World Junior hockey 2013: Sweden faces uphill climb in repeat bid

Richard Wolowicz

Sweden are the defending champions, but face an uphill climb to get back to the final this year in Ufa. They're hoping their depth of talent will win out over the lack of high-end stars.

It took Sweden 31 years to get back to the top of the podium at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships, but Mika Zibanejad finally broke through for the nation in overtime of last year's gold medal game, which the team dominated from start to finish.

It was really the cap on a very dominant team performance, with every forward line and defense pair contributing to a wonderful puck possession game based on speed and aggressive forechecking. Coach Roger Ronnberg will have to hope his team can continue to have success in that regard this year without some of his top 1993-born talent at both defense and forward ... no nation is playing with fewer of its top players than Sweden will be this year.

Depth Chart - Forwards
Left Wing Center Right Wing
Rickard Rakell* William Karlsson* Filip Forsberg*
Emil Molin Elias Lindholm Sebastian Collberg*
Alexander Wennberg Victor Rask* Viktor Arvidsson
Linus Froberg Jeremy Boyce* Nick Sorensen
Jacob De La Rose Filip Sandberg Max Gortz (injured)

Sweden is missing Zibanejad due to the Ottawa Senators being completely irrational and not releasing him for international duty from his contractual obligations in Binghamton (every other league of similar quality in the world releases players for the WJC). This handcuffs Sweden a little, but as you can see, center is clearly a source of strength for the team.

Karlsson, Rask, and Boyce are all returning from last year's team and are 19 years old, while Elias Lindholm is an 18-year-old draft-eligible prospect that is the leading teenaged scorer in Sweden's Elitserien this year with 21 points in 32 games. In fact, for teenagers worldwide, that likely puts Lindholm in the top five in terms of point production at a professional level.

In a normal World Junior year, this forward group would be very dangerous, but without the high-end performers that Canada and Russia possess this go around, it's going to have to be a responsible group with the puck.

And that's not something that tends to happen at this tournament in general. However, Sweden does possess enough depth that if the top line isn't producing, the second and even third lines could easily make up the difference.

Key Players: Forsberg, Collberg, Lindholm and Rackell will be looked at to lead the team in goals, but a sleeper pick could be Nick Sorensen if he makes the final cut. The talented 17-year-old has been a point-per-game player for the Quebec Ramparts of the QMJHL the past two years.

However, his spot on the team could be dependent on whether Predators prospect Max Gortz is healthy or not. Undrafted winger Viktor Arvidsson and Ducks prospect Karlsson have led Sweden in international friendlies so far this year with seven and eight goals respectively.

Sweden has two cuts yet to come at forward.

Depth Chart - Defense
Left Defense Right Defense
Rasmus Bengtsson Hampus Lindholm
Mikael Wikstrand Tom Nilsson
Linus Arnesson Emil Djuse
Christian Djoos Jesper Petterson

Sweden is down their top pairing of last year's championship, Jonas Brodin and Oscar Klefbom, due to injuries. So the defense falls to an inexperienced crew anchored by Ducks first-rounder Hampus Lindholm.

All of the rest of the crew are lesser-heralded prospects playing in either the Elitserien or the Allsvenskan in depth roles. Notably absent was Dallas Stars second-round pick Ludvig Byström, but as an 18-year-old it isn't too shocking that even a talented player could be passed over for this competition.

Sweden has been pumping out elite blueliners for years, but this is a notably weaker group. Still, it likely matches up with Russia in terms of ability, and they should be able to rely on more help from their forwards in terms of defensive zone coverage and breakouts than most nations.

Also, a notable advantage will be their experience playing professional hockey on the larger ice surface. It can be quite an adjustment even for talented players to adapt to the angles and extra room behind the net, so for a lesser skilled group to have this advantage going into the tournament it is a major bonus going forward.

Key Players: Lindholm is definitely the key, but look for one of Mikael Wikstrand (Senators' seventh-round pick) or Emil Djuse (undrafted) to take a lot of minutes on Sweden's power-play units, assuming either of them make the final cut.

Sweden has one cut to make on defense.

Goaltenders
Oscar Dansk
Niklas Lundström
Joel Lassinantti

There were concerns with Dansk to start the year as he struggled to adjust to the Ontario Hockey League, but playing behind a porous Erie Otters defense likely helped him work his way through his early season slump. Dansk is one of the better goaltending prospects in the world, and should be one of two Blue Jackets netminding prospects to suit up in this tournament.

He's been facing an average of 34 shots a night in the OHL and was a star for Sweden at the U18 level. That should prepare him well to face the elite shooters that Canada, Russia, USA and Finland can send out there. There is no doubt that Sweden is likely to rely on its goaltender more this year than they did last year, when Johan Gustafsson struggled to deal with the limited shots he faced.

Niklas Lundstrom and Joel Lassinantti are capable backups, and both will get a look in that role. Lassinantti played better in the international friendly sessions, but as a smaller goaltender really needs to stand out to get an opportunity in an elite tournament like this.

Tournament Outlook

Sweden has a strong team, and has drawn a favorable pool. The top opponent in Group A for them is Finland, who comes with quite possibly their strongest entry in a decade at this tournament. The Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Latvia provide some challenges, but Sweden should be able to overcome those opponents to finish at least second in its pool and qualify for the playoff round.

The key will be its New Year's Eve game against Finland, which will determine whether they advance straight to the semifinals or not. Sweden has finished first in their group the past five World Juniors, an incredible feat that has allowed them to automatically play for a medal in each of those years. This format is in its last year, as next year the top eight teams will all play in the quarterfinals with only a two team relegation round.

Finland and Sweden are relative equals at this tournament, and avoiding a quarterfinal game against the third-place team from Group B (likely one of Canada, Russia, or USA) should be the goal for both countries.

References:

*Tournament Schedule by Nation

* HockeySverige.se (Swedish hockey website)

* Preliminary Roster (pdf).

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