Sweden hasn’t brought home a best-on-best title in 10 years. It’s a trend that could end if Henrik Lundqvist gets some help from his friends.
- Sunday, Sept. 18 vs. Russia
- Tuesday, Sept. 20 vs. Finland
- Wednesday, Sept. 21 vs. North America
IIHF World Ranking: 5th
THN’s Prediction: 2nd
It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since Sweden dominated the hockey world. The Swedes captured Olympic and World Championship gold in 2006, but there’s only been one first-place finish since, at the 2013 worlds. Don’t be surprised to see them scale the summit in Toronto.
Sweden’s roster is loaded with top-end talent. It starts in goal with Henrik Lundqvist, who’s proven he can carry a club to dizzying heights. The last time Lundqvist suited up for the Tre Kronor at a major event, the 2014 Games, he was their star, going 5-1 with a 1.50 goals-against average and .943 SP in six games as Sweden advanced to the gold medal match. On the downside, if Lundqvist falters, all bets are off. Backups Jacob Markstrom and Robin Lehner don’t scream World Cup championship.
Nicklas Backstrom joins Lundqvist in the elite-level stratosphere. The slick center was forced out of Sweden’s gold-medal game against Canada in Sochi because an allergy medication caused a positive drug test. That should give him added incentive to exact revenge. Backstrom’s presence gives Sweden an answer to opponents’ top two-way centers.
The only soft spot up front are the depth players who may not be able to keep up with their most-skilled teammates. Marcus Kruger, for example, is a curious choice. He’s a solid player, but doesn’t come to mind when you’re thinking best-on-best event. That’s especially true when the likes of Gustav Nyquist and Mika Zibanejad will watch from home. Kruger’s inclusion has more to do with killing penalties than anything, and he’s a tremendous possession player. In that sense, it appears advanced statistics are starting to weigh in on international roster selections.
Sweden figures to be stout defensively. They arguably caught a break when Niklas Kronwall went down with an injury. The 35-year-old Detroit Red Wings blueliner showed signs of slowing over the course of 2015-16, but he’s been replaced by the younger, speedier Hampus Lindholm.
The most troubling thing about Sweden’s roster is team speed. Certain players – Erik Karlsson and Carl Hagelin, for instance – jump off the page as drag racers who can skate with the world’s best. But overall, this team wouldn’t win a track meet. They’ll need to force the opposition to play their game, something they’ve been adept at doing over the years.
NIKLAS HJALMARSSON of the Chicago Blackhawks’ is one of the most underrated defenders in the league. There’s not much flash to his game, but few defensemen are as reliable in their own end as Hjalmarsson, who will be asked to play a shutdown role for the Tre Kronor. Only nine defensemen skated more shorthanded minutes than Hjalmarsson in 2015-16. And his plus-64 in the four seasons since the lockout ranks No. 3 league-wide among defensemen.
In terms of speed and skill, the Swedish blueline is stacked. Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, in particular, are offensive thoroughbreds on the back end who bring a frightening dimension to an already powerful team. Victor Hedman is also a Norris Trophy threat who can control the game at both ends of the ice. If this crew decides to jump into the rush frequently, they could overwhelm even the best defensive units.