Day: December 13, 2020

2021 World Junior Championship Team Sweden Preview

By Alex Hobson – The Hockey Writers

When the topic is international hockey, Team Sweden is almost always in the middle of the conversation. One of the top teams to watch year in and year out, the Swedes have earned a medal in 5 out of the last 10 World Junior Championships. Last year’s tournament saw them finish with a bronze medal, with Vancouver Canucks prospect Nils Hoglander, LA Kings prospect Samuel Fagemo, and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin leading the way.

The third-winningest nation in World Junior history, Sweden will look to compete for their 20th medal this year. While none of the above names will be returning this year, the Swedes have a plethora of young talent that will make them an interesting group to keep an eye on heading into this year’s tourney. They haven’t won a gold medal since 2012, and even though medals in two of the last three tournaments are impressive, it’s obviously not the end goal for the young guns representing their country.

The Swedes will have a tough division this year, competing with Russia, the United States, and the Czech Republic for ground in Group B. With a division as stacked as this one, it’s really going to be a matter of who gets hot at the right time and who keeps the momentum the longest. With that being said, let’s have a look at who could potentially make up Sweden’s roster.



Goaltending

The Swedes might have the easiest decision of all the teams when it comes to who will be in between the pipes. Tampa Bay Lightning prospect and 2020 WJC standout Hugo Alnefelt will be returning to the team a year older this year. He made a name for himself at last year’s tournament, starting in all six games and finishing with a record of 5-1-0, a goals against average of 2.12, and a save percentage of .921.

He isn’t off to a great start this year, mustering a record of 4-6-0 with a GAA of 3.04 and a SV% of .904 through 10 games for HV71 of the SHL. But either way, he was a crucial part of last year’s team so there’s no reason they should give the job to anybody else.

If the Swedes’ starting goalie is a shoo-in, then it’s probably worth mentioning that their backup is as well. 2021 NHL Draft prospect Jesper Wallstedt is having a monster start to the 2020-21 SHL season, putting up a record of 4-2-0 with a GAA of 1.93 and a SV% of .924 through six games.

The 18 year-old may find himself in the same conversation as goalies like Ilya Samsonov, Spencer Knight, and Yaroslav Askarov, all of whom were taken in the first round of their respective drafts. The only reason he’ll likely back up Alnefelt is because of his age and what Alnefelt did for the team last year. But at the very least, this will give Wallstedt a chance to learn and step into that starting role next year. And if the elder goalie falters, he’ll have an opportunity to step up and shine.

Behind Alnefelt and Wallstedt, the Swedes will likely opt for Penguins prospect Calle Clang (what a name) to man the third-string position, which is really too bad, because he’s putting together a pretty solid season himself. Clang has a record of 3-4-0 with a GAA of 1.95 and a SV% of .935 through seven games with Kristianstads IK of the Allsvenskan league. If he were representing any other nation, he may have a chance to have a backup or even a starting gig. Either way, goaltending appears to be an area of strength for Sweden.



Defense

While the Swedes will miss Rasmus Sandin, who took home defenseman of the tournament honours, and Rangers prospect Nils Lundkvist this year, they’ve got returnees who will look to step into bigger roles. Right off the bat, Sweden has three returning names on the back end that will jump right out at you. Philip Broberg, Victor Soderstrom, and Tobias Bjornfot. They were drafted ninth, 11th, and 22nd overall in 2019 by the Edmonton Oilers, Arizona Coyotes, and Kings respectively.

Philip Broberg vs Finland at the 2019 World Juniors

They have a number of options to round out the top four. One of them is Detroit Red Wings prospect Albert Johansson, who was drafted in the second round of the 2019 draft. He recently emerged as one of the Wings’ top prospects and is off to a solid start with Farjestad BK of the SHL, putting up seven points in 19 games thus far.

Another is Philadelphia Flyers’ second rounder Emil Andrae, who is a short but tough offensive defenseman who is teammates with Hugo Alnefelt. An additional option for the top four is Kings’ second rounder Helge Grans, who stands at 6-foot-3 and shoots right. He has six points in 13 games for the Malmo Redhawks of the SHL so far.

Assuming these three round out the top six, other options I have for the Swedes’ back end include Red Wings prospect William Wallinder, who’s 6-foot-4 and may be one of the better skaters in the group. Then there’s another Red Wings prospect in Gustav Berglund, who was taken in the sixth round of the 2019 draft.

Other options include Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Eric Hjorth, who’s naturally right-handed, and Winnipeg Jets prospect Anton Johannesson, who’s smooth but has missed much of the past two seasons with an injury. They could also consider Simon Edvinsson, a 6-foot-4 17-year-old who’s projected to go in the first round of the 2021 NHL Draft.

In my mind, the top three defensemen are guaranteed, and the bottom three are all but guaranteed. Any of the guys I listed could make the team barring an impressive selection camp, which is why camp exists in the first place.

