Sweden

The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship final report (Part II)

(Continuation of Part I)

  1. Russia

Medallists in each of the preceding seven tournaments and 14 of the previous 16 editions, the Russians always seem to find a way to crash the podium at the WJC. However, national coach Valeri Bragin started the 2018 event complaining about the lack of international experience on its roster, which, keep in mind, contained only three players yet to complete their 19th birthday, and then things went south for them in a hurry, with a defeat in the tournament opener against the Czech (4-5) leading to a curbed campaign.

Unable to beat the Swedes in the final group game, the Russians were left to slow down the Americans in the QF and succumbed to the task, flying home empty-handed after capturing their last gold medal in the same arena back in 2011.

Russia players and staff look on after a 4-2 quarterfinal round loss to the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Usually a critical part of their most successful teams, goaltending was not a force for the Red Army this time, with Vladislav Sukhachyov, who replaced Alexei Melnichuk in the first game, notching a 2.74 GAA and 0.904 Sv%. Additionally, neither was their defensive unit which, orphan of a stud rear-guard in the same level of Mikhail Sergachev (2017) or Ivan Provorov (2016), had to hack it by commitment. Captain Yegor Zaitsev (NJ) and undrafted Vladislav Syomin, the point man on the man-advantage, shouldered the biggest load, but the true standouts of Team Russia laboured further up the ice, particularly the mightily impressive Klim Kostin (STL).

After a 2016-17 season derailed by injury, the 31st pick of the 2017 draft took advantage of the big stage by posting a team-leading 5 goals and 3 assists in just 5 games, his hands and powerful stride highlights in a forgettable competition for his team. Kostin was one of two under aged forwards on the Russian roster, the other being 2018 top-prospect Andrei Svechnikov (5A), and the pair was followed, in terms of performance, by a duo of Chicago Blackhawks’ picks, Artur Kayumov ( 2nd round, 2016) and Andrei Altybarmakyan (3rd, 2017).

Russia’s Klim Kostin #24 plays the puck while Sweden’s Jacob Moverare #27 defends during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

On the negative side, reference for top center German Rubtsov (PHI), whose 4 pts exceeded his overall contributions on both sides of the puck, and Vitali Abramov (CBJ), who couldn’t replicate his lofty QMJHL point totals (150 in 96 games over the last two seasons) also due to the team’s anemic powerplay, last in the tournament (1/20, 5%) and severely hampered by the lack of right-handed options (17 of 20 skaters shot left).

  1. Czech Republic

It had become routine to see the Czech Republic ranked fifth or sixth and sent packing in the quarter-finals, when their lack of depth gets exposed by one of the big-five of international hockey, but the band sang a different tune in 2018. For just the second time in the last 11 encounters, the Czechs overcame Russia to begin their campaign in style, and after they defeated Belarus and Switzerland, second place and a winnable quarter-final against Finland loomed.

Battling back twice before prevailing in the SO (4-3), the Czechs best classification since 2005 was secured, however they couldn’t repeat the bronze of Grand Forks, ND, because Canada (7-2) and the USA (9-3) obliterated them in the medal round. Nothing that would obscure a stepping-stone event for a country in the upswing, dreaming of even bigger things in 2019 with their 11 possible returnees – including Filip Zadina, Martin Nečas and Filip Chytil – and poised to host the event in 2020.

The Czech Republic’s Filip Zadina #18, Albert Michnac #29, Martin Necas #8, Martin Kaut #16 and Libor Hajek #3 celebrate at the bench after a second period goal against Sweden during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Until then, the goal has to be the return to the times when significantly more Czech teenagers were selected by NHL teams, since only six of the 23 men that competed in Buffalo have been drafted and two more signed NHL deals after being overlooked. One of latter cases, goaltender Josef Kořenář, is a San Jose Sharks prospect whose numbers (4.49 GAA, 0.879 Sv%) in Buffalo skewed significantly as a result of the two final poundings, which followed a stellar 51-save performance against the Finns.

With 34 goals allowed in seven games, defence was far from the Czechs strong suit outside of a few bright individual exceptions – beyond Hájek, we could name Vojtěch Budik (BUF) and Jakub Galvas (CHI) – but, fortunately, they could light some fireworks up front.

