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Farjestad familiar with challenges of defending title

by Bill Meltzer
If there's one team in international pro hockey that defines the term "perennial title contender", Farjestads BK Karlstad is the club. The defending champions of Sweden's Elitserien have reached at least the playoff semifinals in each of the last nine seasons. In fact, Farjestad has made it to the finals seven times this decade with three championships to show for it. Even in 2006-07, when the club got tripped up in the semis, FBK finished first during the regular season.

The team, which will face the Swede-heavy NHL powerhouse Detroit Red Wings in an exhibition game on Sept. 30, recently kicked off its latest title defense with a 3-2 home victory over Skelleftea AIK in the 2009-10 Elitserien regular-season opener. Veteran Jesper Mattsson, a former Calgary Flames first-round pick (1993) who never made it to the NHL, helped lead the way with a strong game that included a pair of assists.

The Farjestads BK club that took the ice to defeat SAIK is significantly different from the one that captured the Swedish championship last season. Farjestad has suffered an exceptionally high number of major offseason roster subtractions.

Most notably, team leader and longtime Swedish national team regular Jorgen Jonsson called it a career after 17 pro seasons, 14 of which were spent with Farjestad. Although he'd slowed down the last two seasons, the 37-year-old remained a heart-and-soul player for FBK.

The points Jonsson contributed were always secondary to the example he set on and off the ice. Jonsson, who spent a single season (1999-2000) in the NHL with the New York Islanders and Anaheim Ducks before returning home for good, was one of best two-way players on the international hockey scene. Last season, after tallying just 8 goals and 20 points in the regular season, he contributed 10 points (including 3 goals) in a dozen playoff games.

Farjestad must also carry on without the services of goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. Nicknamed "The Monster," the 24-year-old Gustavsson emerged last season as the most dominant goaltender in Elitserien. He parlayed an outstanding regular season (1.96 goals against average, .932 save percentage) and mind-boggling playoff run (1.06 goals against average, .961 save percentage) into an NHL contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The goaltender's bid to become an NHL starter has been temporarily set back by an irregular heartbeat that required a minor surgical procedure to correct.
Gustavsson's replacement is 25-year-old Henrik Karlsson. At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, Karlsson is even bigger than Gustavsson. Karlsson spent most of last season at the Allsvenskan (top minor league) level with the Malmo IF Redhawks and also dressed in seven Elitserien games for Sodertalje SK. In his regular season debut for Farjestad, Karlsson turned aside 26 of 28 shots by Skelleftea to seal the victory.

In addition to dealing with the losses of Jonsson and Gustavsson, Farjestad has also lost Rickard Wallin, its top scorer from last season. The forward signed a one-year contract to join Gustavsson with the Maple Leafs and appears to have a good chance at winning an opening-night NHL job. Other prominent FBK players to depart for North American play include Mikael Johansson (Montreal Canadiens) Johan Motin (Edmonton Oilers) and Dick Axelsson (Detroit Red Wings).

Meanwhile, former Tampa Bay Lightning draftee Eero Somervuori, is also gone. A good goal-scorer in European play, Somervuori signed with Elitserien rival Brynas during the off-season. Defenseman Martin Seve opted to play instead in the KHL and signed with Dynamo Minsk.

In order to fill some of the holes in the roster, Farjestad has brought in former Nashville Predators left winger Antti Pihlstrom, along with former Columbus Blue Jackets right winger Kent McDonell. Other additions up front for Farjestad include Johan Andersson (formerly with Timra IK) and Dragan Umicevic (late of Sodertalje). On the blue line, FBK has added veteran Sanny Lindstrom (who played last season in Switzerland for Rapperswil-Jona), Fredrik Lindgren (Skelleftea) and Severin Blindenbacher (last with Swiss champion ZSC Lions Zurich).

Although the 25-year-old Pihlstrom struggled to create offense at the NHL level last year, he tallied 27 goals at the American Hockey League level the previous year and was previously a promising young player in Finland's SM-Liiga for SaiPa Lappeenranta. McDonell, 30, played for Skelleftea AIK the last two seasons. Last season, he scored 14 goals and dressed in 55 regular season games. 

McDonell paid an immediate dividend for Farjestad, scoring a goal in the season opener against his former team. Umicevic and center Marcus Paulsson also scored for FBK. The Skelleftea goals came from the sticks of left winger Brad Moran and right winger Johan Forsberg.

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