Forwards

The Swedes will be losing two of their top goal scorers from last year, as Samuel Fagemo and Nils Hoglander are both too old to return this year. It would appear as though they’re passing the torch to one particular line from last year. New Jersey Devils seventh overall pick Alexander Holtz, New York Rangers second-rounder Karl Henriksson, and Red Wings fourth overall pick Lucas Raymond will all be returning from last year and will likely be relied upon for the bulk of the Swedes’ offense.

Alexander Holtz with Djurgardens IF

After those three, there are a lot of new faces. You can probably expect to see New York Islanders’ first-rounder Simon Holmstrom and Carolina Hurricanes’ second-rounder Noel Gunler make up the wings on the second line. Holmstrom’s development has been rocky to start, spending last season in the AHL as an 18-year-old and returning to Sweden to play in their second-tier league this year.

His numbers in the Allsvenskan league aren’t eye-popping, mustering two points through 11 games with HC Vita Hasten. A World Junior campaign in the presence of players his age could be just what he needs to get going. Meanwhile, Gunler’s split time between Lulea HF and Brynas IF of the SHL, posting a combined five points through 16 games.

While we’re on the topic of Hurricanes prospects, Zion Nybeck is another name to keep an eye on. The 5-foot-8 forward has spent this year between the SHL and the J20 league. Then there’s also Elmer Soderblom, another Red Wings prospect who towers at 6-foot-7 and 227 pounds. You can expect to see him in the top nine if Sweden’s brass likes the idea of having that imposing frame to compliment Nybeck.

Another couple of names you can expect to see up the middle include Canucks prospect Arvid Costmar and Red Wings prospect Theodor Niederbach. Both have been relatively quiet to start their respective SHL seasons, Costmar with Linkoping HC and Niederbach with Frolunda HC. Both of these prospects have thrived in the time they’ve spent in the J20 league, which could be a telling tale to how they perform against guys their own age.

Then there’s Red Wings prospect Albin Grewe, who could fill a fourth-line role due to the edge to his game. Another player you could expect to see suit up is William Eklund, a 2021 draft prospect who’s off to a sizzling start in the SHL. He has 12 points in 16 games for Djurgardens IF thus far. And rounding out the rest of the players I have competing for a bottom-six role include Anaheim Ducks prospect Albin Sundsvik, Florida Panthers prospect Emil Heineman, and Washington Capitals prospect Oskar Magnusson.



Overview

The Swedes have a very young team that will, as per usual, be built from the net out. Goaltending is clearly their strength, and while guys like Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond will likely lead the way up front, there are lots of players who have never seen World Junior hockey before.

The defense looks to be strong as well, with three returning players and three NHL prospects likely to round out the top six. Sharing a division with the U.S., Russia, and Czech Republic won’t be an easy task, but their top dogs have a chance to break out and help Sweden take home a medal for the second year in a row and the third time in four years.

2021 World Junior Championship Team Finland Preview

By Mathieu Sheridan – The Hockey Writers

As time has gone on, Finland has continually shown that it is one of the premier hockey countries. Regularly producing NHL talent such as Miro Heiskanen, Aleksander Barkov, Pekka Rinne, Patrik Laine and so on, Finland has always been one to watch at the World Juniors.

Since competing in their first World Junior Hockey Championship back in 1974, Finland has gone on to win five gold medals, four silver medals and six bronze medals for a total of 15 medals. With their most recent gold coming in 2019 after beating the United States in the finals, the Finns will be looking for redemption after a disappointing finish at last year’s tournament.

They had a decent start to the tournament and ended up finishing third in Group A behind Canada and Sweden. They advanced to the quarterfinals where they pulled off the massive upset over the United States with the only goal in the game being scored by winger Joonas Oden and advanced to the quarterfinals where they went up against a dominant Canada squad. They were outplayed and ended up losing 5-2. Fans were optimistic that they could win the bronze against Sweden but ended up going home without a medal.

The Finns find themselves in Group A this year, where they will be going up against the likes of Canada, Switzerland, Germany and Slovakia in round-robin action. Compared to Group B, Group A has a lot less firepower when it comes to potentially upsetting the top teams such as Finland and Canada. I expect Finland to have a great tournament this year and see them making a long run as they have some serious talent again this year.



Goaltending

Finland will have to rely on a new goalie this year. Two of the three goalies on last year’s roster (Justus Annunen and Jasper Partikainen) will not be returning and this will hurt the Finns a lot. Last year, Colorado Avalanche prospect Annunen was one of the best goalies in the tournament. While his 2-4-0 record may be deceiving, he managed to put up a .916 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.65 goals-against average (GAA). His best game, in my opinion, was against the United States where he stood on his head numerous times.

This year, the starting role for Finland will most likely go to Pittsburgh Penguins 2020 second-round draft pick Joel Blomqvist. Drafted 52nd overall, he has spent this season playing for Karpat of the Liiga and Hermes of the Mestis. In eight games for Hermes, he has put together a record of 2-3-3 to go along with a 2.87 GAA and a .896 SV%. In two games for Karpat, he has gone 2-0-0 with a 1.50 GAA and a .914 SV%.