The Czech Republic’s Filip Chytil #21 looks for a scoring chance against Russia’s Alexei Melnichuk #1 while Nikita Makeyev #2 defends during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

As referenced before, the duo Martin Nečas (CAR) and Filip Zadina led the way, but Filip Chytil (2+2), the Rangers first round pick, also had his moments, especially in the opener against Russia. Difficult to push off the puck, capable of executing in tight and with an edge to his game, Chytil vanished in the later rounds and took linemate Martin Kaut (2+5), a potential top-50 pick in 2018, with him, eventually leading to the rise of a few unsung heroes, including the undrafted Kristian Reichel (3+1), a heart-and-soul third line center that loves to do the grunt work, LW Daniel Kurovský (2+1), whose hard-nosed game was difficult to ignore, and right-winger Radovan Pavlík (3+3).

Bronze Medal Winners: United States of America

Afforded a golden opportunity to capture back-to-back titles for a first time, the 2018 tournament can’t be considered a success for the Americans because they failed to fulfil the objective on home ice, yet there are still a lot of positives to take from their performance. For instance, their response to the unexpected defeat against Slovakia, regrouping quickly to overcome a two-goal deficit in the outdoor game, or the dominant performance in the bronze medal game less than 24 hours after the disappointing SF loss to the Swedes.

USA players celebrating after a 4-3 shoot-out win over Canada during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

There’s a case to be made that the Americans, who scored 20 goals in the group stage (the same number as Sweden) and 35 in total (one less than Canada), were in equal footing with the two finalists, and ended up in third-place victims of the circumstances and the below-average performance of Joseph Woll (TOR), who guarded the net in every indoor game and was severely outmatched by his counterparts. While Filip Gustavsson and Carter Hart soared, Woll’s ultimate body of work fails the sniff test (0.886, 2.71 GAA) and that proved decisive.

Moreover, on paper, the American defence palled in comparison with their rivals’, but this unheralded group held his ground, with Adam Fox and the steady Dylan Samberg (WIN, 1+3, +10) anchoring the first pair, and U. Minnesota’s mainstay Ryan Lindgren (BOS) doing the heavy lifting in the second unit as 18-year-old Quinn Hughes and his refined offensive skills were increasingly phased out of the rotation as the importance of the games increased.

USA’s Riley Tufte #27 attempts a shot against Denmark’s Kasper Krog #31 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Still, where the Americans were truly likely to create separation, according to pre-tournament predictions, was on the quality of their offensive group and ability to rotate four lines sprinkled with first round picks. Despite the tall goal totals, that didn’t exactly turned out as expected, since at the same time Brady Tkachuk and Casey Mittelstadt (BUF) thrived on the top-line alongside captain Joey Anderson (NJ, 4+3), and Kieffer Bellows’ (NYI) erupted on Ryan Poehling’s (MTR) right flank, the likes of Riley Tufte (DAL), Max Jones (ANA), Joshua Norris (SJ) and even NHL-tested Kailer Yamamoto (EDM) struggled to put points on the board in critical situations. That would be the major difference for the Swedish and Canadian forward units.

Silver Medal Winners: Sweden

44. That’s the number of consecutive wins the Swedes have amassed in group play since 2007… or 43 more than the amount of World titles they’ve secured in the same period.

Cruising through the group stage as usual (20-7 in goal differential), the Tre Kronor’s pallid exhibition against Slovakia (3-2) in the QF awoke the alarm sirens and elicited thoughts of a fourth consecutive medal-less appearance, however Sweden managed to oust the USA (4-2) for the first time in ten Final Four battles, and then came pretty close to stamp a first gold medal since 2012. Despite being assessed six minor penalties to Canada’s one, the Swedes had the better of play in the Final, and even ringed one off the post minutes before Tyler Steenbergen potted the game-winning-goal with 100 seconds to go in regulation.

Truly a shame for a team brimming with talent way beyond the likes of Rasmus Dahlin or their trio of top-ten picks at the forward ranks: sniper Elias Pettersson (VAN, 5+2), charismatic captain Lias Andersson (NYR, 6+1), whose level of play dropped after dislocating his shoulder against Russia, and the cerebral (and inconsistent) Alexander Nylander (BUF, 1+6), competing at his third WJC.

