Team Sweden will look to a make a run at World Cup glory, and head coach Rikard Grönborg will have the difficult task to select the best talent available for “Tre Kronor.”
Sweden’s last tournament win came in the 2013 World Championship when Sweden and Finland that co-hosted the tournament. The team fell short in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, losing to Canada in the final. This will be a chance for revenge for several players, and could possibly be one of the last times we see Henrik Lundqvist wear the yellow and blue, depending on if NHL players will participate in the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Grönborg is blessed to have several elite defensemen to choose from (thank you Nicklas Lidström), and the Swedes could end up fielding the stronger defensive core in the tournament.
Although they only have to announce 16 players on March 2, I’m projecting out a full squad (3 goalies, 7 defensemen, 13 forwards) that I believe will represent Sweden in Toronto. First out is the defensemen and the goalies.
Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators):
Karlsson is well on his way to win his third Norris Trophy, despite only being 25 years old. He is once again dominating the scoring race among defensemen, putting up 65 points (11G, 54A) in 62 games, 13 points ahead of John Klingberg. Karlsson is carrying Ottawa on his shoulders, and when you put him in a team with some elite-level talent, one can only imagine what kind of performances and numbers he might be able to put up.
Karlsson has gotten a lot of flack over the years that he’s more or less a forward and that he’s not very good at defending. Although he’s not the best in his own zone, he’s gotten a lot better in the defensive end. Put him next to an elite shutdown like Niklas Hjalmarsson or an all-round player like Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Karlsson will do just fine.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Arizona Coyotes):
The “underwear mogul” of the NHL is also one of the league’s best all-round defensemen. “OEL” is finally getting the national recognition he deserves, and should be in the Norris discussion. He leads Arizona in points (47) and is fourth in scoring among defensemen. The 24-year-old is having another good season and recently set a new career-high in points. He’s capable to play in all situation and has blossomed out to an elite power play defenseman.
After getting benched in the Sochi Olympics after Alexander Edler came back from suspension, Ekman-Larsson will be hungry to show that he deserves a much bigger role. Having Erik Karlsson QB one power play unit and OEL on the other will be a real luxury.
Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning):
Many people scratched their heads when Hedman was left out of the Olympic squad in 2014. This time around Hedman hast to be a given as he has blossomed into real number one defenseman in the league. Hedman is finally living up to all the expectations that Tampa Bay had on him when they selected him second overall in the 2009 draft.
Hedman leads the Lightning in ice time (22:52) and has struck up a great partnership with Anton Strålman. Will be a good package deal for Sweden as they would continue to play together.
Anton Strålman (Tampa Bay Lightning):
Strålman has taken his game up to another level since joining Tampa Bay. He has surely made many Rangers fans wonder why he was allowed to leave the team after the 2013-14 season. Instead of signing Anton to a new deal, New York opted to sign Dan Girardi to an extension.
Tampa said thank you very much and went on to make the Stanley Cup Final in Strålman’s first season with the team. The pairing of him and Hedman was one of the best during the playoffs and carried a heavy load for Tampa Bay. The familiarity of Strålman and Hedman playing together on a regular basis is something that will appeal to Grönborg.
Niklas Hjalmarsson (Chicago Blackhawks):
Hjalmarsson is a defensive specialist that has been one of the most underrated players in the league. It’s not a shock that Hjalmarsson isn’t grabbing the headlines as Chicago has players like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews up front and Duncan Keith at the blue line. But Hjalmarsson is the definition of a team player and never thinks twice before risking his body to block a shot or break up a play. Can play on both sides, and could end up being the ideal partner for Karlsson.
John Klingberg (Dallas Stars):
Klingberg came out of nowhere last season, and after starting the year in the AHL with the Texas Stars, he ended up scoring 40 points (11G, 29A) in 65 games. After a good 2013-14 season with the Frölunda Indians in the SHL (11G, 17A in 50 games), he went on to become one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL. He sits second in scoring behind Erik Karlsson, having put up 52 points (10G 42A) in 62 games. Could make a good partner to Ekman-Larsson, although you would assume that whoever is paired with Klingberg will have to take more responsibility in the defensive end.
Niklas Kronwall (Detroit Red Wings):
Although I could see Hampus Lindholm, Jonas Brodin and Johnny Oduya all vying for a spot in the squad, I do believe that Grönborg will choose Kronwall to be the elder statesman of the Sweden defense. He has a wealth of experience, and although he’s not the player he once was, he’s still a solid player that can play in all situations. Given his injuries this past season, he might be more ok with playing a smaller role or sitting in the stands than some of the above mentioned names.
Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers):
Lundqvist will be one of the first names that Grönborg will announce. The Rangers netminder is still one of the best in the world and will be the cornerstone of the Swedish defense in the World Cup. He’s been one of the best and most consistent goaltenders since coming into the league in 2005, having posted 30+ wins in each of his seasons (except during the 2012-13 lockout season when he posted 24 wins in 43 games).
He’s the only top-level Swedish goaltender in the league, and he will most likely start every game unless Sweden has already secured advancement when the last round robin game against Team North America rolls around.
Jhonas Enroth (Los Angeles Kings):
Enroth is a great backup goaltender that can come in and play well when called upon. He’s done well in the past with Tre Kronor and was the starting goaltender when the Swedes won gold in the 2013 World Championship. He was also voted the best goaltender of the tournament.
Robin Lehner (Buffalo Sabres):
Lehner has made some solid performances since coming back from injury. Lehner got hurt on the Buffalo Sabres’ opening night, but has a 0.930 SV% in 14 appearances. It would most likely just be a “look and learn” type of experience for Lehner. Other guys that could make a push for a spot include Eddie Läck, Jacob Markström and Jonas Gustavsson.
This would be a great way to structure a team from the back, and what the Swedes might lack in offensive firepower in the forward department could easily be made up by Karlsson, Ekman-Larsson and Klingberg.
In the next article, we’ll look at which forwards should make the team.