The Swedish Elite League (Elitserien) regular season gets under way one week from today. The most intriguing of the season openers will be a rematch of last season's championship finals as defending champion HV 71 Jönköping will visit to runner-up Djurgårdens IF Stockholm at the Johanesshov Ice Stadium (Hovet) on Sept. 16. One day earlier, AIK Stockholm will mark its return to Elitserien after an eight-season absence when it plays championship contender Linköpings HC at Hovet.
Following are previews of all 12 teams in Elitserien, including key arrivals, departures and potential breakout players for the 2010-11 season.
HV 71 Jönköping
Winners of the 2009-10 Swedish championship and a playoff finalist three seasons in a row with two titles, HV 71 remains the team to beat in Elitserien. The club finished in first place during the regular season and led the league with 188 goals. The team has lost several numerous players from its championship roster, but the club remains one of the best in the league, led by center Johan Davidsson (12 goals, 58 points in the 2009-10 regular season, 4 goals, 16 points in the playoffs).
Key arrivals: Still a high-end offensive talent at age 37, left wing Fredrik Bremberg joins HV 71 after scoring 13 goals and 39 points in 45 games last season for Jokerit Helsinki of Finland's SM-Liiga. The former Edmonton Oilers forward previously spent most of his European career with Djurgården. In addition to Bremberg, the club has reacquired veteran Finnish defenseman Mikko Luoma after he spent last season with Atlant Mytishchi of the KHL. Big defenseman Daniel Rahimi is a new addition to the club after spending last season with Elitserien club Rögle BK Ängelholm (subsequently relegated to Allsvenskan). Former DIF goaltender Daniel Larsson, 24, was one of the top goalies in Elitserien before spending two reasonably solid seasons with Grand Rapids, the Detroit Red Wings' AHL affiliate.
Key departures: High-scoring defenseman David Petrasek (15 goals, 53 points) is off to the KHL to play for Dinamo Minsk. Longtime starting goaltender Stefan Liv (Sibir Novosibirsk) and 14-goal-scoring Bjorn Melin (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk) also have departed for the KHL. The re-made HV blue line must also deal with the departure of veteran Janne Niinimaa to Lulea HF and the retirement of long-time team leader Per Gustafsson. In addition, youngsters Mattias Tedenby (New Jersey Devils) and David Ullstrom (New York Islanders) have left to take their shots at North American pro hockey.
Breakout candidate: Twenty-year-old Ottawa Senators prospect Andre Petersson dominated the J20 SuperElit level and played 37 Elitserien games last season, scoring 10 goals. The right wing is coming off a dominant preseason European Trophy tournament in which he scored 5 goals and 10 points in 8 games.
Djurgårdens IF Stockholm (DIF)
The most storied club in Swedish hockey history hit a rough spell in the mid-2000s as a result of financial problems. The club missed the playoffs in three of four seasons between 2005-06 and 2008-09 while restocking its system. DIF re-emerged as a top club last season, finishing in second place and earning a trip to the finals. The club received strong goaltending from the tandem of Stefan Ridderwall and Gustaf Wesslau, and allowed the second-fewest goals in the league (130).
Last season's top scorer, Marcus Nilson (24 goals, 51 points), remains in limbo. The 32-year-old turned down a multiyear contract extension offer from DIF over the summer, saying he wanted to give the NHL another shot in 2010-11. Nilson has been training with lower minor league (Division II) club Bålsta HC while awaiting offers from NHL teams.
Key arrivals: Veteran right wing Daniel Widing should add some punch to an attack that tied for third in the league with 161 goals last season. Widing spent the 2009-10 season in with HC Davos in Switzerland, where he scored 19 goals and 34 points in 45 games. In addition, speedy young former Philadelphia Flyers prospect Mario Kempe has come over from Rögle BK.
Key departures: If Nilson does not return to DIF, he will be a big loss. Veteran forward Mike Zigomanis has returned to North America after signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs during the offseason.
Breakout candidate: Compared by some to former DIF star and current Nashville Predators standout Patric Hornqvist, 19-year-old right wing Patrick Cehlin has been on a similar early path to Hornqvist's (right down to being selected by Nashville, in the fifth round of the 2010 Entry Draft). He dressed in 54 Elitserien games last season for DIF, scoring 5 goals and 11 points. He is likely to play for Team Sweden at the 2011 World Junior Championships.
