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Swedes showing some youthful exuberance

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com

Johan Motin will play a key role on the Swedish blueline.
For all of the international success Team Sweden has had, the Swedes have not fared particularly well at the World Junior Championships. The Junior Crowns have only won one gold medal (1981) in the tournament's 34-year history and have not won a single medal since grabbing a surprise silver in 1996.

The primary reason for the drought has been a lack of scoring depth. The recent Swedish rosters have usually been defensively sound, but there have rarely been more than a handful of players in a given year capable of reliably finishing scoring chances.

Last year's Swedish entry entered the tournament seemingly poised to grab a medal on home ice. The team, featuring the likes of team captain Nicklas Backstrom (now with the Washington Capitals), Nashville Predators prospect Patric Hornqvist and highly regarded St. Louis Blues hopeful Patrik Berglund, figured to have more high-end firepower than most previous entries. But the Swedes played unevenly in the tournament and ultimately fell just short of a medal.

Berglund returns this year and enters the tournament as the Junior Crowns' marquee offensive forward. But several of the top long-range prospects on the roster are players who were born in 1989 and beyond. As a result, some observers predict that Sweden will be a more formidable medal contender next year in Calgary than it is this time around.

Even so, the Swedes are capable of winning a medal in the Czech Republic. The Junior Crowns figure to receive strong enough defense and goaltending to stay close in games, and there are some underrated offensive players on the roster.  
 
Leadership

Par Marts has replaced Torgny Bendelin as Sweden's new Under-20 national team head coach. The 54-year-old former Elitserien coach of the year (2003-04 with league champion HV 71 Jonkoping) signed a three-year contract in March with the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation (SIF).

"This is exactly the type of exciting challenge I need after leaving club team hockey behind. It's a good opportunity to take over after Bendelin's ambitious work to build the program," Marts said in a statement released by SIF at the time he accepted the post.

Marts will be working with an exceptionally young group of players in a tournament that is typically dominated by 19-year-olds.

The roster includes 18-year-olds Mikael Backlund (the Calgary Flames first-round pick in the 2007 Entry Draft), Joakim Andersson, and Oscar Moller. There's also top 2008 draft-eligible defense prospect Johan Motin, and highly touted 2009 Entry Draft candidates Victor Hedman (who just turned 17) and Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi, who, at 16, is the youngest player ever named to Sweden's Under-20 Worlds roster.

Motin and Hedman will play key roles on the Swedish blueline. Backlund, who has excelled at the Swedish Under-20 level but come around slowly at the Allsvenskan (top Swedish minor league) level is an X-factor up front. Paajarvi may not receive a lot of ice time this year, but is considered a potential future superstar. He's already playing in Elitserien for Timra IK after tearing up the U-20 SuperElit level at the start of the season.

As a returning player and key offensive contributor, Berglund will have to be an on-ice leader for the Swedes. Support may also come from 2007 draftees Joakim Andersson (Detroit Red Wings third-rounder) and Moller (Los Angeles Kings second-round pick). The gritty Moller is considered a leader by example and Andersson is regarded as a mature, take-charge player for someone his age.

For this year's tourney, Team Sweden has taken four players currently playing in the CHL or NCAA. Generally speaking, the Swedes try to discourage young players from leaving their home junior and pro leagues. But they also recognize that their primary objective in the WJC is to field the most competitive team possible, no matter where the players are playing during the season.

"The Swedes want to have their most talented roster out there," says Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren. "They might prefer to use players who have stayed in their home league, but they took (Flyers prospect Mario Kempe and a few other guys who are playing over here."

Forwards

The smooth-skating, highly skilled Berglund has emerged as a fine offensive player for Allsvenskan club Vasteras IK, and earned a long preseason look from the St. Louis Blues before returning home for an additional year of development. In 15 games for VIK, he's already scored 10 goals. He's also tallied four goals in seven preparation games with the Swedish U-20 squad.

Backlund, a VIK teammate of Berglund, seems to be on a slower development track. While he's dominated at the SuperElit level and been solid (five points in seven games) in WJC prep games with the national team, he's struggled offensively at the Allsvenskan level. Against junior competition, he can use his speed and creativity effectively. He played a strong U-18 World Championships for the Swedes earlier this year.

Jhonas Enroth leads all Elitserien goaltenders with a .924 save percentage and 2.26 goals-against average.

CHL players Moller and Kempe will be counted on to help carry the offensive load. Both players give up some size, but demonstrate "North American style" games in terms of their nose for the net. Originally a Djurgarden product, Moller (23 goals, 37 points in 28 games with Chilliwack this season) is not a great skater but he's got excellent awareness on the ice and is surprisingly hard to take off the puck. Former Modo junior player Kempe (15 goals, 26 points in 27 Quebec League games for St. John's) has tremendous speed and soft hands, and is at his best in open ice. He is also willing to crash the net, but can be neutralized by big, mobile defenders.

University of Michigan freshman Carl Hagelin, 19, was drafted by the New York Rangers in the fourth round of last year's draft. Originally a Sodertalje SK junior product, he was a fine assist man at the Swedish U-20 level and has 12 points (five goals) in his first 18 NCAA games. He's strong along the boards and can draw penalties on the opposition with his speed. In four Junior Crowns prep games, he's logged one point.

New York Islanders prospect Robin Figren (the 70th overall pick of the 2006 draft) is coming back from a wrist injury that forced him to miss several recent games. He was the final cut from the Swedish roster last year. He came along slowly in the Western Hockey League last season after transferring from the Frolunda Indians system. This year, he's shown improved confidence and productivity (12 goals, 22 points in 23 games). His role on Marts' roster remains to be seen.