High-choices at the 2017 draft, defensemen Erik Brännström (LV) and Timothy Liljegren (TOR) are two such cases of blue-chip prospects that enjoyed great tournaments, with the former spending most of the time besides Dahlin and regularly displaying exceptional quickness and agility to skate the puck up the ice, and the latter coupling the willingness to engage opponents physically with slick skating skills and the ability to fire long, on-the tape, stretch passes to feed Sweden’s speedy forward group.

Conversely, despite being passed twice at the draft, rearguard Jesper Sellgreen stood out for combining puck-moving ability and feistiness in a modest frame, earning comparisons with Tobias Ernstrom, while the members of the lower attacking lines proved essential to, repeatedly, tip the balance in favour of Sweden with their mix of speed, forecheking expertise and grit. It was no coincidence that in Sweden’s difficult quarter-final match (3-2), the unit of Isac Lundeström (draft-eligible, 2 G), Oskar Steen (BOS, 2+2) and Tim Söderlund (CHI, 2+3) manufactured all three goals with their boundless energy, and neither was that, alongside fourth-liner Axel Jonsson Fjällby (WSH, 2+2), who dashed around the ice with long locks of air flowing out of his helmet, they proved extremely dangerous shorthanded, a situation that earned Sweden four goals during the tournament.

Sweden’s Axel Jonsson Fjallby #22 skates with the puck as Vladislav Yeryomenko #8 of Team Belarus gives chase during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

World Junior Champions: Canada

Three years without conquering gold at the WJC is too much for an hockey-mad nation like Canada, and to erase the taste of last year’s heartbreaking loss to the USA in Montreal, they could have hardly asked for better than their close to perfect tournament south of the border: best attack (39 goals) and best defense (11), the top powerplay (13 of 29) and penalty kill (22 of 25) and a 6-0-1 record only spoiled by the two-goal lead relinquished against the USA (3-4, SO).

With a roster that contained a single top-ten pick (D Cale Makar) and many feared would struggle in the absence of high-end, game-breaking talents, Team Canada’s preference for a versatile, balanced attack was right on the money, as the team rolled four lines, every forward scored, and the rest went according to expectations, with their mobile, skilled backend pushing the pace to generate scoring chances, and goaltender Carter Hart playing up to his abilities throughout the tournament.

Canadian players and staff celebrate after a 3-1 gold medal game win over Sweden at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

With such an homogeneous roster, Canada didn’t even have to rely too much on their three returning blueliners, Dante Fabbro (NSH), Jake Bean (CAR) and Kale Clague (LA), all-around rearguards that move the puck, as the trio was eventually eclipsed by the sparkling offensive instincts of Cale Makar (COL) and the superb Victor Mete (MTR) / Conor Timmins (COL) pairing, whose combined +- rating was a whopping +26 in 7 games.

As a matter of fact, when Mete was on the ice, the opposition did not score at all, his stick work and ability to drive play suffocating rivals, while Timmins emerged as the revelation of the roster, an unassuming two-way defenseman that could play shutdown hockey, make a crisp first pass, and deliver a sweet feed like the pass-shot Tyler Steenbergen (ARI) tipped to sink Sweden’s hopes in the Final.

Canada’s Tyler Steenbergen #17 scores the championship winning goal against Sweden’s Filip Gustavsson #30 during the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Moreover, in attack, the conversation was much of the same, with veterans Taylor Raddysh (TBL, 2+3), Dillon Dubé (CGY, 3+2) and top-center Sam Steel (ANA, 4+5) meshing with newcomers like Jordan Kyrou (STL) and Boris Katchouk (TBL, 3+3) to form two solid, if unspectacular, scoring units and the trios of low-pedigree, mid-round wildcards that followed them out overwhelming the opposition’s depth players with tons of speed and skill. Not incidentally, it was from this bottom-six that arose the inspirational tale of the tournament, 7-goal scorer Drake Batherson (OTT), a player passed once before the Sens snapped him up on the 2017 4th round and someone that would catch fire in the three consecutive blowout victories  (DEN, SWI, CZE) that preceded the final game.

The WJC implications on the 2018 NHL Draft

It’s usually said that a good showing at the WJC can significantly boost the draft value of a prospect and examples lie everywhere – Nico Hischier, just last year, is one – however, in recent seasons, it’s been quite rare to encounter these many U-18 players leaving their mark internationally against players with an extra 2 years of development time. As much as six potential top-10 selections – and, possibly, the entire top-five – competed at the tournament held in Buffalo, many acing the audition, and that has led to a lot of hand-wringing in the wake of the event, with pre-draft rankings revised to account for the latest developments.

