The World Cup of Hockey is going to be kicking off soon, as the opening match between Team USA and Team Europe on Sept. 17 draws closer and closer.
The team rosters have been set for quite some time, but Team Sweden was recently forced to make changes as veteran blueliner Niklas Kronwall withdrew from the competition due to injuries. Hampus Lindholm is going to be replacing him.
This is huge news for Team Sweden, mainly because Niklas Kronwall never should have been selected to the roster in the first place.
In his prime, Kronwall was a superb shut-down defender known for leveling opponents with impressive body-checks. There’s no denying that Kronwall would have been one of Sweden’s best six defenseman back then, but years have past, and at the age of 35, the veteran defender just isn’t as effective as he used to be.
We can see this in the decline of his influence on shot attempt metrics. While playing on the insanely talented Detroit Red Wings teams of the late 2000s, Kronwall’s unblocked shot attempts percentage often hovered above 55 percent.
With him on the ice, the Red Wings averaged more than 50 percent of the unblocked shot attempts and more than 50 percent of the goals from 2008-2014 (except 2012-13, when Kronwall’s goals for percentage was 48.3 percent). Even in the lockout shortened season, when Kronwall’s goals for percentage was below 50 percent, the Red Wings outshot their opposition with Kronwall on the ice, showing that he still had an influence on shot attempts.
Father Time strikes fast, and strikes hard. The next two seasons, the Red Wings struggled with Kronwall on the ice, with both of his on-ice ratings dropping below 50 percent. In 2015-16, Kronwall had an unblocked shot attempts for percentage of 48.5 percent, and a goals for percentage of just 38.8 percent.
Here’s a graphical look at Kronwall’s decline, comparing his on-ice and off-ice results.
As we can see, there’s a downward trend; over the past eight seasons, the percentage of unblocked shot attempts Kronwall’s team has gotten with him on the ice has decreased.
From 2008-2014, Kronwall’s on ice results typically match his off-ice results; he wasn’t a major boost to puck possession, but he was still a fairly good player. In 2014-2016, however, the Red Wings performed poorly when the 35-year-old was on the ice, and quite well when he was off it.
Here’s a zoomed in version of the previous graph. It makes it very clear that Kronwall just hasn’t been able to keep up the past couple of seasons.
The current version of Niklas Kronwall just isn’t the player he used to be, and it shows. One could argue that Kronwall isn’t even a top-four defender at the NHL level anymore, meaning that he certainly doesn’t belong on Sweden’s stacked defensive corps, especially not when there were options like Hampus Lindholm available.
Lindholm is one of the NHL’s best young defenseman. At the age of 22, he is coming off of a season where he was one of the top five defenders in the league in terms of relative unblocked shot attempts for percentage, meaning that the Anaheim Ducks were a noticeably better team with him on the ice than they were off of it.
The only defender in the league with a higher relative rating than Lindholm was Detroit’s Brendan Smith, placing Lindholm directly ahead of Victor Hedman, Erik Karlsson, Anton Stralman and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
It’s worth repeating that Lindholm is 22, and just about to enter his prime. There’s no reason to assume that he wouldn’t be able to replicate his impressive regular season performance, meaning that he would be one of Sweden’s better defenders at the World Cup. There’s even an argument to be made that Lindholm is primed to become one of the best puck moving defensemen in the league, a skater capable to shutting down the opposition and getting the puck up ice, similar to fellow Swede Anton Stralman.
There’s little doubt that Lindholm is a better defender than Kronwall, especially when it comes to puck possession. Lindholm was one of the best blueliners in the league last season, while Kronwall has been in a concerning decline the past two seasons.
The difference should be noticeable. The Swedish team just replaced an bottom pair NHL defender with one of the best young puck movers in the league, and now they have three excellent defensive pairings that are more than capable of getting the puck out of the defensive end, and up to a talented group of forwards. They’ll certainly be a team to watch, especially considering that they won the silver medal at the Sochi Olympics, without Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and Henrik Sedin.
An already stacked roster capable of making some noise just got an upgrade. Management dodged a proverbial bullet when Kronwall was forced to miss the tournament due to injury, and they were able to name Lindholm as a replacement.
Now if only they could find a way to get John Klingberg on the roster…