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Leksand Stars lead Allsvenskan pack in Sweden

by Bill Meltzer
Unlike North American hockey, most European hockey leagues feature potential promotions and relegations at the end of each season.

In Sweden, the top league is called Elitserien and the highest minor league is known as Allsvenskan. At the conclusion of the season, the top four teams from the 14-team Allsvenskan circuit and the two bottom-dwelling clubs from the 12-team elite league meet in a double round-robin tournament. The top two finishers play in the elite league the following season, while the other four have to play the next season in Allsvenskan for another chance at promotion.

Three of the top four clubs in Allsvenskan this season are teams that have spent large portions of their history in the elite league, although they've had trouble getting over the hump in recent years. First-place Leksands IF (also known as the Leksand Stars) is used to reaching the qualification tourney and often is packed with talent and Elitserien (and sometimes even NHL) experience. However, the team has had a recent history of peaking too early and stumbling in the Elitserien playoffs.

With 50 points, Leksand has a two-point edge over the Vaxjo Lakers and a seven-point advantage over AIK Stockholm and the IF Malmo Redhawks. Like Leksand, AIK and Malmo once were fixtures in the elite league, but fell from grace.

Leksand has received outstanding goaltending this season from 19-year-old rookie Joacim Eriksson. To date, he ranks third in the league with a 2.25 goals-against average, while his .931 save percentage ranks second only to former Montreal Canadiens draftee Christopher Heino-Lindberg of AIK. Eriksson and Heino-Lindberg are tied for the league lead with four shutouts. Eriksson, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect, was chosen in the seventh round (No. 196) of the 2007 Entry Draft.

"Eriksson needed a chance to play more this season. He has good size (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) and athleticism and we have high hopes for him in the future," Philadelphia general manager Paul Holmgren said in mid-October.

Eriksson is a product of the Brynas IF development system. Unfortunately for him, so is top Florida Panthers prospect Jacob Markstrom, who is the same age. Eriksson often has been stuck in a backup role to Markstrom. As a result, NHL scouts did not see enough of Eriksson to rate him higher in his draft year.

Eriksson ended up playing an extra season with Brynas' Under-20 junior team last season because he was blocked in the elite league by his more celebrated comrade. In addition to starting for the Brynas U-20 team, Eriksson backed up Markstrom in 13 Elitserien games last season but did not see a minute of action. Although Leksand's senior team plays at a lower level than Brynas' senior team, the move this season has afforded Eriksson the chance to play against men in a professional league.

At the other end of the spectrum for Leksand is the club's leading scorer, Pelle Prestberg. A one-time late-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks (No. 233, 1998), the 34-year-old Prestberg spent 11 seasons in Elitserien -- primarily with Farjestads BK -- prior to signing with Leksand last year. A season ago, Prestberg had 30 goals and 61 points in 39 Allsvenskan games. This season, he ranks second in Allsvenskan with 12 goals and 27 points in his first 23 games. Only Orebro HK center Henrik Lowdahl (11 goals, 29 points) has scored at a higher clip.

At the conclusion of the Allsvenskan regular season, the top six finishers play a qualification round to eliminate two clubs. The remaining four advance to play for the right to compete in Elitserien the following season. If the Elitserien season ended today, Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund's Modo Hockey Ornskoldsvik team and Sodertalje SK would be the teams forced to re-qualify for Elitserien in 2010-11.

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