During the course of the past two years, AIK Stockholm's professional hockey team has gone from a barely surviving relic of past glories to one of European hockey's most compelling Cinderella stories.
As the stretch drive of the Elitserien's 2011-12 regular season approaches, AIK is in the thick of the chase for its second playoff berth in as many seasons since returning from nearly a decade-long relegation from the Eliteserien.
Merely competing for the playoffs may not sound like much for a once-storied franchise that has won the LeMat Trophy seven times as Swedish champions (both before and after the creation of Elitserien) and were runner-up six additional times. But AIK Stockholm is a team that was in financial ruin not that long ago.
The franchise's hockey division rose from its ashes to once again ice a competitive team.
With his plus-14 rating at even strength, Robert Rosen currently ranks fourth in Elitserien. (Photo: Getty Images)
Much of the focus during the past year has been on the play of AIK goaltender Viktor Fasth. The 29-year-old career minor leaguer came out of nowhere last year to backstop his underdog team into the postseason, author a monumental first-round playoff sweep of prohibitive favorite in HV 71 Jönköping, win the Honken Trophy (Elitserien's version of the Vezina Trophy) and earn a spot on the Swedish national team at the 2011 World Championships. Fasth has continued his strong play thus far in 2011-12.
But, the emergence of Fasth has somewhat overshadowed the development of two other longtime minor leaguers who've blossomed to play key roles on AIK: center Robert Rosen and winger Richard Gynge.
Both players currently rank among the league's top five scorers, and their offensive prowess has been the biggest factor in why the team has scored the fifth-most goals in the 12-team league. Gynge's 20 goals lead all players in the league while Rosen's 24 assists and 37 points place second respectively to Färjestad's Mikael Johansson
(25 assists) and Modo's Nicklas Danielsson
Gynge, who will turn 25 on Feb. 1, is in his third season with AIK after a couple of cups of coffee at the Elitserien level with Brynäs IF Gävle. Offensive success is nothing new to him. As a teenager, the native of Stockholm tore up the 2002 TV-Puck tournament (5 goals and 11 points in eight games at the 2002 tourney) and later led all J20 SuperElit players in goals (31), assists (39) and points (70 in 39 games) while a member of the Hammarby IF junior program.
While few doubted his shooting ability, Gynge was often knocked as a player who lacked defensive ability and was just an average skater. Despite decent size (6-foot-1, 196 pounds), he is first and foremost an offensive player. Gynge played in 10 Elitserien games for Brynäs during parts of two seasons but primarily worked on loan to Allsvenskan (minor league) clubs.
Joining AIK in 2009-10, Gynge emerged as one of the top young threats in Allsvenskan. He racked up 28 goals and 52 points in 51 games during the regular season and then added four goals in 10 games during the postseason qualification series to earn a promotion to Elitserien. Along with his team, Gynge returned to the Eliteserien last season.
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In his first full Elitserien campaign, Gynge displayed flashes of his scoring ability but was also prone to slumps against a higher grade of competition. His 12 goals and 23 points during the regular season was followed by a quiet playoffs (one point in eight games). During the summer and during training camp, Gynge worked to add stamina and lower-body strength while focusing on improving his all-round game. It has paid off in a stellar campaign for coach Roger Melin
"Richard is our most serious player," Melin told Swedish newspaper Expressen. "He's very careful about attention to detail, and it's paying off."
The coach's decision to place Gynge on a line with Rosen and Oscar Steen has been beneficial to all three players. In particular, Rosen's playmaking prowess and the right-handed shooting Gynge's ability to get open and snap shots upstairs skating down his off-wing has given opposing netminders fits.
"It's easy to play with [Rosen], because he will find you with the puck," said Gynge.
This season is the 24-year-old Rosen's first with AIK. Last year, he made his Elitserien debut with Modo, showing flashes of potential (11 goals, 33 points in 55 games) for a team that narrowly missed relegation. As with Gynge, during his formative years as a player, there was as much talk about the things Rosen lacked (size, explosive straight-ahead speed) as the skills he possesses.
Rosen painstakingly climbed the Swedish minor-league ladder one rung at a time. He started with Division II club Alvesta SK in 2003-04, moved up to Division I team Osby IK in 2005-06 and then joined the Växjo Lakers (then an Allsvenskan team) the same season. After racking up 57 points in 52 games for the Lakers in 2009-10, he finally got his crack at the Elite League and hasn't looked back.
"Robert has very good hockey sense, and he anticipates the play well," said Melin. "We feel comfortable using him in different situations and he's done a good job."
With his plus-14 rating at even strength, Rosen currently ranks fourth in Elitserien in that category. Opposing teams have only scored 20 even-strength goals when he's been on the ice. In addition, Rosen ranks among the top-10 faceoff men in the league, winning 55.7 percent of his draws.
Gynge and Rosen are the only two AIK players to have reached double-digit goals this season, although right winger Oscar Ahlstrom is just one away. Through the first 38 games of the regular season, AIK is in ninth place, one point behind arch rival Djurgårdens IF Stockholm for the final playoff berth. Both teams have 17 games remaining on the schedule, including head-to-head derbies on Jan. 26 and Feb. 16.