Linköpings HC (LHC)
Linköping has been a perennial bridesmaid in recent seasons, losing in the finals or semifinals in four of the last five seasons. The club scored the second-most goals in the league last season (163) while finishing three points behind HV 71 in the standings. LHC must press on this season without the services of its top three scorers from last season.
Key arrivals: Former NHL forward Matt Murley spent last season in Switzerland, splitting time with three different teams, and scoring 7 goals and 14 points in 14 games at the National League A level. Forward Andreas Molinder, 23, joins LHC after spending his entire career to date in the Modo system; he had 5 goals and 14 points in 48 games at the Elitserien level last season. Veteran Finnish goalie Tero Leinonen returns to Elitserien after a three-season absence. Leinonen spent last season with Czech Extraliga club HC Liberec. He will join a crowded crease that already featured former NHL goaltender Jani Hurme and promising young Christian Engstrand.
Key departures: LHC may have trouble making up for the loss of former league MVP Tony Martensson. The 30-year-old center, who ranked second in the Elitserien scoring race last season (19 goals, 63 points), signed a contract with big-spending KHL team SKA St. Petersburg. In addition, LHC has loaned its second- and third-leading scorers from 2009-10, former NHL players Jan Hlavac (30 goals, 51 points) and Jaroslav Hlinka (13 goals, 50 points) to Czech team HC Sparta Prague. Veteran Czech defenseman Josef Melichar has been loaned to HC Ceske Budejovice. LHC also has seen the departure of former Pittsburgh Penguins farmhand Daniel Fernholm to the KHL's Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk and the retirement of long-time role-playing forward Fredrik Emvall.
Breakout candidate: Right wing Patrik Zackrisson ranked sixth on the club last season with 16 goals and 32 points in 45 games. The 23-year-old, who was drafted in the sixth round of the 2007 Entry Draft by the San Jose Sharks, will see his role expand this season after the departure of Martensson.
Skellefteå AIK (SAIK)
The northern Swedish club has found ways to overachieve the last few seasons, easily eclipsing long-time rival Luleå HF in the standings. SAIK prides itself on its commitment to playing two-way hockey, and new coach Anders Forsberg (who accepted the job after spending several seasons as a European scout for the Ottawa Senators) will emphasize the same qualities that carried the club to the playoff semifinals in each of the last two seasons.
Key arrivals: Big right winger Mikko Lehtonen was a 20-plus goal scorer in the AHL each of the last two seasons but only dressed in two NHL games, for the Boston Bruins. As a result, the 23-year-old Finn signed with SAIK, and he should see plenty of ice time. Oft-injured former NHL forward Joakim Lindstrom returns to his hometown of Skellefteå after spending last season in the KHL with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod (10 goals, 30 points in 55 games). SAIK also has added promising young goaltender Joacim Eriksson to take some of the burden off 35-year-old veteran workhorse Andreas Hadelov. Eriksson, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect, is coming off a stellar Allsvenskan season with Leksands IF. Skellefteå also has added depth to the blueline by bringing back 29-year-old Fredrik Lindgren after a one-year stint with Färjestads BK Karlstad.
Brad Moran (14 goals, 40 points) parlayed his strong season into a return trip to North America, where he signed with the Edmonton Oilers. Veteran center Tomas Surovy is off to the KHL to play for Dinamo Riga. Aggressive Finnish defenseman Jyri Marttinen has returned to his home country to play in the SM-Liiga for the Lahti Pelicans.
Breakthrough candidate: A standout in the SAIK junior system, Oscar Lindberg dressed in 36 Elitserien games last season and was drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in the second round of the 2010 Entry Draft. As the 2010-11 season progresses, he may earn more ice time.
Färjestads BK (FBK)
One of the top teams in European hockey during the first decade of the 2000s, Färjestad won three championships (most recently in 2008-09), reached the finals four other times and finished first or second in the regular season standings six times. However, the club is coming off a disappointing 2009-10 campaign in which it followed a fifth-place finish in the regular season with a first-round playoff exit. The club gave up more goals (144) than its anemic offense scored (132) last season. Head coach Tommy Samuelsson will look to change that this season.