Czech Republic’s Filip Zadina #18 lets a shot go while Finland’s Otto Koivula #12 looks on during quarterfinal round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Below, I’ll expose how the race for the top-five positions is shaping up, ranking the players in contention based on their most recent accomplishments, but always keeping in mind that a guy like Swedish defenseman Adam Boqvist, who couldn’t infiltrate his country’s loaded roster, is still in the running for an early callup come late June in Dallas.

  1. Rasmus Dahlin (D)
  2. Andrei Svechnikov (RW)
  3. Brady Tkachuk (LW)
  4. Filip Zadina (LW)
  5. Quinn Hughes (D)

Since Sidney Crosby back in 2005, we haven’t seen a contest decided as early as this one. Rasmus Dahlin will be No.1 in 2018, having cemented his status as the unquestionable best player available with the performance in Buffalo, and he will also become the second ever Swede to go first overall, succeeding C Mats Sundin in 1989.

On the contrary, the guy that was touted as the main competition to Dahlin over the last while, Russian Andrei Svechnikov, is now worried about the rustle of the footsteps of two of the WJC’s brightest stars, wingers Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina.

Russian forward Andrei Svechnikov was among the top draft-eligible prospects at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship (Photo: Steve Kingsman / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Svechnikov, a burgeoning power forward, had already endured wrist injury this season, and then had to battle the Russian prejudice against younger players, resulting in limited action early in the tournament. With 5 assists in 5 games, he ended up doing just fine, flashing his rare combination of skill, size and puck protection, but his impact fell way short of Zadina’s, a tournament All-Star for his electrifying offensive skills, and Tkachuk’s, whose all-around influence – on top of the physical attributes – took many observers aback. The final hierarchy of these three will very much depend on the teams holding the picks, but, for now, Svechnikov’s pedigree is still prevailing.

To round out the top-five, Quinn Hughes, a fantastic skater that turns on a dime and flies up the ice in transition, is certainly a possibility, even if the young defenseman was benched for much of the medal round games, barely seeing the ice except for the moments when the USA trailed and needed to amp the offensive pressure. Still, for the record, let’s just add that Rasmus Dahlin filled much of the same role for the Swedes in 2017…

American defenseman Quinn Hughes carries the puck in the bronze medal game against the Czech Republic (Kevin Hoffman /Getty Images)

Ranked outside of the very top of the rankings, but still worthy of attention, we encounter three European prospects that played in Buffalo. Finland’s Rasmus Kupari, a skilled center that was unfortunately casted as the 13th forward on his team and thus failed to stick his claim for a top-ten selection, Sweden’s Isac Lundeström, a lanky, speedy forward that was an integral part of his nation’s most reliable line and may go a few spots above his expected late-first round rank, and Czech Republic’s Martin Kaut, whose point-per-game pace might convince someone to take a flier within the top-30 or right after it.

The NHL pipeline update

As a prime meeting of the brightest youth prospects from around the world, the World Junior Championships are a first peek into what the future might bring for the kids at the professional levels. Therefore, it stands to reason that the tournament is also viewed on a scale that extends beyond national-team concerns and tries to predict the potential ramifications for the teams that hold their NHL rights. Fans and management alike discuss in which line that prospect might be plugged, implications on the organizational depth chart of someone’s emergence, or the best way to maximize the value of an asset, hence it’s just natural that positive exploits on the international arena also serve as a sign of the draft acumen of one’s organization and barometer of the health of its prospect base.

Sweden’s Alexander Nylander #19 fires a shot at USA’s Joseph Woll #31 during the semi-final round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

In this sense, the sheer amount of drafted players competing at the tournament is important, but far from the only indicator to take into account. From the entire batch of players that exhibited their qualities in Buffalo, the biggest share belonged to the New Jersey Devils, with 7 players, whereas Arizona, Pittsburgh, Florida and Minnesota loaned a single element, yet the NHL teams that left Buffalo feeling ecstatic about their assembly of talent lie in between the two poles. We’ve identified five NHL organizations that, based on qualitative and quantitative parameters, must be marveling at their craftiness in player evaluation and development.

