Although Canada has a strong chance of repeating as Olympic men’s hockey champions, that does not mean the journey to the gold will be a cakewalk. Many teams in this tournament can cause some problems for Canada. Today, we look at how Sweden can pose a threat to the defending champs.
Sweden boasts a roster stacked with NHL talent. In fact, only forward Jimmie Ericsson plays in a European-based league (Skelleftea AIK of the Swedish Elite League). In that sense, the Swedes have more NHL players than any European country participating in the tournament.
Sweden’s strengths lies in their depth on the blue line. Many players could have made the team, but didn’t due to a lack of available roster spots. Such players include Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who many thought would be a key player for the Swedes. Other notable omissions on defence include 19-year-old Jonas Brodin of the Minnesota Wild, who is considered to be very mature and steady despite his young age.
The defensive corps is led by elite puck-movers Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators and Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Phoenix Coyotes. Karlsson, the 2012 Norris Trophy recipient, is one of the best offensive defencemen in the NHL. His defensive play has been considered sloppy at times, but his tremendous offensive upside is hard to overlook. If he is paired up with a steady defensive defenceman, as he is in Ottawa with Marc Methot, his mistakes can easily be minimized, and he can therefore focus on providing scoring from the blue line.
Defensive specialists, Jonathan Ericsson of the Detroit Red Wings or Niklas Hjalmarsson of the Chicago Blackhawks, will be responsible for shutting down the opposition’s top lines. They both have excellent defensive awareness and will be the key to Sweden’s penalty kill, along with goaltending.
Not only can they count on world class offence and rock-solid defence from their blue line,but Sweden has a cast of great two-way defensive defencemen. Names like hard-hitting Niklas Kronwall of the Red Wings and Alex Edler of the Vancouver Canucks can be a tremendous help on the power play, as well as provide defensive awareness in their own zone.
As a whole, Sweden’s defence is well-rounded and well-balanced, with a good mix of offensive and defensive specialists that complement each other quite well. They will be key to this team’s success. In order for Canada to beat the Swedes, they will need to wear down these defencemen with a hard forecheck and speed, in order to make them play in their own zone for most of the game.
If ever any opponent should get through this elite defensive group, they will have to face arguably the best goaltender in hockey, Henrik “The King” Lundqvist. He has been the face of the New York Rangers franchise since he arrived in the NHL in 2005. Not to mention he backstopped Sweden to a gold medal victory back in the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino, Italy. Although his numbers this season are below average, we should expect him to be on top of his game for this competition. Backing him up and not expected to see the ice very much are Jonas Gustavsson of Detroit and Jhonas Enroth of the Buffalo Sabres.
Finally, Sweden’s forward group presents a good mix of size and skill. They will be led by Vancouver Canucks superstar twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. These two have been providing offensive magic for more than a decade in Vancouver, with perfect blind passes and tic-tac-toe plays that leave other teams’ defences bewildered and dizzy. The Swedes possess great depth on offence, especially at the centre ice position. When a star centreman like Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals is penciled in as a second-line centre, you know this is a team with plenty of firepower.
Not only are the Swedes deep in the skill department, but their forwards boast impressive frames that will make them a physical threat as well as a scoring threat. Players like hulking forwards such as Detroit’s Johan Franzen, St. Louis Blues’ Patrik Berglund as well as Backstrom are all big bodies who protect the puck very well and can wreak havoc in front of their opponents’ net.
Sweden has a good mix of veterans with plenty of experience as well as young players eager to make a name for themselves on an international scale. This wave of young forwards is led by Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog. In spite of his tender age of 21, he is a proven leader and a big reason for the resurgence of the Avalanche under new head coach Patrick Roy. Other notable youngsters who will be participating in their first games are Marcus Kruger of the Blackhawks, Jakob Silfverberg of the Anaheim Ducks and Carl Hagelin of the Rangers. Kruger has emerged as a top penalty killer with the defending champions, and will likely be asked to fill the same role on the Swedish team. Silfverberg and Hagelin provide great scoring depth on what will likely be Sweden’s third line. Although they possess different attributes, they both have a knack for scoring goals. Hagelin has tremendous speed coming off the left wing, whilst Silfverberg has a world-class shot.
These young players will be looking up to veteran leaders such as Red Wings teammates Daniel Alfredsson and Henrik Zetterberg, the latter of which will most likely be wearing the “C” as captain. Alfredsson, 41, will likely be playing his last Olympic Games and will surely be motivated to win his second gold medal in five tries at the event.
The forward group is rounded out with Loui Eriksson of the Boston Bruins, who has had his fair share of concussion issues already this season, as well as Alexander Steen of the Blues, who is enjoying the best season of his career. He is currently sixth in goal scoring this season despite missing 10 games due to injury. Both players provide complimentary scoring on an already deep Swedish team.
All in all, Sweden is built to be a legitimate contender to win a gold medal and avenge their sub-par performance in Vancouver four years ago. Their lineup is fairly balanced with skill, size and experience.
Although Sweden is not in Canada’s group, they are my pick to win Group C, edging out the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Latvia. This will mean there is a possibility the Canadians might face them in the qualification and perhaps the medal rounds. If that were the case, this will be not an easy task for Canada, as the Swedes are reputed for a more rugged style of play.
Sweden’s Olympic team has suffered a tough transition between their gold-medal winning team of 2006 and their fifth place finish at the last Olympics in Vancouver. Long gone are the days of Sundin, Lidstrom, Forsberg and Naslund, who were the face of Swedish hockey for the better part of a decade leading up to 2006. Learning from the disappointment of 2010, new leaders such as Zetterberg and Alfredsson, along with returning gold medalists Kronwall, Lundqvist and the Sedins, will look to restore the reputation of one of hockey’s powerhouses.