Day: May 18, 2021

Sweden heavy on SHL, KHL talent

Oscar Lindberg, the leading KHL scorer among Swedes this season, won IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gold in 2013 and 2017

By Lucas AykroydIIHF.com

A Swede in an Oliver Ekman-Larsson jersey walks into a bar and sits down with a Finn in a Marko Anttila jersey. They order beers. After a long silence, the Swede raises his glass and says: “Cheers!” The Finn says: “Are we here to talk about all your NHL players or are we here to drink?”

In a typical recent IIHF World Championship year, this variation on an old joke about Swedes and Finns would ring true. In 2020, IIHF.com reported there were more than twice as many Swedish NHLers (113) as Finnish NHLers (50). Sweden’s last two gold medals featured a big NHL turnout in 2017 (19 NHLers) and 2018 (20 NHLers), while its classic Nordic rival relied on KHL and Liiga players en route to gold in 2011 and 2019.

However, 2021 is, of course, not a typical year, and Swedish head coach Johan Garpenlov has announced a roster with just five NHLers. We can still expect smart, well-structured team play, and securing a quarter-final berth should not pose a problem. Yet memories of the 2018 Olympics – where Germany stunned an NHL-free Sweden 4-3 in overtime in the quarter-final – are still fresh, and the 2019 Worlds – where the Swedes (21 NHLers) fell 5-4 in overtime to an unheralded Finnish squad in the quarter-final – reinforced that there are no guarantees.

In 2006, Tre Kronor made history by winning Worlds gold in Riga after claiming Olympic gold in Turin. Another triumph in the Latvian capital is possible, but it won’t be easy.

Goal

Sometimes, men have a mid-life crisis in their late 30’s. Top Swedish goalie Viktor Fasth is showing no signs of that. One of 11 SHL players on Garpenlov’s roster, the 38-year-old Fasth just backstopped Vaxjo Lakers to their second championship in four years. During the regular season, his 1.79 GAA and 93.4 save percentage led the league.

The former Anaheim Duck and Edmonton Oiler, whose last IIHF run was at the 2018 Olympics, has seen it all in international competition. Fasth was named tournament MVP and Best Goalie 10 years ago when Slovakia hosted the Worlds for the first time, but those honours were tarnished by Sweden’s 6-1 loss to Finland in the gold medal game. He held down the fort for Sweden in the preliminary round at the 2017 Worlds until Henrik Lundqvist took over en route to gold in Cologne. This could be Fasth’s final hurrah on this stage, so he’ll want to make the most of it.

Samuel Ersson, 21, enters these Worlds on a positive note after his first season as an SHL starter with Brynas IF (42 GP, 2.96 GAA, 91.1 save percentage). Even though his club had to battle HV71 to avoid relegation to HockeyAllsvenskan, Ersson outdueled ex-NHLer Jonas Gustavsson in a 4-1 series victory.

Adam Reideborn, 29, joins Ersson as a Worlds rookie, and he’s looking to showcase himself for a new contract somewhere after two seasons with the KHL’s Ak Bars Kazan. Reideborn was sidelined with COVID-19 in November, but still amassed creditable numbers (1.82 GAA, 93.1 save percentage) in a team-leading 29 starts. He took a back seat to Timur Bilyalov as Kazan marched to a seven-game conference final exit versus eventual champion Avangard Omsk.

Defence

“Solid rather than spectacular” sums up this year’s Tre Kronor blue line. Certainly, Garpenlov doesn’t have a proven offensive catalyst like Oliver Ekman-Larsson or John Klingberg to lead the rush or ignite the power play.

That said, it’ll be intriguing to see if Nils Lundkvist’s rapid ascent continues in his first Worlds. Lundkvist, a 2018 first-round pick of the New York Rangers (28th overall), joined some elite company recently, as the 20-year-old Lulea star led all SHL defencemen with 14 goals and took home the Salming Trophy. A mobile presence who sees the ice well, Lundkvist should be able to shoulder his responsibilities in Riga as he seeks an upgraded IIHF medal – he owns bronze medals from the 2018 U18 Worlds and 2020 World Juniors.

