The last time Sweden won a medal at an IIHF World Junior
Championship, Bill Clinton was entering his second term as President of
the USA, the Dallas Cowboys were on their way to winning the Super
Bowl, and the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart was leading the way at the box
office. That kind of says it all. Since Tre Kronor’s 1996 silver medal
in Boston, they’ve racked up a string of mediocre results, peaking at
fourth in 1999 and 2001 and bottoming out at eighth in 2003. Last year,
the Swedes came sixth. The low level of achievement is quite remarkable
when you consider how many talented Swedish future NHLers suited up over
this span, including names like Henrik Zetterberg, Robert Nilsson,
Alexander Steen, and Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
Coaching: Torgny Bendelin has a reputation for icing a hard-working, disciplined team. The former coach of Linkoping in the Swedish Elitserien is not afraid to bench his top stars if they’re not playing up to par. Bendelin has coached Sweden through some tough times in recent years, including high-scoring losses, poor play by team leaders, and lacklustre overall efforts. But there’s been a slight amount of improvement over the last three tournaments, as the team has finished eighth, seventh and sixth. Bendelin will be looking for increased consistency from his squad this time around.
Goal: Goaltending has been a downfall for Sweden in recent years, with many losses coming in high-scoring affairs. This year, the hopes of the team may rest upon Magnus Akerlund, a draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes. This season, Akerlund has only played in two games for HV 71 Jonkoping, putting up a 2.89 GAA and a .918 save percentage. He has also played 19 games with IK Nykoping, recording a 3.16 GAA and .894 save percentage. Daniel Larsson, a Hammarby product who partnered with Akerlund on the fifth-place Swedish World U-18 team in 2004, is the other goalie of note.
Defence: 19-year-old Alexander Edler will be a kingpin on the Swedish defence. The 6-4, 207-pound Vancouver Canucks draft pick has been compared to Mattias Ohlund for his strong defensive play and offensive instincts. Edler also adds an element of toughness and physical play to his game. He’s amassed a plus-33 rating with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets this year. Watch out also for Oscar Hedman, a 2004 Washington fifth-rounder who showed strong puck-moving skills at the junior level but has seen his development stall with MoDo, and for Anton Stralman, a 2005 Toronto seventh-rounder.
Forward: Sweden will be led up front by Nicklas Backstrom, whom many have compared to Peter Forsberg. Backstrom is known as an all-round player, combining offensive skill and defensive toughness. He’s also known as a power play specialist. Backstrom has scored four goals and added 10 assists in 30 games for Brynas of the Swedish Elite League. Backstrom is currently projected to be the first Swedish player picked in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Returning this year for Sweden is Johannes Salmonsson, who led the team in scoring during the 2005 tournament with eight points. Salmonsson is a Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick. Another key member of the team will be Nicklas Bergfors, property of the New Jersey Devils and currently playing for the AHL’s Albany River Rats. There, he has scored five goals and added seven assists in 24 games, despite being the youngest player in the league at the start of the season. Fredrik Pettersson will add some much-needed offensive flair for Sweden, which only scored 19 goals in the entire 2005 tournament. This Edmonton Oilers draft pick is currently playing for the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL, where the Gothenburg native has recorded 14 goals and 10 assists in 31 games.
Projected Results: The Swedes may have lost Robert Nilsson, who starred for them at the past two tournaments, but hope’s not lost. Bringing in players like Backstrom and Pettersson to bolster their offence (specifically their power play) will help the team greatly. In the end, though, Sweden’s medal drought will probably continue and they will place somewhere between fourth and sixth. The team is talented and better than its recent predecessors, but it may not be able to handle tough competition from the likes of Canada, the USA, and Russia, in particular.