ST. CATHARINES, ONT. -- Every NHL team tries to find the perfect blend of blueliners that can generate offense and play strong defense. The Dallas Stars may have just that in a few years with a pair of countrymen who will don the "Tre Kronor" for Team Sweden at the upcoming IIHF 2011 World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo, N.Y.
Prospects Patrik Nemeth
and John Klingberg
stand on opposite ends of the defenseman spectrum. Nemeth, the Stars second-round pick in 2010 (41st overall) is a rock-solid, stay-at-home, 6-foot-4, 212-pound bruising defenseman that likes to play physical, especially in the corners and in front of his own net.
Klingberg, Dallas' fifth-round selection in 2010, is a swift and heady, flash and dash, 6-foot-1, 172-pound puck-moving defenseman that likes to get up the ice in a hurry to help create scoring chances.
The two 18-year-olds will be an integral part in Sweden's attempt to overcome its bridesmaid status in the tournament that kicks off Sunday. The country that has produced NHL star players like Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Daniel Alfredsson, Mats Sundin, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Dallas' own Loui Eriksson
has won 14 medals in the Under-20 tournament that began in 1977, but only one time (1981) has it been able to net gold.
Last year, Sweden won bronze in Saskatoon after capturing back-to-back silver medals in 2008 and '09.
"I think we're looking good," Klingberg said. "We know how Canada and the U.S. play, so our chances are pretty good."
Sweden head coach Roger Ronnberg also believes his team has what it takes to upend the defending champion United States squad as well as hold off the loaded Canadian team. Canada had captured five straight gold medals in the tournament until falling to Dallas' No. 1 draft pick Jack Campbell
and the U.S. club in the gold-medal game last year.
"I think the expectation is that we should grab a medal, but the goal for the team is to grab the gold," he said. "If other people see us as the underdog they can do it, but inside the team we have a strong belief in ourselves. We have a really fast team, and we have the best skaters that I've ever seen on a team before. It's a crazy-fast team.
"We want to pressure the opponent all the time. We want to play with a high forecheck, we want to force the opponent away from the puck, and force them to make mistakes with the puck on their breakout. That's going to be our game plan."
A big part of that up-tempo approach will be Klingberg, who'll be responsible for making sure the Swedes can run-n-gun starting in their own zone.
"He's a skillful defenseman," Ronnberg said. "He's really good carrying the puck and is very smart with it."
Sweden captain Anton Lander, Edmonton's 2009 second-round pick (40th overall) says that Klingberg reminds him of fellow Swedish defenseman Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators. The 6-foot, 175-pound Karlsson was the Senators' first-round pick in 2008 (15th overall), and had a steady rookie campaign last year when he garnered five goals and 26 points in 60 games.
This year, Karlsson, 20, has stepped up his game immensely. Through Ottawa's first 35 games he's already potted six goals -- including two on the power play -- and his 20 points rank second on the team behind only Alfredsson's 22.
"They both like to play the same style," Lander said about Klingberg and Karlsson. "They're both good on the blue line taking shots, they both love skating, and they are both good at passing the puck."
Klingberg will also have a close ally guiding him as the 11-day tourney rolls along. His brother Carl is a 19-year-old forward that is making his second-straight tournament appearance for Sweden.
"He's given me some good advice," John said about Carl. "He told me the game is much faster here, so I need to make my plays with the puck much faster to get our offense moving up the ice."
Nemeth, meanwhile, prefers his game to be a bit more on the rugged side. In Sweden's pre-tournament game on Tuesday against Canada in Toronto, he was whistled for three of Sweden's 10 minor penalties in a 4-1 loss. Though it was a bitter defeat against a team that Sweden will be grouped with in Buffalo, Ronnberg took a lot out of the contest.
"We think the main thing that we have to do is to play with discipline," he said. "We saw playing Canada that we had a problem sitting in the box all night, so we can't play without discipline in the tournament. We have to control the emotions, and control the energy, but still compete hard."
Ironically, the love of competition may force Nemeth to the sidelines for Sweden's opening-game Sunday against Norway. During an intense five-on-five forechecking drill during Wednesday's practice in St. Catharines, Nemeth fell hard and awkwardly into the right-corner boards, and favored his right leg as he skated off the ice for treatment.
If Nemeth is on the shelf for any length of time, it would be a blow to Sweden's back end.
"He's just a huge defenseman that plays strong around the net," Ronnberg said. "He's hard to beat on one-on-one battles and he's strong on the puck. He's a top-class defenseman, and such a good kid. He works so hard for the team and his teammates. His presence on the ice is one of his best attributes. He's always competing, he wins a lot of battles along the boards, and that's what makes him such a good team player."
Sweden also possesses two electric players who should be first-round picks in the 2011 draft. Defenseman Adam Larsson is currently the No. 1 rated draft prospect among Swedish players according to NHL Central Scouting, and Gabriel Landeskog, who plays for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, is currently the No. 1 forward in the OHL's preliminary draft rankings, and is just the second European-born player to be a captain for an OHL club.
The team also boasts 6-foot-4 behemoth goalie Robin Lehner, who was loaned to Sweden from Ottawa earlier in the month. Lehner had been playing for the Senators' AHL team in Binghamton, N.Y.
Sweden also received a pep talk prior to leaving Stockholm last weekend from the future Hall of Famer Sundin, who captained the country's 2006 Gold-Medal winning Olympic team.
Still, the Swedes will have a tough road to navigate if they want to capture their first gold medal in nearly 30 years, as it is grouped with 15-time champion Canada and 12-time champ Russia along with Norway and the Czech Republic.
Lander believes the prolific pool of teams, though, could in fact be just what his team needs to end the gold drought.
"Our goal is to win the tournament, so if you're going to win the tournament you have to beat all of the teams," he said. "So it's good to be in a group where the teams are really good. We'll see what happens."Sweden's schedule:
Dec. 26 vs. Norway: 3 pm CT at Dwyer Arena, Niagara University, Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Dec. 28 vs. Russia: 6 pm CT at Dwyer Arena, Niagara University, Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Dec. 30 vs. Czech Republic: 2 pm CT at Dwyer Arena, Niagara University, Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Dec. 31 vs. Canada: 3 pm CT at HSBC Arena, Buffalo N.Y.IIHF-U20 World Junior Championship Schedule