Key arrivals: Veteran sniper Pelle Prestberg returns to FBK after a two-season absence, in which he played down a level for top Allsvenskan club Leksand. The 35-year-old still is capable of scoring 20-plus goals at the Elitserien level. The team has also brought in former NHL forward Christian Berglund after a five-year stint in Switzerland, where he scored 23 goals and 44 points in 43 games last season for Rapperswil. The FBK blue line has been bolstered by luring St. Louis Blues defense prospect Kristofer Berglund away from Luleå HF, where he scored 6 goals and 22 points in 55 games last season. It has been rumored but not yet confirmed that erstwhile NHL goalie Vesa Toskala will join FBK.
Key departures: Washington Capitals prospect Marcus Johansson is off to North America after a 10-goal, 20-point Elitserien season and earning the captainship of Team Sweden at the 2010 World Junior Championships. Veteran forward Jesper Mattsson has left for Allsvenskan club IF Malmö. Also not returning are import forward Kent McDonnell, former NHL player Lubos Bartecko (joining Slovak Extraliga team HK Poprad), Johan Andersson (LHC) or defenseman Fredrik Lindgren (SAIK).
Breakout candidate: Is this the season the enigmatic Dick Axelsson finally puts it all together? An underachiever for much of his pro career, the 23-year-old Detroit Red Wings prospect has the talent to be a dominant scorer but his work ethic and commitment to two-way play often has been called into question.
Brynäs IF Gävle (BIF)
Strong team defense and outstanding goaltending has enabled Brynäs to earn its way into the playoffs despite a mediocre offensive attack. Last season the club surrendered a league-low 124 goals before bowing out in the playoff quarterfinals. Third-year coach Nicklas Czarnecki is unlikely to make many changes to his club's style this season despite the loss of its young star goaltender.
Key arrivals: Goaltenders Bjorn Burling (formerly of Södertälje SK) is one of the candidates to fill the void in goal. Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Mattias Modig (formerly of Luleå HF) may join the team on loan if he doesn't play in the AHL for Wilkes Barre/Scranton after he fully recovers from off-season knee surgery. BIF also has brought in defensemen veteran Canadian defenseman Dale Clarke, who spent the last four seasons in Finland, and Nashville Predators defense prospect Mattias Ekholm.
Key departures: Many scouts consider Florida Panthers prospect Jacob Markstrom to be one of the top two or three goaltending prospects in the world. His departure for North America leaves a significant hole for BIF to fill. The club also has lost 20-goal-scoring forward Stephen Dixon to the KHL's Amur Khabarovsk and 39-year-old forward Ove Molin to retirement after 18 seasons with the team.
Breakout candidate: The Vancouver Canucks signed 19-year-old prospect Anton Rodin, but loaned him back to BIF for this season. The right wing saw limited ice time in 36 Elitserien games last season. His role may expand as the 2010-11 season progresses.
Frölunda HC Gothenburg (Frölunda Indians)
Inconsistency has plagued the Indians in recent seasons at the Elitserien level after the club won its most recent championship during the 2004-05 season and returned to the finals the next season. Although there often has been an emphasis on veterans at the top level, the organization has one of the premier junior systems in Europe. The club finished seventh in Elitserien and lost in the first round of the playoffs last season.
Key additions: Veteran Mika Pyorala did not make much of an impact in the NHL last season with the Philadelphia Flyers, but he remains one of the better two-way players in European hockey. Forward Toni Koivisto scored 11 goals in the KHL last season for Metallurg Magnitogorsk and may help add additional pop to a club that scored 155 goals last season while allowing 156.
Key departures: The club has lost offensive defenseman Janne Niskala (12 goals, 28 points) to the KHL's Metallurg Magnitogorsk. In addition, several young products of the Indians’ development program have signed contracts with the organizations that own their NHL rights, including center Joakim Andersson (Detroit Red Wings) and defenseman Philip Larsen (Dallas Stars). On top of these departures, Norwegian forward Mathis Olimb signed with the Chicago Blackhawks and likely will spend the season in the AHL, while 20-goal-scoring forward Fredrik Pettersson will get a shot at cracking the Atlanta Thrashers' lineup.