Buffalo Sabres (5): Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (FIN), Vojtěch Budik (CZE), Casey Mittelstadt (USA), Alexander Nylander and Marcus Davidsson (both SWE)

The Sabres are toiling in the bottom of the NHL standings, but there’s reason for hope in Buffalo based on the group that took part in this “home” tournament. Possessing the rights for Casey Mittelstadt, the tournament MVP, is the chief justification for their nomination in this space, yet the rest of the Sabres prospects also filled significant roles for their respective nations. Particularly Alex Nylander, another former 8th overall pick whose elite creativity and puck skills sooner or later will surface at the professional level, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen,  the uncontested starter for Finland.

Furthermore, despite being longer shots, Budik played some critical minutes for the Czech on their top defensive pair, while Marcus Davidsson thrived on a fourth-line that received limited minutes at five-on-five but contributed greatly for Sweden’s success on the PK.

Tampa Bay Lightning (5): Libor Hájek (CZE), Cal Foote, Brett Howden, Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh (all CAN)

One of the savviest organizations breeding NHL-calibre players, the Tampa Bay Lightning are certainly pleased with the progress achieved by Libor Hájek over the last 18 months, the 2016 second rounder maturing into an all-situations blueliner that might slot on their lineup in a couple of seasons.

Drafted last June, Cal Foote played primarily on the third pairing for Canada and stayed out of trouble, while the three forwards proved important components of their well-oiled machine, with Brett Howden centering the productive checking line, and Katchouk and Raddysh flanking Robert Thomas on the team’s second unit.

Canada’s Callan Foote #6 get tangled up with an unknown Switzerland player during quarterfinal round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Chicago Blackhawks (5): Henri Jokiharju (FIN), Jakub Galvas (CZE), Artur Kayumov and Andrei Altibarmakyan (both RUS), Tim Söderlund (SWE)

The only first rounder of the Hawks faction, defenseman Henri Jokiharju, didn’t perform badly but he takes a step back here since each of his lesser-known colleagues improved his inherent value for the organization. Galvas, a diminutive blueliner, battled hard in every shift and showed poise with the puck, Kayumov scored at a point-per-game clip and was always around the net, Altibarmakyan’s constant activity and skill created problems for the opposition, and Söderlund’s jet-like acceleration, high-energy level and PK prowess were second to none.

St. Louis Blues (4): Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas (both CAN), Klim Kostin (RUS), Nikolaj Kragh (DEN)

Portended as the No.1 Danish center, Krag’s tournament came to a premature end due to injury, but the other three Blues’ prospects proved extremely useful for their teams. Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin garnered accolades and were in the running for a place on the All-Star team as two of the most exciting wingers in the competition, while Thomas, an intelligent two-way pivot, kept the puck going in the right direction at all times.

Calgary Flames (6): Adam Fox (USA), Juuso Välimäki and Eeti Tuulola (FIN), Dillon Dubé (CAN), Adam Růžička (SVK), Linus Lindström (SWE)

Forwards Tuulola, Růžička and Lindström failed to hit the twine during the tournament however the other Calgary prospects make up for their futility. Adam Fox led the American blueline, Juuso Välimäki carried the “C” and emerged as a real force for the Finns from the backend, and Dillon Dubé, another player who captained his team, did the dirty work on Canada’s top-line and powerplay.

Canada’s captain Dillon Dube #9 waves the flag following his team’s victory against Sweden during the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Honourable mention: Colorado Avalanche (2): Cale Makar and Conor Timmins (both CAN)

Although the Avs only sent two prospects to Buffalo, the duo reached high-levels of performance, with the roving Makar voted for the tournament’s All-Star team and Timmins’ smart, simple game shining on Canada’s shutdown pair.

The tournament’s Best Goals

A total of 216 goals were scored during the 30 games of the 2018 WJC and I’ll bring this report to its conclusion by presenting the top-three in chronological order.

First, American Casey Mittelstadt making Slovakia’s defence look silly with a neutral-zone takeaway and a finish that evokes memories of Bobby Orr’s airborne 1970 Stanley Cup clincher.

Then, just seconds later, Slovakia’s Samuel Buček returning the favour on the other end, staying with the puck after his audacious wrap-around attempt was denied to claim a famous victory for his country.

Finally, a great individual effort by Sweden’s Elias Pettersson, who deked a poor Swiss defenseman before finishing around the goaltender.

