Sweden has long been able to produce its share of offensive stars. With the likes of Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin, the Swedish teams of the 1990s were as offensively gifted as any, and those clubs begat squads in the 2000s led by Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Backstrom.
But the Swedish teams of the past also featured Nicklas Lidstrom, one of the greatest defensemen to ever play the game. Lidstrom inspired a new generation of defender, and if Sweden challenges for a medal at the World Cup, it will be on the strength of their stable of blueliners.
Sweden’s 16-man roster named Wednesday boasts an excellent mix of offensive and defensive skill paired with veteran and youth talent. It reads not like a list of Norris Trophy vote-getters or a group built by way of forced trades in a video game. And this isn’t a defense assembled only to shutdown the opposition, either, though they will be adept at that. Sweden’s rearguards will turn away attacks and make opposing defenses pay the price for any lapses on their part.
Offensively, the Swedish blueline will be no doubt led by defending Norris winner and top defensive scorer Erik Karlsson. He’ll be joined by Oliver Ekman-Larsson, fourth in scoring by blueliners, who is turning heads this season with his play in Arizona. With those two alone, Sweden will boast a one-two punch of power play quarterbacks that will rival any team in the tournament. Both Ekman-Larsson and Karlsson are going to have every opportunity to motor up the ice, too, given the Swedish club can form pairings that will offer both the defensive coverage they need.
For pure defense, the Swedish team will turn to Niklas Kronwall, who will be the defense’s veteran leader and heart of the Swedish blueline but no longer will he be the go-to guy. Kronwall will make his impact with his body, not his feet or his stick. In the same vein, offenses will have to get through Niklas Hjalmarsson.
The Blackhawks defenseman is one of the most underrated rearguards in the league in large part because he’s overshadowed in Chicago by Duncan Keith. Hjalmarsson won’t find his name on the score sheet often, but he’s a defensive specialist and outstanding penalty killer. He gives the Swedish blueline a true shutdown guy and pairing him with a Karlsson or Ekman-Larsson could make for one of the World Cup’s best units.
"You can't only look at having very skilled offensive defensemen," said Swedish general manager Tommy Boustedt. "You need some guys to block shots and shut down the opponent's best line, as well. We have players that can do that, too. And we have very offensive defensemen like Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson."
All of this is without even mentioning Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, a ready-made pairing coming straight from the Tampa Bay Lightning to the World Cup. Familiarity between the two make Hedman and Stralman a perfect top-four pairing, and they have all the speed, skill and defensive acumen to play anywhere coach Rikard Gronborg wants to line them up.
So good is this Swedish defense that you may notice one glaring omission: Dallas’ John Klingberg. The Stars’ standout didn’t make the initial cut even though he’s third in scoring by defensemen, trailing only Karlsson and Brent Burns. That said, there’s still a chance Klingberg makes the roster come June 1 when the complete roster is announced.
"These six players have played many important games in the playoffs, World Championships, Olympics and so on," said Boustedt. "It would be a tough run for that seventh defense spot. John Klingberg is one very strong contender for that seventh spot, but I think so far we have picked the best six defenders when you're building a team."
As if beating that defense isn’t enough, though, offenses will also be tasked with finding holes in Henrik Lundqvist, who posted a 1.50 goals-against average and .943 save percentage at the 2014 Olympic games en route to an all-star selection. Backing up Lundqvist will be Jacob Markstrom as the Canucks netminder gets the call over Eddie Lack and Robin Lehner.
The usual suspects are there up front, with the Sedin twins, Zetterberg and Backstrom chosen to lead the way while the next generation of Swedish forwards, including Filip Forsberg and Gabriel Landeskog, will seek to make their mark. But even if there are some aging point producers on offense, it won’t matter much. Sweden’s World Cup will be won or lost on the play of their blueliners.