After a bittersweet 2011-12 that saw the team finish first during the Swedish Elite League regular season only to lose its first-round playoff series in five games, Lulea HF pledged to add a little more offensive punch without compromising its identity as a club that plays stifling defense. If the early results of the 2012 European Trophy tournament are any indication, coach Jonas Ronnqvist's club is off to solid start in making good on its promise.
Through five European Trophy round-robin games in the eight-team North Division, Lulea is 5-0-0, leading all teams in the tournament with 25 goals while yielding just eight. Coming off his best Elite League season to date, center Niklas Olausson ranks among the tourney's overall scoring leaders with seven points. Left wing Toni Koivisto, a one-time Florida Panthers draft pick entering his second season with Lulea, is tied for the tournament lead with five goals.
In their most recent game, the Bears had relatively little trouble dispatching Czech Extraliga club HC Plzen in a road match at the CEZ Arena in the Bohemian city. After a scoreless and evenly played first period, Lulea surged in the middle period and then added to its lead in the third period to cruise to a 4-1 victory.
Lulea HF's new captain Chris Abbott (left) has compiled six points in five 2012 European Trophy games. The Swedish team sports a perfect 5-0-0 record to date. (Getty Images)
High-scoring new recruit Linus Klasen scored a goal and an assist against Plzen, as did LHF's new team captain Chris Abbott. Veteran winger Karl Fabricius and former NHL defenseman Pavel Skrbek (a new arrival for the 2012-13 season) rounded out the scoring. Goaltender Johan Gustafsson, a Minnesota Wild prospect, turned back 25 of 26 shots.
Lulea's previous victories came at the expense of Czech Extraliga team HC Mountfield Ceske Budejovice (5-2 at Lulea's Coop Arena), Austria's Red Bull Salzburg (7-2 at Coop), Finland's Karpat Oulu (3-1 at Coop) and Czech Extraliga entry HC Kometa Brno (6-2 at Brno's Kajot Arena). The Bears will return to action on Thursday with a return match against Karpat in Oulu.
Lulea lived and died with its defense last season. The club allowed a mere 104 goals (nine fewer than the next-best team) during the 55-game regular season. The airtight defense enabled Ronnqvist's squad to finish first in the standings despite scoring just 2.32 goals per game.
But in its first-round playoff series, Lulea gave up 17 goals in losing to underdog AIK Stockholm in five games. The Bears scored 11 goals in the series, but six came in their opening-game victory. They scored only one goal over the series' final six periods.
As a result, Lulea's management saw the need to try to add some additional scoring the lineup during the offseason while trying to retain much of the core of two-way players who helped to forge its defense-first identity. The team also had to account for the loss of its captain, former Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Niclas Wallin, due to post-concussion issues. Doctors recommended retirement for the 37-year-old Wallin, who suited up in just 33 regular-season games but dressed in all five games of the AIK series. The team hopes that the offseason addition of Skrbek, the re-acquisition of veteran defensive defensemen Fredrik Svensson (whoplayed for AIK last season) and the experienced leadership of holdover veteran Jan Sandstrom will help to hold the blue line intact.
The somewhat surprising addition of the 26-year-old Klasen was Lulea's biggest move of the summer. Described by one NHL Western Conference scout as having "the skills of a poor man's Danny Briere," the diminutive Klasen has proven to be a highly productive scorer in Sweden and at the AHL level but sometimes gets overmatched defensively. Klasen, who averaged nearly a point per game for the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals and dressed in four NHL games in 2010-11, spent this past season with Malmo in Sweden's top minor league. He scored 20 goals and had 50 points in 51 games.
Klasen, 26, most recently played in Elitserien in 2009-10, where he piled up 51 points in 51 games for a poor Sodertalje SK team. A deft puckhandler, he is also adept at hiding out from the defense to emerge in the slot. Olausson led Lulea in scoring last season with 41 points; Simon Hjalmarsson (now with SEL rival Linkoping) topped the squad with 19 goals.
Apart from Klasen, Lulea also added a proven scorer in Finnish veteran Kim Hirschovits. The 30-year-old, who was drafted by but never played for the New York Rangers, is coming off a down season split between the KHL and Finland's SM-liiga but has been a reliable offensive producer for most of his career.
A more under-the-radar addition to the forward lineup: 26-year-old right wing Linus Persson. Although he has only played one game in the Elite League to date, Persson emerged as a top offensive performer at the minor-league level. Last season, Persson scored 19 goals and 51 points in 51 games for BIK Karlskroga. He has one goal in four European Trophy games to date.
Lulea has yet to play the second-place team in the North Division. Eisbaren Berlin of Germany's DEL is also undefeated to date with a 4-0-0 record. Lulea also has yet to play the DEL's Hamburg Freezers; the Bears will visit Hamburg on Sept. 8 for the front end of their home-and-home games. The first game against Eisbaren will not take place until Oct. 23, when Lulea's Bears play host to Berlin's Polar Bears.