Breakout candidate: Nineteen-year-old forward Carl Klingberg (a 2009 Atlanta Thrashers second-round pick) has the size and junior-level scoring pedigree to develop into a fine Elitserien player, if not this season then in the near future. He's coming off a 3-goal, 5-point showing at the European Trophy tournament and scored 5 goals in four preseason games for the Swedish national Under-20 team.
Timrå IK (TIK)
Timrå squeaked into the final playoff spot last season but lost in the first round of the playoffs. TIK was 10th in the league in scoring with 138 goals. Further improvement in the scoring department will be necessary if the club is to reach the postseason for the eighth time in the last nine seasons.
Key arrivals: Kim Hirschovits has been one of the top scorers in Finland over the last five seasons, and the addition of the 28-year-old center should help bolster the offense. Former New Jersey Devils right wing Ilkka Pikkarainen should add scoring and an irritating presence to the lineup. Finnish defenseman Mikko Jokela also is a solid addition despite an injury-marred and disappointing KHL season with Dinamo Minsk in 2009-10.
Key departures: Highly regarded youngster Magnus Paajarvi likely will make his NHL debut this season for the Edmonton Oilers. In addition, goalie Anders Lindback has signed with the Nashville Predators and likely will play in the AHL for the Milwaukee Admirals. Veteran Czech defenseman Petr Caslava signed with CSKA Moscow of the KHL in the offseason.
Breakout candidate: Anton Lander often has played in Paajarvi's shadow over the course of their young careers, but the 19-year-old center is a fine talent in his own right. Already an alternate captain for TIK, the Edmonton prospect should significantly increase his 2009-10 Elitserien output of 7 goals and 16 points.
Modo Hockey Örnsköldsvik
A season filled with high expectations and big-name players on the roster turned into a fiasco, as Modo was racked by injuries early in the season and plagued by inconsistency throughout the season. The team ended up missing the playoffs for the second straight season after winning the championship in 2006-07 and reaching the postseason 11 straight seasons, with four trips to the finals since 1998-99. New coach Charles Berglund will attempt to get a revamped squad back on track this season.
Key arrivals: Modo's offseason additions this summer did not generate nearly the same excitement of past announcements of the returns of hometown heroes and big-ticket imports. The club has brought former NHL player Niko Dimitrakos back to Sweden after one season in the KHL with CSKA Moscow (12 goals, 17 points in 50 games). While with SAIK in 2008-09, Dimitrakos scored 22 goals and 44 points in 54 games. Modo also has added former NHL role player Byron Ritchie to the mix after a season in the KHL with Dynamo Minsk. Finnish goalie Tuomas Tarkki could help solidify a position that was a revolving door last season. Veteran defenseman Charlie Cook is coming off a 10-goal SM-Liiga season for Lukko Rauma.
Key departures: Much of the attention, as usual, has been focused on the never-ending foot and ankle problems suffered by Peter Forsberg. The former Hart Trophy winner already has announced he will not be playing for Modo this season and may not play at all. Meanwhile, long-time NHL superstar Markus Naslund and long-time Modo fixture Andreas Salomonsson announced their retirements after last season. From a practical standpoint, an even bigger loss for Modo is Mats Zuccarello-Aasen. The diminutive Norwegian puck wizard led Elitserien in scoring last season with 64 points (23 goals, 41 assists) before signing with the New York Rangers. The club also saw the retirement of former NHL player Dan Hinote and the return to North America of Josh Green.
Breakout candidate: Danish forward Morten Madsen, 23, made little progress toward the NHL in his two season minor-league stint in the Minnesota Wild system. However, he may be primed for a strong Elitserien season in 2010-11 after scoring 11 goals and 20 points for Modo last season.
Luleå HF (LHF)
A powerhouse team of the mid-1990s that ran off a streak of 13 straight seasons of reaching the playoffs, LHF has missed the postseason in two of the past three seasons. The northern Swedish team long was known for its gritty, almost North American style of play, but high-end talent has been in short supply in recent seasons and the team has teetered precariously close to the playoff bubble as well as the dreaded 11th/12th place positions that force clubs to re-qualify for Elitserien the following season in a tournament (Kvalserien) against the top clubs of minor-league Allsvenskan. Thus far, LHF has avoided Kvalserien, sandwiching 10th-place finishes around a surprising fifth-place showing in 2008-09.
