In the second part, we take a look at the upper half of last season. While they all are committed to staying in the race for the gold, they have prepared for it in different ways. There is a clear distinction between the top seven teams and the bottom seven, but expect the orders in both halves to change a lot. Part one of the Great SHL Guide can be found here.
7. Frölunda HC – 85pts
The people of Gothenburg were surprised by the performance of Frölunda in the past season. International readers will recognize players like Henrik Lundqvist, Artturi Lehkonen, and Rasmus Dahlin. All hail from the west coast team called Frölunda HC. Usually a top contender, Frölunda is looking to get back to its usual form to this year.
Roger Rönnberg is one of Sweden’s best coaches, and last year has to be seen as an anomaly for Frölunda. With a focus on young players, he has formerly seen a lot of success. The head coach has been in Frölunda since 2013 and has been offering exciting hockey since. Hockey fans who follow the NHL should keep an eye out, Rönnberg is only 47 and has proven himself in Sweden. While most are looking at names like Grönlund and Jalonen coming to the NHL, Rönnberg might be coming next.
A new season, and a new defensive line for Frölunda. They just kept three defenders from last year. But during the virus-riddled offseason, they bolstered up with younger exciting players like Mattias Norlinder and Filip Johansson. Norlinder is the ultimate Frölunda player. An up and coming defenseman said to move much similar to Rasmus Dahlin. In front, Frölunda has lost Ryan Lasch. We don’t expect him to come back, which will reconstruct Frölunda’s offense. They are instead hoping that Lucas Raymond will take his place. The highly-touted prospect, set to be picked early in the first round, will be tried to spearhead Frölunda’s offense. A stopgap indeed, as Raymond will seek to move overseas the season after this one.
Frölunda, like always, aims for the gold medal this season. The key to this is to establish their game early. This might be tricky with an almost completely new defensive squad. If everything falls into place, this young squad will overrun the league, along with the emergence of Lucas Raymond. But this is a high-risk game. While putting so much trust in youngsters might seem like a bad idea, they are backed by a team of solid players and an incredible coaching team. Frölunda is the way to look for exciting hockey and to explore what’s coming to the NHL soon.
6. Djurgårdens IF – 88pts
Djurgården is back to being a perennial contender after spending a few years in the darker areas of the league. Last year they got to the top six, a respectable position. But fans have been sceptical, as Djurgården has made the least moves in the offseason.
Head coach Robert Ohlsson has essentially the same team to work with like last year. The head coach is beloved in the capital city since he has been a fan of the team since he was a child. After last season he stated that to get even further, the team needs to improve their play without the puck and improve the power play. And more specifically, stop losing the puck on the blue line. A job almost solely up to Ohlsson, since there are very few additions. After the pre-season, he stated that the team improved their non-puck game. But whether the rest of the puzzle is solved is something we have to see come game day.
The Stockholm team made just three signings in the offseason: goalie Mantas Armalis, defenseman Tobias Ekberg and young forward Linus Andersson. With Armalis, Djurgården has a highly skilled goaltender tandem along with Niklas Svedberg. Ekberg and Andersson are much more modest signings. Don’t be surprised if Djurgården signs a skater or two when the season has already started. They want to strengthen with a forward and a defenceman, but only if they are a fit as they are comfortable with their current group. The loss of Patrik Berglund and Linus Hultström is quite heavy. The fans of Djurgården hope that they will be replaced by the tightly knit group, who with a long pre-season together should play better than before.
Djurgården, just like Malmö, is almost the same team as last season. Luckily last season Djurgården was a good team. It remains to be seen if the tactical improvements can be the change needed to post better results. The only problem – their competitors have made more and better signings.
5. HV71 – 89pts
HV71, the team from the Swedish Bible belt, had a very good season before corona struck the world. Just three points separate HV71 from Färjestad in the second place. Initially starting slow with an abysmal power play, HV71 manage to overcome their problems after Christmas and show how dominant they can be.
The team has somewhat new leadership. Former assistant coach Nicklas Rahm has taken a step up to become the head coach. It is unknown what this coaching change will bring. Well, unless you consider Rahm’s well-known temperament and ability to fire up his players. What’s special with him, however, is that he is the first local to coach the Jönköping team. Being his first-ever club as a player and head coach will surely make him a fan favourite.
HV71 reshuffled their roster this offseason. They used to rely a lot on Oscar Sundh and Martin Thörnberg, who are no longer with the club. Instead, HV71 fans can look forward to seeing Lias Andersson back in action. The young forward is being loaned back from the New York Rangers, and his leadership and ability make his teammates better will prove to be very useful. The goaltending is still highly competent with veteran Jonas Gunnarsson and youngster Hugo Alnefelt. The one question mark is how they will generate offense from the blue lines. While Johannes Kinnvall scored a massive 40 points last year, the rest of his defensive teammates are more defensive. If teams can shut him down, they have removed a big chunk of HV71’s game in the offensive zone.
HV71 has an exciting team coming into the season. While losing some key players, they managed to replace them adequately. It’s a renewed team, but many of the same problems remain. However, if they like last season can work their issues out early, they will be a big threat to any team.
4. Skellefteå AIK – 90pts
The northerners performed well last season despite a slow start. If the virus had not put an end to the season, Skellefteå would very likely be in it to the very end. For this season they have looked to their weaknesses and addressed them.
Saying that the coaching situation in Skellefteå is interesting is not an overstatement. Instead of having a single head coach, they have three coaches from their system taking charge this season. Falk, Hedlund, and Klockare have varying experience in coaching. But since they know each other from working with Skellefteå before, it could work out. The main difference is that this year they have a youthful squad. This is probably due to coach Andreas Falk who has previously worked with the juniors of Skellefteå.