Henrik Tommernes ranked second among Swiss NLA rearguards in scoring (13+24=37 in 44 GP), and if that carries over into his Worlds debut at age 30, so much the better. KHL veterans like Klas Dahlbeck (CSKA Moscow) and Victor Loov (Jokerit) can offer steady defensive play and measured physicality. But to reiterate, don’t expect to see the second coming of Victor Hedman here.

Forward

Multiple Swedish attackers are seeking a reset in Riga, and Rickard Rakell tops that list.

The talented Anaheim Ducks left winger dazzled in 2018, scoring a career-high 34 NHL goals and winning gold in Copenhagen with a tournament all-star performance (6+8=14). In this abbreviated 2020-21 season, Rakell sagged to 28 points (9+19=28 in 52 GP). The three-time World Junior participant, who captured gold in Calgary in 2012, recently described participating in this year’s Worlds as a “no-brainer.” If he rediscovers his scoring touch under Garpenlov, that might also put him back on the minds of Tre Kronor’s management for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Rakell’s Anaheim teammate Isac Lundestrom (6+3=9 in 41 GP) will make his Worlds debut at age 21. Buffalo Sabres forward Victor Olofsson, who was seventh in 2020 Calder Memorial Trophy voting experienced a nightmarish campaign this year, but still came second in team scoring (13+19=32 in 56 games). The 26-year-old Ornkoldsvik native could be a trigger man on the power play.

The remaining NHL forwards include Adrian Kempe (Los Angeles Kings) and Marcus Sorensen (San Jose Sharks). Both bring five years of NHL experience, but Sorensen is a Worlds first-timer, while Kempe showed at his two previous Worlds (2017, 2018) that he’s capable of more offence (5+9=14 in 18 GP) in IIHF play than in North America.

For Skelleftea fans, this tournament should be fun to watch. Oscar Lindberg, a Skelleftea native and ex-NHLer who led all KHL Swedes in scoring (11+25=36) with Dynamo Moskva, has a chance to win his third gold medal (2013, 2017). Jesper Froden joined forces with longtime Skelleftea men Par Lindholm and Andreas Wingerli as the northern Swedish club incurred a tough 3-2 semi-final series defeat against Rogle BK. 

It’s unlikely this forward group will spearhead the kind of offensive charge we saw in 2018 (43 goals) or 2019 (45 goals), but they should still outscore most Group A teams.

Coaching

This is a monumental opportunity for Johan Garpenlov. The 53-year-old, who logged 609 NHL games and added Worlds gold in 1991 and 1992 as a player, served as Rikard Gronborg’s assistant coach at the last three Worlds and the 2018 Olympics. Despite the disappointing fifth-place finishes in Korea and Slovakia, Garpenlov isn’t going to reinvent the wheel in his IIHF debut as head coach by steering Sweden away from its traditional puck possession game. (With all due respect to Hardy Nilsson and his “Torpedo Hockey” experiment of the early 2000’s.)

Going back to the Finns (ahem), this is really more about whether Garpenlov can pull a Jukka Jalonen, so to speak, by coaxing gold out of the least formidable Swedish Worlds roster on paper since 2016’s sixth-place crew. If he, along with assistant coaches Marcus Ragnarsson and Markus Akerblom, can produce at least a top-three finish in 2021, it enhances his odds of going to Beijing in 2022.

Projected Results

If things go according to form, Sweden will vie for top spot in Group A with the Russians, possibly facing a challenge from the NHL-bolstered Czech Republic. However, “if” is a key word, given the unusual construction of this year’s rosters.

While Sweden’s blue line corps isn’t Hall of Fame-worthy, don’t forget that the non-NHL roster at the 2018 Olympics limited opponents to a mere five goals in four games. Ultimately, success or failure in Riga is more likely to come down to whether the Swedes build enough offensive chemistry to score at key times in the playoffs or not. A medal of some shade is viable.

Latvians optimistic at home

Veteran forward Kaspars Daugavins will for the second time after 2006 play a World Championship on home ice

By Derek O’Brien – IIHF.com

While they aren’t expected to have much in the way of fan support in the arena, the Latvians are nonetheless playing at home and hoping that can be an advantage. They probably won’t have any full-time NHLers, but they will have an internationally experienced lineup of players used to playing with each other and for coach Bob Hartley, they should prove to be a tough opponent for any team in the group and strongly contend for a quarter-final berth. Beyond the quarter-finals is usually nothing more than a pipe dream for a team like Latvia, but are the conditions right for that to happen this year?