While Blomqvist may be younger than some of the other options in net for Finland, it is his athletic ability that has some people giving him the nod to start for the Finns in net this year. He is rarely caught out of position and is outstanding at tracking pucks through traffic. He moves well in his net and can make acrobatic saves look easy when needed.

The backup role will most likely go to former Windsor Spitfires goaltender Kari Piiroinen. The 19-year old has been playing for TUTO Hockey in the Mestis on loan from Tappara of the Liiga. In 13 games this season, he has put together a 6-2-5 record to go with a 2.28 GAA and a .924 SV%. Piiroinen moves really well in his net as well. He is very good at not letting out rebounds and while he may not be the biggest goalie at 6-foot-1, he is more than capable of making up for it with his athletic ability. If Blomqvist falters even one bit, I would not be surprised to see Piiroinen given the reins.

The third goalie that could make the roster is 18-year old Rasmus Korhonen who has been playing for Assat U20 of the U20 SM-sarja. He has been impressive this season, putting up a 1.89 GAA and a .934 SV% in nine games. He is massive, standing at 6-foot-5 and is very fluid in his net. While he probably won’t see playing time this year, he could make some noise in the coming years.



Defense

Finland will be losing some big names such as Lassi Thomson and Anttoni Honka but will be more than capable to fill their roles with returning players and new faces ready for their shot. One returning player who will make a big impact is Winnipeg Jets prospect Ville Heinola. A great puck mover and offensive player, Heinola has been on loan to Lukko of the Liiga where he put one goal and 12 assists for 13 points in 16 points.

Ville Heinola, Winnipeg Jets

Another player that could see big minutes for Finland is Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Topi Niemala. He didn’t make the team last year but will get a great opportunity to see a lot of playing time this time around. A great puck-moving defenseman who sees the ice really well, he has collected three assists in eight games for Karpat of the Liiga and four points in six games for Karpat U20 in the U20 SM-sarja.

The other defensemen that could round out the roster will be Mikko Kokkonen (TOR), Antti Tuomisto (DET), Eemil Viro (DET) and Kalle Loponen (TOR). Kokkonen, a third-round pick by the Maple Leafs in 2019, has always been a great skater. He moves the puck really well and is able to skate himself out of danger when need be. Some people expect him to see a lot of power-play time this year and he has proven that he is able to be trusted with that responsibility this season.

Tuomisto, a second-round pick of the Red Wings in 2019, is another player who could be relied upon to play big minutes and see some power-play time. While he has not suited up in a game during the 2020-21 season with the University of Denver, he had a great 2018-19 season where he collected 49 points in 48 games with Assat U20 of the Jr. A SM-liiga.

Eemil Viro of Team Finland

Viro and Loponen, a possible third pairing, are two players who may not see a boatload of ice time but will see very relied upon to make an impact. Viro, a 2020 third-round pick of the Red Wings, has three assists in 14 games for TPS of the Liiga. He skates well and really turns the puck over, averaging only one giveaway a game. Loponen, a seventh-round pick of the Leafs in 2019, has gotten off to a great start for Karpat U20 as he has 15 points in 20 games from the backend. He has a hard, accurate shot and certainly knows how to use it.



Offense

The offense this year is really going to be where team Finland shines. With top eligible players in this upcoming draft and high-end NHL prospects ready to go, this team is going to very deep and dangerous. One of the top players for them is going to be 2020 first-round pick Anton Lundell who has gotten off to a blazing start with HIFK in the Liiga where he has scored 11 goals and eight assists for 19 points in 15 games. Pair him with two talented players like Patrik Puistola (CAR) and Kasper Simontaival (LAK) and that is a deadly top line.

Anton Lundell of IFK Helsinki

Another storyline that will be interesting to watch for is how much of an impact the younger players, more specifically the 2021 NHL Draft eligibles, can make for this team. One of the top players eligible for the draft is Aatu Raty. Although his stock has taken a hit since the start of the season, he will still be relied upon to play a big role for the Finns and he could slot in as the second-line center.

Two other names to keep an eye on is Samuel Helenius and Samu Tuomaala. Helenius is a behemoth, standing at 6-foot-6 and is great at using his size to his advantage. He is perfectly suited to battle for pucks in the corners and stand in front of the net to screen the opposition. Tuomaala is a very skilled player who has excellent vision. He is able to thread a pass to his teammates with ease and is a marvel to watch with the puck on his stick. He is only going to get better as time progresses.

Overview

Going into the tournament this year, a lot of people will be expecting Finland to make a deep run. They are in the easier of the two groups in the round-robin stage and their only stiff competition should be Canada. Although last year they got superb goaltending, they have a lot of talent this year that should make them a dangerous team on a nightly basis.

Yes, the goalies on this team have little experience playing on this big of a stage but the team in front of them should be able to hold the ship down. Blomqvist is immensely talented and Piiroinen has shown glimpses of great play when he is called upon like last year when he managed to get into one game and posted a 1.00 GAA and a .955 SV% so if they do falter, I don’t imagine it will be for long.

Finland should place first or second in Group A this year and will most likely get an easier matchup than last year in the quarterfinals. A lot of eyes will be watching them this year and it will be exciting to see how they perform as a whole.