After capturing their first gold medal in 31 years at the 2012 World Juniors, the Swedish contingent appeared to be a favorite for years to come. However, with some key injuries and subtractions from their roster, the Swedes will no doubt be capable of earning a medal at the tournament, though consecutive gold medals may prove too tall a task.
Sweden is loaded up and down their roster with NHL calibre talent, including 15 players who are already tied to NHL franchises.
Between the pipes, Columbus second round pick Oscar Dansk and St. Louis fifth rounder Niklas Lundstrom will be battling to log a majority of the goaltending minutes. Dansk has played more hockey this year as a starter with Erie of the OHL after two solid years with Brynas of the Swedish junior ranks, though Lundstrom has fared very well in limited time split between the second and top flights of the Swedish pro ranks.
Defensively the Tre Konor will be shorthanded. Oscar Klefbom (Edmonton) and Jonas Brodin (Minnesota) — the top pairing from the 2012 gold medal squad which inhibited an explosive Russian squad — will both miss the tournament due to injuries. Look for Hampus Lindholm (Anaheim) and Rasmus Bengtsson (Florida) to play the shutdown minutes in their absence as the big bodied veterans on the blueline.
Up front, 2012’s golden goal hero Mika Zibanejad was not allowed to play for Sweden this year — the Ottawa Senators felt the AHL was a better location for his development — but there is exciting talent there nonetheless, much of it eligible to be drafted in 2013. Many will look at Filip Forsberg — taken 11th overall this past June by Washington — to be a big offensive catalyst, alongside the likes of Rickard Rakell (Anaheim) who impressed in 2012, VIctor Rask (Carolina) and Sebastian Collberg (Montreal).
The 2012 WJHC was a big breakthrough for Sweden who captured their first gold in over three decades in overtime by shutting out the Russians by a 1-0 score. The medal also broke their tie with the Czech Republic and moved them into sole possession of third place in the historical medal count with 15. They won’t surpass Canada’s 28 medals or Russia’s 16 (30 if you count their competition history as the USSR) any time soon, but they are a perennial contender in this tournament.
If it weren’t for some good fortune in 2012, the Swedes would be up against it. Sweden’s odds of repeating as gold medalist may have actually grown exponentially thanks to an uncharacteristically poor performance from Team USA in 2012. With the final seeding of the teams and Russia, Canada and the United States all residing in Group B, Sweden need only fear a strong Finland team for the top spot in their group and bye to the semifinals.
Should the Swedes earn that bye, the additional rest would be a massive benefit. They may not be able to match whichever team emerges from Group B talent-wise, but playing the winner of a game (read: welterweight tilt) between that second place team and Finland (presumably) with extra rest would put them in a good position to defend their title.
Sweden should expect to take a step backwards this year with so many key cogs from their championship team unavailable, but they should, at the very least, earn a place in the bronze medal game.
There is some irony in that Sweden appears to be, on the surface at least, the only powerhouse squad which has actually been hindered by the NHL lockout. While the Canadian, Russian and American squads will all have an influx of blue chip talent which would have been otherwise unavailable, the Swedes will go into the tournament without a handful of star players and facing abnormally stiff competition.
The witholding of Zibanejad will be particularly tough to swallow as he was such a key contributor to their 2012 effort — not to mention he hasn’t exactly set the world alight in the AHL — but there will be plenty of talent to pick up the slack. Granted, this roster is not particularly polished up front — they have seven players eligible to be drafted in 2013 — but their ability to play hockey is beyond a doubt.
It’s difficult to understate what an enormous achievement consecutive gold medals would be for the Swedish program, especially given their previous drought. But, when one considers that Malmo, Sweden will host the 2014 edition of the tournament, the home team coming in as the two-time defending champions would do wonders for the domestic exposure of this tournament within Sweden as this event is still largely an afterthought outside of Canada.
Should Sweden capture their second title in a row, and those seven draft eligible players have their names called at the draft podium within the next year, you would have to think that a third consecutive gold at home would be a very real possibility.