Goal

Historically, this has been a position of strength for Latvia, with Arturs Irbe, Edgars Masalskis, Kristers Gudlevskis and Elvis Merzlikins minding the nets and turning in big performances over the past two decades. However, with the Merzlikinses expecting a baby this off-season, the team will be looking for somebody new to come up big between the pipes. 

At this point, the starting job looks up for grabs between three men: Janis Kalnins, Matiss Kivlenieks and Ivars Puninovs. Kalnins, the oldest of the three at 29, has established himself as bonafide No. 1 goalie in the KHL with Jokerit Helsinki over the past three seasons, 24-year-old Kivlenieks, Merzlikins’s understudy in Columbus, played two NHL games this season and eight for the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters, and 26-year-old Ivars Puninovs, a long-time Swiss resident who starts for the SCL Tigers in that country’s National League. Kalnins and Puninovs appeared in one game each at the 2017 Worlds in Cologne,  behind starter Merzlikins, while Kivlenieks was the team’s No. 3 man in 2018.

Defence

Latvia’s preliminary roster includes six defencemen who have all played in at least two World Championships previously, led by 34-year-old Kristaps Sotnieks of Dinamo Riga, who will be playing in his 12th championship and 32-year-old Arturs Kulda, a former NHLer and KHLer who played this past season in Germany with the Nuremberg Ice Tigers. In addition to those two, Czech-based Oskars Cibulskis (33) and Ralfs Freibergs (29) bring plenty of experience to the back end.

Added to the roster from the AHL are Kristians Rubins of the Toronto Marlies and Janis Jaks of the Bakersfield Condors. At 195 cm and 100 kg, 23-year-old Rubins brings size and youth but even he has World Championship experience from 2018. Flexible Gunars Skorcovs could slot in as a seventh defenceman or a 13th forward. 

Forwards

The forward lines are also chock full of World Championship experience, led by Mikelis Redlihs, who will be appearing in his 13th tournament, and followed by Gints Meija, Andris Dzerins, Kaspars Daugavins, Lauris Darzins, Miks Indrasis, Ronalds Kenins and Roberts Bukarts, who have all played at least seven times previously. Other than Kenins, who plays for Lausanne HC and has played most of his junior and professional career in Switzerland, the core of Latvia’s forwards all play in the KHL. Darzins and Daugavins are both players who have produced a fair bit of offence for Latvia in the past, and Daugavins is coming off a 49-point season with Vityaz Podolsk. A younger player that may get a look is 25-year-old centre Rodrigo Abols, who brings size (193 cm, 93 kg) and skill. He’s just coming off a season where he produced 35 points in 47 SHL games with Orebo HK and then put up 10 points in nine playoff games. Despite his age, he’s already appeared in four World Championships, so he knows the system.  

Due to injuries and impending free-agency, eligible NHLers Zemgus Girgensons and Rudolfs Balcers won’t be playing for Latvia this year, and Teodors Blugers is currently playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Coach

It’s been a good season for Latvian national team head coach Bob Hartley, who just finished guiding Avangard Omsk to a Gagarin Cup title in his third season behind the KHL team’s bench. Hartley can add that ring to a trophy case that includes a Stanley Cup, a Swiss title, and a Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year. Hartley is a highly respected coach and this will be his fourth World Championship behind the Latvian bench. In each of the first three, the players bought completely into his system, were competitive in every game and finished either fourth or fifth in their group. With a roster of players that have all played for him before, the former coach of the Colorado Avalanche, Atlanta Thrashers and Calgary Flames can probably expect more of the same on home ice in Riga. 

Projected Results

Latvia is always in the mix to make the quarter-finals and there’s no question that this a realistic goal for the team this year. While the four top-ranked teams in Group B – Canada, Finland, the United States and Germany – will be missing NHL players to varying degrees and icing lineups that are not terribly experienced internationally, the Latvians will pretty much have the same lineup they always have and should feel confident about their ability to take enough points from those teams to make the cut-off. On the other side of the coin, the Latvians will have to watch out for Norway, Kazakhstan and Italy and make sure they don’t give away any points to those teams. Their four pre-tournament games this spring against Group A teams Slovakia and Switzerland were all close and low-scoring, with one win and three losses.