Andersson, a Frolunda Indians prospect who has been on loan to Allsvenskan club Boras HC, is sometimes compared to Anaheim Ducks shutdown center Samuel Pahlsson in terms of his playing style and future potential. Andersson has some offensive ability and is a good passer. He's done surprisingly well as a rookie Allsvenskan player (16 points in 21 games) but his future is probably as a checker. He lacks top-notch speed and doesn't have an overpowering shot.

Jonas Alcen, a seventh-round choice of the Colorado Avalanche this past June, has utterly dominated at the U-20 level for Brynas IF (11 goals, 19 points in six games) and, as a result, has earned a roster spot in the Elitserien (six points in his first 15 games). Some scouts have called him one of the potential sleepers on the Swedish roster this year.

Chicago Blackhawks prospect Tony Lagerstrom (a third-rounder in 2006) has had a solid second season at the Allsvenskan level so far this year. He's currently on loan from Sodertalje to Huddinge IK. In 10 prep games with Sweden's U-20 team this year, he's mostly played a checking-line role.

At last year's tournament, there were several pleasant surprises on the Swedish roster among players who had not yet been drafted into the NHL. In particular, shifty little Linus Omark and Patrik Zackrisson stood out, earning themselves late-round draft selections by the Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks, respectively.  

This time around, watch for undrafted 19-year-old Tobias Forsberg (no relation to Peter). He has struggled for Elitserien ice time with Modo and, subsequently, has been loaned to Allsvenskan club Björklöven. But he's torn it up at the Under-20 level, with eight goals and 14 points in 10 games for Modo's top junior club. For the Junior Crowns, he was the leading goal-scorer at the Four Nations U-20 tournament in Vaasa, Finland, scoring four goals in six games.

In future WJC tournaments, the Swedes will undoubtedly rely heavily on Svensson-Pääjärvi. His inclusion on this year's final roster came as something of a surprise, due to his age. He had a nifty assist in his Elitserien debut, but has not registered a point since. Even so, the 16-year-old has not looked out of place competing among adult pros and has been dominant against Swedish and other European junior opponents under the age of 20. But the WJC is a whole different animal. This year, he stands to gain valuable experience.

Defense

Players such as St. Louis Blues prospect Jonas Junland, Chicago Blackhawks hopeful Niklas Hjalmarsson and Phoenix Coyotes draftee Jonas Ahnelov are no longer available to play for the Junior Crowns. This time around, the Swedes feature a younger group with arguably higher potential at the top.

Heading into the tournament, the two players who will attract the most attention on the Junior Crowns' blueline are Modo Hockey's Hedman and Motin of Farjestads BK. Motin is currently on loan to Allsvenskan team Bofors IK).

Hedman, who celebrated his 17th birthday earlier this week, is already a regular Elitserien starter for Modo and has excelled at the junior level, both domestically and internationally. He's hard to miss because of his combination of imposing size (he stands 6-5 and weighs 220 pounds), staggering mobility for such a big man and deftness with the puck. Hedman has high-end potential as a two-way defenseman, although his offensive game may take a little longer to emerge at the Elitserien level and beyond.

Motin is pretty much strictly defensive-minded and he has the mentality of a shutdown defenseman. He hates getting scored against when he's on the ice, and has provided solid defense even against professional-grade competition.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Kings prospect Niclas Andersen (a fourth-rounder in the 2006 draft) brings an element of nastiness to the table that one does not stereotypically associate with Swedish defensemen. He's impossible to intimidate and often riles opposing players. His main weaknesses have been his skating ability, positioning and tendency to take ill-timed penalties. However, he has improved across the board. Originally a product of the Leksands IF system, he is now signed to Brynas.

Oscar Eklund (Djurgarden) fits more in the classic Swedish defenseman mold: positionally sound and mobile, but not particularly physical or offensive-minded.

Kristofer Berglund of IF Bjorkloven is a skilled passer who sees time in power-play situations. He's racked up seven helpers for the U-20 team in 10 prep games this year, and has 10 assists in 21 Allsvenskan games this year after compiling 22 helpers and 26 points in 30 games at the U-20 level last year.

Timra junior defenseman Eric Moe has, at times, shown a good point shot, as has Brtnas' Jonathan Carlsson, who is on loan to IF Björklöven).

Goaltending

Last year, Frolunda goaltender Joel Gistedt handled the bulk of the WJC goaltending duties for Sweden on his way to being selected by the Phoenix Coyotes in the second of the 2007 Entry Draft. Buffalo Sabres prospect Jhonas Enroth (second-round pick in 2006) of Sodertalje SK appeared in three games.

Enroth returns this season in the midst of a strong season for a weak SSK club. In 17 starts to date -- Bjorn Burling has appeared in 13 games -- Enroth has fashioned a .924 save percentage and 2.26 goals-against average to lead all Elitserien goaltenders.

While he's not very big compared to most goaltenders nowadays, Enroth is tough to beat moving laterally. Shooters often try to go up high on the butterfly stylist only to find his glove there to make the stop.

In most years, New York Islanders prospect Stefan Ridderwall (Djurgardens IF) would be Sweden's undisputed No. 1 goaltender heading in the tournament. Drafted in the sixth round of the 2006 Entry Draft, Ridderwall is more of a hybrid stylist than a pure butterfly goalie. 

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