Expect the two stars Joakim Lindström and Oscar Möller to be the very center of the play in both ends. Zone entries, assists, driving play, goals, forecheck. They can do it all just like they have done in the last few years. Now, Skellefteå has tried to get some secondary scoring to let the duo rest. For this, they recruited two centers, a weak point last year. Jonathan Johnson broke the scoring record in Hockeyallsvenskan last year and Tyler Morley who has produced well in the Liiga and EBEL. If they can provide some support to the stars, Skellefteå can roll four lines and be very effective. Skellefteå kept their goaltending duo of Arvid Söderblom and Gustaf Lindvall, giving them a solid net presence game after game. However, after losing the prominent defensemen Jonathan Pudas and Filip Berglund, it is not obvious that their replacement will fill the gap.
Skellefteå is one of the league’s best teams and has improved coming into this season. But being dependent on two players might not be the safest way to perform over a season, so if Skellefteå wants to go deep in the playoffs they need all of their lines to be good.
3. Rögle BK – 92pts
It is very easy to like Rögle. The small-town team of southern Sweden played well above everyone’s expectations last year, ending up in third place. The key to this has been the signing of the former players, now GM and head coach Chris and Cam Abbott. But being so successful has taken a toll on the team, as the top players left for the NHL and KHL.
What the Abbott brothers brought to Rögle was an emphasis on hard work and stability. And a bit of luck with some recruits who turn out to be much better than expected. A big, heavy roster is being utilized to bully the opponent’s defense. But without the same scoring power as Kody Curran and Ted Brithén provided, it might not be realistic that the Abbotts can be as successful this year.
Building the team after the departure of their best players has been a bit of a strange story. While the defense is certainly good, and Johan Gustafsson is an adequate SHL goalie taking over after Roman Will, the offense seems unbalanced. The reason is that Rögle is completely lacking in centers, but have the best wingers in the entire league. The wingers consist of some of the leagues best in Nils Höglander, Dennis Everberg, and Daniel Zaar. But the centers are virtually unheard of, aside from Leon Bristedt, who is more adept at a winger role. The goal of this offseason has been to build a better team without superstars. But doing this without good centers is a hard task, to say the least.
As always, it is hard to preemptively discard Rögle from the start. Their squad looks promising but a bit unstructured. The fans will just have to see if the Abbotts will find some quality centers, or if they tend to solve this problem in a new way. Rögle can pretty much end up anywhere in the table, but most likely in a playoff spot.
2. Färjestad BK – 92pts
Färjestad is used to getting a gold often, every 10 years or so at a minimum. And last time it happened was during the 2010-2011 season. Färjestad is planning to go all the way this year, and there is a good reason to expect they might do it.
Coach Johan Pennerborn is entering his fourth season as head coach. He represents a very attractive type of hockey, with a focus on an aggressive and offensive way of play. Last year they scored 173 goals over 52 games, 20 more than Luleå who won the series. If he is going to repeat this with a lesser forward core, it needs to be a team effort. Viewers of Färjestad can expect a solid defensive team, with some entertaining offense.
The issue for Pennerborn is how to do it again without the Marcus Nilsson, who gathered the most points in all of SHL last year, captain Linus Johansson and power-play specialist Johan Ryno. Coming into their place is instead Jacob Nilsson, Olle Lycksell, and Jacob Peterson. Quality players no doubt, but they have big shoes to fill. Defensively they signed Jesse Virtanen, who returns to Färjestad after a year in Russia. A truly dominant player in both ends. In net, they switched Markus Svensson to Henrik Haukeland. While the Norwegian is certainly a good netminder, he might not be of the top quality that a cup contender needs.
Färjestad enters the new season with high expectations. While not all components look like sure-fire championship material, it is a group that knows each other well and knows what they can do. With a top defensive core headed by Virtanen, and a stable offensive game Färjestad can go very far this year, too.
1. Luleå HF – 106pts
Luleå was the best team last year, no doubt. With a point lead of 14 down to the second place, Luleå was the team that lost the most due to the virus. Formerly known as a “pig-hockey”(Swedish slang for gritty, dirty play) team, they have now established themselves as a quality team.
A big part of Luleå’s success is that they manage to keep big parts of their roster year after year. However, coming into next season Luleå has 14 expiring contracts, making this perhaps the last big shot at winning the cup in a long time. Thomas Berglund knows his team, and they know him. A system built upon an extremely effective defense backed up by great goaltending. If the saying “Defense wins championships”, then this applies to Luleå. Just two players are unfamiliar with Berglund’s system.
The main acquisition this season spells Linus Klasen. The former Luleå player has returned after six years in Switzerland. If he is anything like himself, Luleå has just gotten back their magician and power-play specialist. He might be the best player in the team, based on reputation alone. In net, we see the sole downgrade for Luleå. Lassinantti left for the KHL, and former backup David Rautio is expected to take his place. An effective backup, but when he has been the starter his performance has gone down. His backup is Jesper Wallstedt, a 17-year-old talent. But if Rautio goes down, will Wallstedt be able to step up?
Luleå is a sure favorite for the gold this season. They have left their core intact and added an offensive star in Klasen, which is good news. What’s going on in the net is the only concern in the new season. Will the stark defense of Luleå be able to cover up for Rautio? And what happens if he gets hurt and Wallstedt is not playing like he is five years above his actual age?
Feature Image Credit: (Photo by Skelleftea AIK/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images