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Among changes, Modo hires Naslund to front office

by Bill Meltzer /
Modo Hockey is a proud franchise that has grown used to success at the Elitserien and junior levels. However, things have not gone as well as expected since the club from Ornskoldsvik won the Swedish championship in 2007. Despite a rather hefty payroll and the part-time or full-time presence of a host of notable former NHL players, the club missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.

So far, the 2010-11 season has been an even bigger disappointment. Through 30 games, Modo is 11th in the 12-team Elitserien, seven points out of a playoff spot. Even worse, if the regular season ended today, Modo would be forced to play in Kvalserien -- the postseason, double round-robin tournament that pits the top teams from minor league Allsvenskan against the bottom two Elitserien clubs -- in order to retain its spot in the top Swedish league next season. Modo, which currently is five points behind 10th place Timrå IK, has been a fixture in Elitserien since the circuit was formed in 1975.

Not surprisingly, Modo has made sweeping changes in recent weeks. The organization has hired one of its all-time legends, former NHL superstar Markus Naslund, to be its personnel director; he'll be overseeing the Elitserien club and junior program. The club recently has signed three former NHL players to its roster (forwards Lubos Bartecko and Ladislav Nagy, and defenseman Anders Eriksson), and reportedly is courting former AHL defenseman Hannu Pikkarainen, as well. In the meantime, the team has released former NHL forward Niko Dimitrakos and import defenseman Charlie Cooke and fired goaltending coach Thomas Bjuhr.

Naslund, 37, concluded his playing career last season by spending part of the season with Modo. A team shareholder, he played without a salary, joining his former linemate and fellow NHL star, Peter Forsberg, in an ultimately futile attempt to elevate their hometown team into the playoffs. In 29 games last season, Naslund posted 10 goals and 29 points while Forsberg scored 11 goals and 30 points in 23 games.  Now Naslund is taking on a brand-new challenge with his first front-office position.

"I hope the experience I collected over the years will contribute to something good," he said in accepting the post.

Modo's second-year CEO, Anders Trollsas, is confident Naslund is up to the challenge.

"(Naslund) is an amazing person with great integrity. His background in hockey is a great resume. As we set this post up, it also feels good that we're hiring someone from Ovik who knows and is passionate about the Modo Hockey program," he said.

As for Forsberg, the 37-year-old is not quite ready to hang up the skates for good despite chronic foot and ankle issues that have forced him out of the NHL and caused him to miss most of the last three seasons. He already has announced he will not be playing for Modo this season (he has played 26 Elitserien games over the last two seasons), but has continued to work out in the hopes of making one final attempt at an NHL comeback.

Forsberg recently participated in an exhibition game in Kramfors, where he had 2 goals and 4 assists while playing on a line with former Modo teammates Andreas Salomonsson and Magnus Wernblom. Afterward, Forsberg declined to answer questions about his foot or the status of his comeback bid.

The no-checking game ended in a 12-10 victory for the "Homecoming" team against Kramfors Hockey.

Without Forsberg, Naslund or last season's leading scorer, Mats Zuccarello-Aasen, Modo had tried hard to retool its attack, but with limited success. Dimitrakos, who had 22 goals and 44 points in 54 games two seasons ago for Skelleftea AIK, was a major underachiever for Modo this season, totaling 4 goals and 1 assist in 22 games prior to his release.
Former NHL center Byron Ritchie, 33, leads Modo offensively with 10 goals and 24 points. Veteran power forward Per-Age Skroder (8 goals, 22 points) is second on the team in scoring. In an attempt to strengthen the forward corps, Modo signed veteran Slovak standouts Bartecko and Nagy. Both players started this season with Slovak Extraliga club HK Poprad. Bartecko has extensive previous Elitserien experience with Lulea HF and Farjestads BK, while Nagy played for Mora IK during the 2004-05 NHL work stoppage.

"The Swedish league is probably a better league than Slovakia in terms of depth of the talent," Bartecko told ModoTV. "Certainly, Ladislav coming here was also very nice, because he's a friend of mine. I'm looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish here."

More than a lack of scoring depth, Modo's biggest problem this season has been the club's inability to keep the puck out of its own net. Neither the blue line nor the goaltending play has been up to par. As a result, the club has retooled its defense and is looking for a new goalie coach.
Eriksson returns to Modo for the first time since leaving his original club as a 20-year-old to join the Detroit Red Wings. Now 35, Eriksson started the season with Timra after a disappointing 2009-10 NHL season. He will step in for Cook, who has signed a short-term contract in Switzerland with HC Davos following his release. Last season, Cook had a strong season for Lukko Rauma (10 goals, 25 points) in Finland's SM-Liiga, but he managed just 1 goal, 6 points and a minus-3 rating for Modo this season.

Modo has also been hot on the trail of offensive-minded Finnish defenseman Pikkarainen, who had a solid season for the club in 2009-10 (11 goals, 43 points) before signing with Dinamo Minsk in the offseason. The KHL club let the 25-year-old Pikkarainen go after dressing him in just 16 games (4 assists, minus-9 rating). Although several clubs in Sweden and Switzerland are after his services, Modo is believed to be the frontrunner.

"Certainly we're interested but it also depends on the budget. It's important get together on the same page. We'll have a discussion (with agent Juuso Pulliainen) and then we'll figure out what we can do in way of an offer to Pikkarainen," Modo GM Fredrik Andersson told Swedish newspaper Aftondbladet.

Even if Pikkarainen rejoins Modo, the club will need to play better team defense and get better goaltending if it is to avoid Kvalserien and challenge for a playoff spot. Bjuhr took the fall for the subpar work turned in this season by Finnish veteran Tuomas Tarkki. The club has allowed 85 goals to date.

"We haven't gotten the development we'd hoped for where our goalies are concerned," Andersson said. "It's unfortunate, but we have to look in another direction."

Tarkki, who has started 20 games this season, has a pedestrian .896 save percentage and has taken heat for allowing his fair share of soft goals, exacerbating the club's defensive breakdowns. Nicklas Dahlberg, his 25-year-old backup, has started 10 games. While his save percentage (.913) is superior to Tarkki's, his goals-against average (2.72) is almost identical to Tarkki's 2.76 GAA. Few observers consider Dahlberg a high-caliber starting option in Elitserien and 18-year-old prospect Anton Forsberg isn't close to being ready for the big time yet.

While the odds are in favor of Modo retaining its spot in Elitserien even if it does fall to the qualification round, no one in Ornskoldsvik even wants to consider that possibility right now. All eyes are on returning to the playoffs after a two-season absence. If they are to succeed, the retooled club has some work to do and needs to get started now.
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