The SHL is back! The show starts Saturday at 16:15 GMT. The series will start without any people in the arena, but there is a plan to get at least a few back as the season progress. Oddly, the story of the season is that there are no new teams. For the first time in many years, there have been no relegations or promotions. Due to the virus outbreak, the season was stopped early, as were playoffs and the relegation series. Here at ABNT, we are looking forward to the return of hockey! For the newcomers to the league, check out our crash course here. Let’s kick the series off with the annual SHL guide to the teams, arranged in the order of last season’s result.
14. IK Oskarshamn – 44pts
The Coronavirus essentially saved Oskarshamn in their first season. They were expected to end up at the bottom of the table, and so they did. Naturally, this was not according to Oskarshamn’s plans. The team frequently recruited new players to try and save the sinking ship. These band-aids did not help, forcing Oskarshamn to fire the coach Håkan Åhland with Per-Erik Johansson. Luckily for Oskarshamn, the season was cancelled, as well as the dreaded relegation series where they would have to face a Björklöven IF, MODO, and Timrå who steamrolled Allsvenskan last season.
For this season, they have sought to improve on some of the obvious weaknesses. Especially on the organizational side, which turned out to be a bigger challenge for the newcomers than expected. The coach coming into this season is the former assistant coach of Malmö, Martin Filander. He has the same vision for the team as he had for Malmö: getting established in the top league. He might not be the coach to lead Oskarshamn to their first championship, but he could be the one to establish them in the SHL.
Oskarshamn has managed to keep the core of the team from last season. What stands out is the acquisition of center Kim Strömberg, who had 50 points in 59 games in the Liiga last season. He will most certainly spearhead the first line together with last year’s top scorer for Oskarshamn, Tyler Kelleher. GM Fröberg also managed to sign the top goalie from Allsvenskan last season. Joe Cannata was instrumental in securing the top place in the Swedish second league. While the SHL is on another level, Cannata has shown that he is ready to take the next step.
While the team is certainly better than last year, they will likely fight for their place in the SHL. The main core of the squad can hold their own, but the team lacks game-changers. It is up to coach Filander to prove that his system can survive without any extraordinary talent.
13. Leksands IF – 49pts
Just like with Oskarshamn, COVID-19 came just in time to save Leksand. The team with arguably the most support in other cities than their own had a disappointing season. Largely, the story of the two bottom teams is similar. Both met their expectations, ending up at the bottom of the table. However, this is not a new situation for Leksand who tends to bounce between the two top leagues. The lesson learned for Leksand was to not replace the whole team, which is something they have a habit of doing.
Leksand too made coaching changes to try and change the direction of the team. But instead of keeping the interim coach they went ahead and grabbed MODO’s former coach Björn Hellström. For fans who like the attacking type of hockey, Leksand is in for a treat. Hellström’s MODO last year averaged four goals per game, most of any Allsvenskan teams. However, Hellström’s transition to Leksand was not pain-free. He admitted to being in contact with Leksand when the season was still ongoing. This caused the supporters of MODO to call for his early resignment, despite his success with the team. A not particularly smooth move by Hellström, as he and most of Sweden expected Leksand and MODO to meet in the relegation playoffs.
Perhaps the oddest thing with the Leksand side going into this season is that they have worked on their strengths rather than their weaknesses this season. Leksand’s forwards are their strongest part of the squad. For this season they brought in a heavyweight piece in Peter Cehlárik, who spent the last season in the NHL and AHL. The Slovak winger could probably sign with a better team but chose to be a top player in Leksand instead. Oddly enough, Leksand stays with their goalie duo of Axel Brage and Janne Juvonen. Both goalies struggled last season, posting an average save percentage of .909 and .889. As there are no spectacular defensemen in the team to hide the weaknesses this year either, expect this to be a major issue for Leksand this year.
Leksand’s situation is slightly better than that of Oskarshamn with their more talented roster, they are even more top-heavy than last year. And bringing in an offensive coach in this scenario, we might see a very goal rich season for Leksand. In both ends, that is.
12. Brynäs IF – 60pts
Last year’s edition of Brynäs was underwhelming. The historic team expected to fight for a playoff spot but found themselves at the bottom. Just like the last few seasons, they fired their coach. With a new coach, a restructured defence, and some real quality signings, this Gävle team is hoping to compete for the coming seasons.
The new coach Peter Larsson signed for three years. Having spent the last four seasons with Malmö he has proven that he can beat expectations. The former Brynäs player is regarded as one of the better coaches in Sweden. The plan going forward is to create a stable foundation over the coming years. Even if the team is looking good now, Peter Larsson will probably start slowly to get the basics done right. Once this is done, Brynäs can start playing the aggressive hockey that Peter Larsson is known for.
Ironically, the signing of Peter Larsson has overshadowed the pretty impressive player signings they made as well. Patrik Berglund and Simon Bertilsson are top players in this league, and they signed for two and four years respectively. Patrik Berglund is a quality NHL center who returned to Sweden last season due to mental illness. One of the biggest signings, who should fit well with the new coach. Simon Bertilsson was Brynäs best players the last decade and has now returned after one year in the KHL. He will lead the brand new defensive core of Brynäs. Despite having some solid offensive players in Berglund, Rödin, and Scott, the complementary scoring could be lacking. If one of the aforementioned players goes down to injury, it leaves Brynäs with few options.
Brynäs has done some great signings all over the board and should do much better than the last season. While they are currently in a transitional phase, they can still challenge the top teams of the league this season.
11. Linköping – 65pts
Last season started badly for Linköping, but the more games they played, the better they got. Despite looking to miss the playoffs again, they found their game and can be quite excited to prove themselves and getting back to the top of the league.
