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World Cup

Erik Karlsson maturing as leader for Team Sweden

Alternate captain's voice becoming essential in World Cup preparations

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

GOTHENBURG, Sweden -- Certainly we can call him elite. Two-time Norris Trophy winners who average a point per game while leading the NHL in assists (66) and average ice time per game (28:58), as Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson did last season, earn and deserve that kind of acclaim.

But here, inside the invisible walls erected around Team Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey 2016, another adjective is being used to describe Karlsson.


"I really appreciate it," Team Sweden coach Rikard Gronborg said. "His maturity right now is really up there."

The Senators have seen Karlsson's maturity blossom as he has grown into a leader and captain since the 2014-15 season. Now Team Sweden is getting its taste of Karlsson the 26-year-old veteran, leader and spokesperson as it prepares for the World Cup, which will be held at Air Canada Centre in Toronto from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1.

He's been essential in that role up to this point.

Video: Team Sweden on expectations ahead of WCH 2016

"In all the meetings we've had, he's been a big part of the discussions, and I think he's been taking charge in a lot of things on the ice and off the ice," Gronborg said. "He wants to be there. He wants to be the go-to guy. He also has the respect in the locker room that is required to be a leader on a team."

Karlsson officially was stamped as a leader for Team Sweden on Monday, when he was named an alternate captain along with Vancouver Canucks left wing Daniel Sedin. Canucks captain Henrik Sedin was named Sweden's captain, taking the role from injured Detroit Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg.

For Karlsson, it will be the first time wearing a letter while representing Sweden in an international tournament. He called it "a big honor," which it obviously is. He also called it a challenge, which he loves.

"It's something I see as a challenge, to be better and do more, to want to be a better person and player," he said.

He's been conquering that challenge incrementally with each passing season. Former Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, a mentor to Karlsson and now an adviser to Team Sweden, has been witness to it and continues to be impressed.

"To me, he's done a very good job of maturing to be more responsible and wanting to have that role while also keeping his energy and enthusiasm, which I think is what makes him fun to be around in the locker room or just off the ice," Alfredsson said. "He has a great personality, brings energy to wherever he goes. He's always been very comfortable, but he's getting better and better and better in dealing with the team and getting everybody on the same page."

As Gronborg said, Karlsson has been doing that off the ice for Team Sweden. He also proved he can lead by example through his offseason training.

Typically one to focus on strength training during the summer, Karlsson changed his program to do more on-ice conditioning.

Video: PIT@OTT: Karlsson nets unconventional milestone goal

In normal years Karlsson hasn't had a problem taking a week or more to allow his legs to catch up because he knows they will as the pace of training camp increases gradually.

But this is not a normal year. The World Cup will open at a roaring pace, so Karlsson understood he couldn't wade into the tournament and still be at his best when he steps on the ice for Sweden's opener against Team Russia on Sept. 18 (3 p.m. ET; ESPN, SN, TVA Sports).

"Right now it feels great," Karlsson said.

That's good, because Karlsson is going to be just about everywhere for Team Sweden. 

Gronborg had him at the right point on the first power-play unit and working in for Anton Stralman on the second unit during practice Tuesday at Scandinavium. He figures to play at least 90 seconds of a two-minute power play if Team Sweden maintains control of the puck. The other players will change around him if necessary.

"If we can gain possession right away and have the puck in the offensive zone, I think he can play quite a bit longer out there," Gronborg said.

Mattias Ekholm and Hampus Lindholm have been rotating in as Karlsson's defense partner during 5-on-5 drills. Regardless of his partner, Karlsson is expected to play the most 5-on-5 minutes among Team Sweden's defensemen.

While he can't expect to approach 30 minutes per game as he did during the 2015-16 NHL season, but his minutes will match his importance for Team Sweden, both as a skater and as a leader.

"Hopefully it can all connect," Karlsson said.

If it does, Team Sweden will be good enough to compete for the World Cup championship. Karlsson, by the way, never has won an international tournament at any level.

"I have a couple of silvers and a bronze," he said. "I haven't really become a winner yet."

Maybe he'll mature into one this year.

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