light in the front. All but two defensemen are first-round picks. I might be going too far in saying it, but I honestly believe this is the strongest backend in many many years. And that’s without Adam Boqvist who the Chicago Blackhawks did not release for the tournament. It’s fast, technical and can generate lots of chances from the blue line. If there is one defenseman to keep your eyes on it would be Victor Söderström. At first, he was not invited to the training camps, but he then forced the team’s staff’s hands by playing extremely well. Not only is he stable in his end, but he has also been producing for Brynäs as well. Nine points in 17 for a not-so-good team in the men’s league is very assuring.
The forward corps is weaker. If you have been keeping up with the upcoming NHL draft, no doubt you have already heard about Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz. Maybe you even heard about Nils Höglander, who scored this beauty this season, and even repeated it against Finland! After these three, there is not an abundance of talent. There are definitely lots of talented forwards on the team, but it’s considerably weaker than most of the other big hockey nations. There are currently no first-round picks among the forwards. Aside from the highly touted forwards, there are some who have so far gone under the radar. Devils prospect Nikola Pasic has been almost a Points-per- game (PPG) player on a good BIK Karlskoga team in the second-tier men’s league. Hugo Gustafsson has been playing quite good for a struggling Södertälje in the same league.
Jesper Eliasson and Hugo Alnefelt will share the net duties. Both are playing in the men’s leagues, unlike Erik Portillo who plays in the USHL. Alnefelt plays for a top SHL team as a backup, while Eliasson shares equally for Södertälje in Allsvenskan. Most likely will they both get a shot, and whoever gets hot gets to start in the playoffs. As it turns out, Hugo Alnefelt have been the more stable option this far.
All in all, expect team Sweden to steamroll through the competition right up until the playoffs. Unless we are in for a Christmas miracle, that is.
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Feature Image Credit: (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)