By Uffe Bodin
THN Predicted Finish: 1st
The last time the World Junior Championship was held in Sweden, it marked a shift for the nation’s junior hockey. The yellow and blue, led by Nicklas Backstrom, finished fourth in Leksand in 2007. It was the first time in several years the Swedes were able to compete with the top nations. Since then, the “Juniorkronorna” have played four gold medal games and captured one title, courtesy of Mika Zibanejad’s overtime goal against Russia at the 2012 event in Calgary.
Leading up to this year’s tournament in Malmo, expectations for the home side are sky high. And why shouldn’t they be? After all, the Swedish class of 1994 birthdays is considered deep and diverse. Coach Rikard Gronborg had an unusually long list of players to follow up on.
His easiest pick was probably the one between the pipes. Oscar Dansk of the Erie Otters served as the team’s third-string goalie in Ufa last year. This will be his time to shine. The Columbus Blue Jackets second-rounder has had a stellar start to the season in the Ontario League and even though Dansk got yanked in a game against Kitchener when Gronborg was there to scout him, the Swedish bench boss has no qualms about his status.
“He just got back from an injury when I saw him and I actually think it could have been good for him to have a setback like that one,” Gronborg said. “It usually triggers his competitiveness.”
On defense, Gronborg’s team will probably rely on what you might call the best kept secret in Swedish hockey. Very few fans in Sweden know who Gustav Olofsson is. That’s because the Boras, Sweden native basically grew up in the U.S. The Colorado College freshman made a strong impression on the Swedish coach when he went to see Olofsson in November.
“He’s a good skater that sees the ice really well,” Gronborg said of the lanky defenseman. “I was aware of his good defensive instincts, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that he was involved offensively as well.”
Up front, Gronborg will have a lot of different weapons to choose from. He got somewhat surprising additions in NHLers Filip Forsberg (Nashville) and Elias Lindholm (Carolina), who won silver last year (and Forsberg gold the year before). The Swedes could feature a line consisting entirely of players from Frolunda of the Swedish League: Alexander Wennberg (Columbus), pictured above, Sebastian Collberg (Montreal) and Andreas Johnson (Toronto) play on three different lines on their club team, but when Gronborg put them together for the Four Nations tournament in Russia, sweet chemistry transpired.
“They dominated right off the bat,” Gronborg said. “We had Gustav Possler with Sebastian and Alex before, but when he got injured, we put Andreas there because he’s the same type of player. A goal scorer who’s gifted around the net.”
Johnson made big headlines during the first half of the season. The diminutive left winger scored 10 goals in the first 17 games and was an early candidate for the rookie of the year award.
His knack for scoring big goals could come in handy for a Swedish team looking to please the home crowd with a gold medal in Malmo.