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Stars prospects hope World Junior experience helps pave path to NHL

After winning the bronze medal with Sweden, Dallas' 2018 draft picks Eriksson and Back have even loftier goals in mind

by Julie Robenhymer @JulieRobenhymer / Special to DallasStars.com

OSTRAVA, Czech Republic -- Dallas Stars prospects Albin Eriksson and Oskar Back didn't leave Czech Republic earlier this month quite as happy as Ty Dellandrea, who took home a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship, but they did leave with a smile on their faces, a bronze medal around their neck and a whole lot of experience that they hope will lead them to the NHL.

After Team Sweden extended their record number of preliminary-round wins to 52, they defeated Czech Republic 5-0 in the quarterfinal, but lost to Russia 5-4 in overtime during the semifinal. That set them up for a bronze medal game against Finland, which they won 3-2. 

"I think it's good that we were able to find the motivation to play a solid game and win the bronze," said Eriksson, who was selected by Dallas in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft. "That wasn't easy, especially after the disappointment of losing to Russia in overtime in the semifinal. That has been the toughest loss of my short career so far, so I'm proud of us and what we accomplished.

"It feels a lot better to have the bronze medal than go home with nothing."

Back, who was selected in the third round of the same draft, said it was nice to finish his junior career with a win.

Tweet from @IIHFHockey: 🚨 And just 15 seconds later, it's Albin Eriksson's turn from centre ice. @trekronorse #WorldJuniors pic.twitter.com/g0NQo0SeIa

"It's not the win we wanted. We wish it was in a different game, but it's still a win and not many guys get to finish their junior career doing that," the 19-year-old centerman said. 

Eriksson, also 19, is known for his large frame, his passion on the ice and his skills with the puck in tight areas. 

"If you look in the Swedish newspapers, he's called a little bit of a bad boy," said Pär Johansson, the Stars' European player development coordinator. "He plays really tough and hard and with a lot of emotion, especially for a Swedish guy. He's learning to use that emotion for good things on the ice and that's why he was able to get on the world junior team. He added a spark.

The 6-foot-4, 207-pound winger has worked hard on harnessing his competitive spirit and has even stopped playing two-touch before the games because of it. 

"I play with a lot of attitude. That's my game, but I need to calm down before the games," he said with a laugh. "I get so into it and I give it my all because I'm so competitive and I want to win at everything and then I play the games and I'm just exhausted. So, I decided it's best to save all my energy for the game. Now, I only play soccer on practice days."

Eriksson's winning mentality is what helps him be so successful on the ice, especially when he's battling for position in front of the net or along the boards. He simply doesn't give up in his pursuit of the puck and then has the skills to make something out of nothing.

"He's a big strong guy and he handles the puck really good," Johansson said. "He needs to improve his first couple steps. He has really good hands in and around the net and along the boards, but if he can get a little more explosiveness he can get away from an opponent and be able to create even more scoring chances.

"He's a goal scorer and could be that second- or third-liner that can score and be on the power play, but he has a little more to go," he continued. "He's really good with the puck, but he needs a better understanding of the defensive side of the game. In today's hockey, you need to do all the small things right and then you'll have the freedom to do things offensively."

Back is also known for being big and strong, but more so on the defensive side of the puck. 

"I've seen him play in the men's league 10-15 times and at world juniors and there's not a single stride wrong in his defense," Johansson said of the 6-foot-2, 198 pound centerman. "He's always in the right position and it's his first year playing pro here and he plays in every situation. They're not afraid to play him with two minutes left and up a goal. He's doing the small things right.


"People might not notice him much, but all the coaches love him because he's so effective and it's been like that since he was 16."

Back describes himself as a strong two-way center who is good at faceoffs, killing penalties and working hard to help the team win using his strength and vision on the ice. 

At nearly 60 percent, he was one of the best faceoff guys in the tournament while taking majority of his draws in the defensive zone.

"When I saw him play against players his own age, he was dominating," Johansson said. "He's been really good in the men's league here, so I can't say I was surprised, but to see him against his own age … he's really, really good."

"He could become one of those really reliable third or fourth line centers that could play for a team however long his body will hold up." he continued. "He's going to work hard, play (penalty kill) and lead a shutdown line. He's just going to be one of those guys that can play forever."

 

[GOLD STANDARD: World Junior Championship another promising step for Dellandrea]

 

Knowing that his strengths are on the defensive side of the puck, Johansson said he's not necessarily looking for Back to produce more offensively, but would like him to realize that he can do more than just shut guys down. 

"We saw a little bit at world juniors -- he had a goal and an assist -- that he can play with skilled players and be really effective on the offensive side of the game, too." he said. "If he can bring that to the men's level, he could be on a third line with good wingers and sweeping up the mistakes from them and doing all he dirty stuff and the hard work and really helping that line produce. He has that potential."

For both players, the opportunity to represent their country on such a big stage and get better through the experience is something they hope they can rely on as their respective club teams in the SHL work their way into the postseason, but the biggest thing they take away from this year's World Junior Championship is confidence. 

"Most of the time we play with guys that are 30 and grownups, and we're still just kids and still learning and growing and finding our game," Eriksson explained. "So it's good for us to compete with guys that are the same age and make the same mistakes and it helps you have a better idea of where you're at instead of comparing yourself to someone who's three, four, five, 10 years ahead of you. It's a little boost of confidence."

"I'm feeling really good about my game right now and I hope I can put pressure on my coach back home to give me more ice time. I want to keep getting better and continue to work hard and make it to the NHL. I just want to keep going."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Julie Robenhymer is a contributor to DallasStars.com. Follow her on Twitter @JulieRobenhymer.

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