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By Steven Ellis – Eurohockey.com

The Swedes typically are better than their fourth-place result from 2016. With a great mix of experience and young talent, they’ll be major contenders again.

Goalies: While many teams in the World Juniors this year have just one goalie that really fits the starter criteria, Sweden has two with the likes of Felix Sandström and Filip Gustavsson. Sandstrom isn’t a newbie in regards to the World Juniors, with the Brynäs IF puck stopper returning to the team after playing for Sweden a year ago. A gold medalist at the 2012 Under-17 World Championships, Sandstrom was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the third round of the 2015 NHL Draft. At 19, it’s his last kick at the can, and he surely wants to help Sweden outdo his tournament performance from a year ago when the Tre Kronor finished in fourth place following an onslaught against the Americans in the bronze-medal game.

Gustavsson is actually the youngest of the three goalies that were announced on the initial roster, with the 1998-born netminder sitting at just 18-years-old. Still, Gustavsson has done tremendously for Sweden in recent tournaments, even winning the top goalie award at the most recent U18 World Championships last Spring. The two-time gold medalist with Sweden has played fantastic with Lulea HF in the Swedish Hockey League, posting a 2.00 GAA and .931 save percentage in seven games this year. Gustavsson has learned a lot from backing up former U20 team backup Joel Lassinantti this season and is ready to take the next two World Junior tournaments by storm.

Defensemen: The Swedes are an interesting group on the back end because there is truly no number one guy. The most likely top-pairing of Gabriel Carlsson and Jacob Larsson, who played together at last year’s tournament, have struggled at points this season but could use the tournament to kickstart their season. Drafted by Columbus in 2015, Carlsson is a big defenseman known for his ability to shutdown top end offensive talent. He’s got a great shot and is physical when needed, which can come in handy on the smaller ice. The 19-year-old defenseman was a member of Sweden a year ago, but after a tough end, he’ll be asked to play a leadership role this time around. He hasn’t played great for Linköping HC this year, but can that change following the tournament?

The same question can be applied to Larsson, an Anaheim Ducks prospect with four NHL games played this year. Larsson has struggled with Frölunda, especially in the playmaking department, but was called upon frequently in the four games he played with Sweden in exhibition games earlier in the year. Like Carlsson, he’ll be given lots of great chances to show his worth at the top junior stage again, and he can hopefully put his season on the right track, not that he isn’t close to it already.

After not getting selected to the last two World Junior tournaments and after falling from a projected third overall slot in the 2015 NHL Draft to #60, Oliver Kylington has a lot to prove himself on the Swedish blue line. Currently in his second season with the AHL’s Stockton Heat, Kylington is showing a more matured style of play that has really improved his status over the past two years.

Kylington will likely get partnered with Lucas Carlsson, one of Chicago’s top defensive prospects. Currently in his third season with Brynas, a pro club from Sweden, Carlsson is an experienced 19-year-old making his first, and only, World Junior appearance.  At a different end of the age spectrum, 16-year-old Rasmus Dahlin will also be getting a chance to prove himself, and while he won’t be counted on often, it’s the start of a long journey for Dahlin, who should be one of the top prospects ahead of the 2018 NHL Draft.

Forward: Sweden always brings in a load of great prospects that simply know how to score in tournaments like this. A great example of that is Rochester Americans star, Alex Nylander. Formerly of the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads, Nylander finished with nine points in seven games last year to lead Sweden in scoring. Now, he’s poised to lead the team once again but is also one of the favourites to lead the tournament overall. An eighth overall pick by the Buffalo Sabres in June, Nylander’s dynamite shot and explosive speed are two characteristics that very few players in the tournament can match. His transition to the North American pro game has started off fairly well, with Nylander recording 16 points in 26 games to sit fourth in scoring on his team behind a trio of veterans.

One of the top Scandinavian prospects in the upcoming NHL Draft, Elias Pettersson, is ready for his World Junior debut to show off his talent. Pettersson was a star with the Under-18 team earlier in 2016, leading his team to a silver medal just months after obtaining the same result at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament. Pettersson was good in six exhibition games with Sweden earlier this year, posting eight points in that time despite just being 18. Another 18-year-old with lots to show off is Lias Andersson, a potential mid-first round draft pick this coming Spring. Andersson will be the number one centreman on the team, but can also shift to wing if needed. In a bottom six role with HV71 in Sweden this year, Andersson has shown a lot of success in recent years, getting named as one of Sweden’s best players at the Under 18’s in 2016 after leading the entire SuperElit junior league in scoring with 59 points in 37 games.

The team is filled with some other veteran players who will be counted upon throughout the event in Montreal. One of those is Rasmus Asplund, who, like Nylander, is also a Buffalo Sabres prospect. In his third season with Färjestad BK in Sweden, Asplund has 11 points in 25 games, on top of five points in six Champions Hockey League games this year. Asplund played in last year’s World Juniors, recording three goals and five points in seven games, but should be more successful this year. Another is captain Joel Eriksson Ek, who always does a good job when he puts on a yellow and blue jersey. Eriksson Ek looked good at certain times in a limited stint with the Minnesota Wild this year, putting up five points in nine games to start. A member of the same Farjestad roster, Eriksson Ek will be leaned upon as a veteran in his second year at the tournament and should improve on his two-point performance a year ago. Ottawa Senators fourth rounder Filip Ahl will be used as a bottom six energy guy most likely, but with 32 points in 28 games with the WHL’s Regina Pats, he’s proven he can be an offensive threat as well.

Projection: Sweden is never, ever to be counted out at a tournament like this, and they’ll be strong once again. They do have some questions on defence, but their front end and crease area seem to be well taken care of. If the whole group works together like the well-oiled machine they can be, look for the Tre Kronor to battle for a medal, most likely a bronze.