Key arrivals: Well-traveled Finnish defenseman Janne Niinimaa joins a long tradition of Finns playing for Luleå. It remains to be seen how much he has left in the tank at age 35, but his presence will help the LHF blueline. The club also has acquired one of the Swedish circuit's fastest-rising young offensive talents in St. Louis Blues prospect Simon Hjalmarsson (formerly with Rögle BK Ängelholm).
Key departures: Veteran forward Jonathan Hedstrom signed with Finnish club Kärpat Oulu. LHF also lost the services of goalie Mattias Modig (Pittsburgh Penguins or BIF), defenseman Johan Fransson (Los Angeles Kings), defenseman Kristofer Berglund (FBK), forward Robin Lindqvist (on loan to TIK via Russian Major League team Molot-Prikamie Perm) and defenseman Alexander Hellstrom (Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL).
Breakout candidate: The 21-year-old Hjalmarsson was a junior-hockey linemate of Lars Eller (now with the Montreal Canadiens) in the Frölunda system. After reaching the pro level, he's more than held his own at the Allsvenskan and Elitserien levels. He scored 11 goals in 53 games last season for RBK and should better those totals with Luleå in 2010-11.
Södertälje SK (SSK)
The lowest-scoring team in Elitserien last season (131 goals) survived Kvalserien to preserve its place in the top league this season. SSK had at least played sound defense in recent seasons, but that went by the wayside in 2009-10 as the club permitted a league-worst 176 goals. SSK may be hard pressed to avoid a return trip to the qualification round this season.
Key arrivals: SSK has arranged with the Tampa Bay Lightning for Finnish goaltending prospect Riku Helenius to join the Elitserien team by loan at the start of the season. The club also has landed Mattias Carlsson (most recently with LHC), who scored 28 goals and 45 points at the Allsvenskan level in 2006-07. Veteran Czech forward Martin Chabada has come over after a so-so season with LHF last season.
Key departures: In recent seasons, SSK relied heavily on two players named Linus (small and shifty Linus Klasen, power forward Linus Videll) to lead the way offensively. Videll remains with the team, but Klasen left in the offseason to sign with the Nashville Predators. The club also saw the departure of Södertälje native and team leader Per Hallin to TIK for his second stint with the club.
Breakout candidate: Former Edmonton Oilers prospect Jonas Almtorp had his best Elitserien campaign to date last season, tallying 13 goals and 32 points for SSK. The club will need even more output from the 26-year-old forward.
AIK IF Stockholm (AIK)
The traditional archrival of DIF, AIK's hockey department has fallen on hard times over the last decade. The team was relegated from Elitserien in 2002 and did not earn a return trip to the top level until earlier this season. Backstopped by talented but sometimes underachieving (at the Elitserien level) goaltender Christopher Heino-Lindberg and captained by former NHL defenseman Dick Tarnstrom, the club begins its quest to work its way to respectability in the Elite League.
Key arrivals: Former rookie of the year Oscar Steen has not developed into the type of offensive talent he was projected to be back in 2004-05, but he is a hard worker. Agitating forward Patric Blomdahl should add some grit to the lineup after coming over from Frölunda. He's originally a product of the AIK system. Veteran defenseman Peter Nolander (most recently with BIF) should hold down a starting job on the AIK blue line.
Key departures: Patrik Bergstrom was a top Allsvenskan offensive player for AIK last season, tallying 15 goals and 31 points. He will remain at the top minor-league level this season and skate for RBK. Veteran Canadian defenseman Josh MacNevin originally was slated to join AIK this season but has been loaned to HPK Hämeenlinna to start the season in SM-Liiga.
Breakout candidate: Right wing Richard Gynge lit up the Allsvenskan level last season, tallying 28 goals and 52 points in 51 regular season games before adding 4 goals and 5 points in 10 games during Kvalserien. It remains to be seen if the 23-year-old can carry over his success to the Swedish Elite League, but there's no questioning his hands and anticipation.