The talk of the offseason has revolved around GM Niklas Persson, as this might his last chance to prove that he can build a competing team. And his stated goal of winning the gold medal in the season 2021-22 is getting closer and closer. Primarily he was looking to minimize player movements during the season, as part of the problems was that a lot of players suddenly left and had to be replaced. If the club can create a stable situation within the club, they could go far.
Primarily Linköping focused on bolstering the forward group, bringing in players like Markus Ljungh, Oula Palve, and Niko Ojamäki. The purpose of bringing them in is to create a good top six. Jaakko Rissanen will see himself getting pushed down to the third-line center, having been on the first line last season. Defensemen Petteri Nikkilä and Filip Berglund are also expected to take on heavy duties. The question mark for Linköping, however, is the goalie situation. Jonas Gustavsson is a streaky netminder, and the backup option is an unproven Allsvenskan goalie in Niklas Lundström. Unless Gustavsson gets back to an even level of play or Niklas Lundström proves the pundits wrong, Linköping might have to look for a more experienced backup.
The key to this Linköping team is stability. As they have a solid squad and many skilled players to find dangerous line combinations, they should reach a playoff position. That is if they can limit players leaving and find some safe play from the goaltenders.
10. Växjö Lakers – 70pts
The city of Växjö was rattled by the underperforming Växjö Lakers last season. The 2014-2015 and 2017-2018 champions expect themselves to be perennial contenders. But last season they found themselves at place 10, their worst result since 2013. Coming into this season Växjö is in the unusual position of having to punch upwards instead of downwards.
Coach Sam Hallam has two major issues he hopes to address to regain Växjö’s former glory: establishing offense and having a decent box play. Växjö has the last two seasons had an unusually short presence in the offensive zone. This year, they hope to control the opponents with faster and more simple play. Most importantly they need to have some courage in their ability to do this with a more aggressive play in front of the net and along the boards. The same thing goes for the very inefficient box play. More courage, and challenging the enemy’s triggermen aggressively.
The solution to the tactical changes mainly spells Robert Rosén and Joel Persson. Both are high-quality players who return to the club after two seasons in the KHL, and one in the NHL and AHL respectively. Rosén has a reputation of improving the players around him with superb playmaking and vision. Joel Persson on the other hand can generate great offense from the blue line but is not a player to salvage the box play. However, the “Brad Marchand of the SHL” and fan-favorite Brendan Shinnimin will not return, causing a big blow to the team. In net veteran, Viktor Andrén and expected future starter Erik Källgren will make a decent tandem starting the season.
Växjö as always is a very interesting team with great expectations. They have a quite good core group of players but have as of yet not addressed their box play issues. Offensively they look dangerous, but their own end is still doubtful.
9. Malmö Redhawks – 77pts
Usually a mid-table team, Malmö Redhawks finished at ninth place last season. Naturally, they aim to perform better than that. While they see themselves as a top-four team, it is hard to make a case for anything else than a middle position at best.
Merited coach Peter Andersson left for Skellefteå and Joakim Fagervall from Björklöven replaced him. Fagervall could be considered their main signing this offseason, having led Björklöven to lead to the top of Allsvenskan last year. Since the southern team has not signed a lot of players, any change from last season is in Fagervall’s hands. His main objective will be to get the offense going since Malmö already has one of the leagues best defense and goaltending. A hard task with few offensive skilled players coming in.
In the offseason, Malmö lost important forwards in Henrik Hetta, Frederik Storm, and Max Görtz. Largely, we will see the same Redhawks this year. The main additions this season is two new pairs of brothers. The danish defencemen Oliver and Markus Lauridsen will be a new backbone for Malmö. Especially Oliver is a heavy addition, having spent three years playing for Jokerit in the KHL. Forward twins Pathrik and Ponthus Westerholm will try to cover up for some of the offense lost in Malmö. Pathrik being the more refined of the two could become Malmö’s most important weapon this season.
Malmö is mostly intact from last year. But while some additions have been made, they seem to be almost the same. The coaching change should be what defines this season. But expect the usual from Malmö – a defensively solid team with good goaltending and little offense.
8. Örebro HK – 85pts
Örebro started last season very well, placing themselves in the top half of the league. As the season went on they stagnated and could settle comfortably in the eighth place. Since the trajectory was pointing downwards, Örebro might have found themselves further down. But the Närkeans are hopeful coming into next season.
GM Niklas Johansson has kept the defensive core mostly intact. Which is good news for Örebro supporters since it is one of the better in the league. But Örebro is more known for its tactical aspects. The coaching team led by Niklas Eriksson can do well with a mediocre roster. Most importantly for Örebro, they provide some continuity to the team. Something of which they have been lacking the last seasons.
This year Örebro can deploy former Dynamo Minsk goaltender Jhonas Enroth. The experienced netminder will secure the very last line of defence, coming from the stronger Kontinental Hockey League. The players in front of Enroth are also of high quality. While the defensive side is very strong, the less is to be expected from the forwards. While presenting a solid core, they lack the special competence in front. The solution is called Borna Rendulic. The Croatian winger made a name for himself in the DEL last season, scoring 27 goals. While he was decent at the AHL and the KHL, it remains to be seen if he can produce in the SHL. With a good shot and a big body presence in front of the net, he might put an end to the offensive worries of Örebro.
A solid team in the back end, Örebro just needs to prove that they can score as well. If they can use their new forward acquisitions well in the offensive play and in the power play, they could solidify their overall play and compete with the contenders in the league.
Feature image credit: (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)