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Top Shelf: Swedish rearguard revolution

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

I know the last thing you’re looking for in the electronic sports pages is a brain-buster, but let me throw this Scandinavian-based question at you:

Finland is to goalies as Sweden is to:

A) Meatballs

B) Young ladies you wouldn’t mind sharing a cup of coffee with

C) Unassembled furniture that’s just as likely to cause a separation as comfortable seating

D) An emerging crop of NHL defensemen

E) All of the above

If your mental reflexes are anything like mine, you chose ‘C’ the instant your brain confirmed it was being asked a question. But while Swedes are still likely better known for wonderful genetics, meaty appetizers and Ikea, the correct answer is ‘All of the above.’

Don’t believe me? Ask fans in Atlanta and Vancouver what they think of the well-assembled Swedish defensemen who’ve made huge impressions on their teams as rookies this year.

After 48 games as a Thrasher, Tobias Enstrom had more assists (25) than every other rookie except Calder Trophy favorite Patrick Kane of Chicago. His 28 points matches the total number he put up in 55 Swedish League games with Modo last year. Judging by the fact Atlanta nabbed him with the 239th pick in the 2003 draft, big things weren’t really projected for this little guy.

However, being 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds hasn’t prevented Enstrom from being a shrewd power play quarterback capable of carrying the puck up ice with speed and getting it on deadly blades, like those belonging to Messrs. Kovalchuk, Hossa and Kozlov.

In Vancouver, fans are already treated to a brilliant last line of defense. But Roberto Luongo – along with every other player and fan on the West Coast – knows life is a bit less stressful when 6-foot-3, 194-pound Alex Edler is on the blueline.

A third-rounder in 2004, ‘Steady Eddy’ won’t overwhelm anybody with his offense, but he’s proved adept at handling every on-ice situation this year after a 22-game NHL preview last season. And he’s only 21.

So is the guy the Toronto Maple Leafs would like to hear mentioned in the same breath as Edler and Enstrom soon; Anton Stralman.

He’s played just 18 NHL games, but there’s hope – some of it downright legit – amongst Leaf Nation that the smooth-skating Stralman could develop into a player reminiscent of a defender who already wears the blue and white, Tomas Kaberle.

Like his Czech teammate, Stralman’s name wasn’t called at the draft until the building held more janitors and security staff than hopeful hockey players (seventh round in 2005). But he contributed 11 assists in 22 American League games this year, his first in North America, and has shown poise and puck smarts at the big-league level.

While all three rearguards mentioned above definitely arrived in North America sans parade, you can bet the same won’t be said when Victor Hedman takes his first giant step onto NHL ice.

Anybody who watched Sweden’s silver medal-winning entry at the World Junior Championship no doubt noticed the 6-foot-7, 220-pound defenseman who turned 17 just over a month ago and won’t be draft eligible until 2009. When his scary blend of size and skills come into focus, Hedman could be the centerpiece of a full-scale Swedish blueline revolution.

And not a moment too soon.

Two years removed from winning the Olympic gold medal in Turin, the Tre Kronor will be in need of turnover on the back end to avoid too many turnovers come the Vancouver Winter Games of 2010. Of Sweden’s seven defensemen from the ’06 event, only one (Christian Backman) was born after the 1970s.

Despite the fact he’ll be nearly 40 by the next Olympics, superhuman Nicklas Lidstrom will surely still be capable of making an impact on the world stage. The only problem is who’s to say he won’t be traveling the world in his retirement by that point, satisfied with having collected enough Cups, medals and Norris trophies to sink a Viking ship.

New names will be needed on the back end if the Swedes are to defend their title.

The likes of Lidstrom, Mattias Ohlund, Mattias Norstrom and, of course, European trailblazer Borje Salming established quite a legacy of Swedish defenders.

Looks like the bloodlines have reached a new generation of blueliners.

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