 

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Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group B

Germany and Sweden are two of just three teams (Norway) to have won the Women’s European Championships and having been drawn into the same group are naturally prohibitive favourites to reach the Quarter-Finals. Conversely, Russia and Italy were once sides to take into account at the continental stage but are currently undergoing transitional periods that should hinder any possible challenge. Pretty straightforward, but there’s a reason they play the games…

Germany

For the past 22 years, the Germans have been the defending European Champions and there’s an excellent chance they’re going to extend their incredible run for a few more seasons despite missing many vital components of their Gold Medal winning team at the 2016 Olympic Games.

In fact, Annike Krahn, Saskia Bartusiak and Melanie Behringer retired from international football, Simone Laudehr and the multifaceted Alexandra Popp didn’t make the trip east due to injury, while head coach Silvia Neid stepped down after Rio, concluding a decorated 11-year stint behind the bench to cede the scene to former defender Steffi Jones. Nonetheless, even with such personnel turnover, Germany is still the odds-on candidate to lift the trophy.

Qualification: Group 5 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1989, 1991, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Steffi Jones

Star Player: Dzsenifer Marozsán (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

The captain of Die Nationalelf has gradually established herself as the most impactful offensive midfielder in women’s football and, at age 25, the best is probably still ahead.

Germany’s captain Dzsenifer Marozsán in action during a friendly against Canada

Strongly built, exceptional in possession, masterful at controlling the rhythms of the game and changing the point of attack, the Hungarian roots of Marozsán help explain how she is football elegance personified in the way she drives forward with the ball at her feet, eyes surveying the scene before streamlining any kind of pass or shooting accurately at goal.

Wildly successful at every age category with the German national teams, her move from FFC Frankfurt to Lyon in 2016 has not only delivered the trophies she was missing at the club level, but further enhanced her overall skill set and tactical nous. So much that she’s now asked to play deeper on the field and render tasks that shouldn’t be hers. Germany would do good to not forget Maestro Marozsán is at her best free of defensive shackles, and her talent is ours to indulge on.

Player to watch: Lina Magull (SC Freiburg)

A shrewd two-year loan stint at SC Freiburg did wonders for the development of this right footed winger of immense technical resources and unexpectedly the 22-year-old arrives in the Netherlands as a probable starter for the mighty female Mannschaft.

Coming in at just 165cm tall, Lina Magull utilizes her nifty ball control to drift from the left side and invade central areas, engage defenders or provide weighted through balls that consistently push her team closer to the goal. No surprise then that after carrying modest Freiburg to surprise title contention, the Dortmund-native will return to Wolfsburg in the fall and try to leave her mark in its collection of stars. But before that, she’ll perform in front of the European audience for the first time.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): A. Schult; A. Blässe – J. Henning – B. Peter – I. Kerschowski; L. Maier – S. Däbritz – D. Marozsán (C) – L. Magull; S. Huth – A. Mittag

Regardless of Steffi Jones’ decision to structure her midfield quartet as a line stretching across the field or a narrow rhomb, Germany’s Achilles heel and major concern is the deep-lying midfield position, especially with Lena Goeßling’s lack of match fitness in 2016-17.

Sara Däbritz (#13), Tabea Kemme (#22) and Dzsenifer Marozsán (left) are in the conversation to take part of Germany’s midfield

In a curious and slightly desperate resolution, forward Alex Popp was tested there in a few preparatory matches due to her innate aggressiveness on the ball, but the Wolfsburg player picked up an injury and Germany will have to keep improvising. In the last friendly before the Euro, 22-year-old Sara Däbritz got the call to partner Marozsán, but don’t be surprised if Goeßling, central defender Kristin Demann or the adaptable Tabea Kemme also get their crack at establishing a presence. One thing is for certain, though: Marozsán, Magull and any player that finds her way into the midfield mix will have to help paper the gaps since the job will necessarily be done by commitment.

Sweden

Beaten by Germany at the 2016 Olympic Final and previously booted out of the 2015 World Cup and their “own” Euro 2013 by the same opponent, Sweden will certainly be eager to exert a bit of revenge when the two heavyweights face off in matchday one, but the Scandinavians shouldn’t lose focus of their main goal.

The Swedes know most central figures of their squad are getting up there in age and charismatic coach Pia Sundhage is about to leave, so this is a crucial and probably final opportunity to pick up a title before they’re forced to reload with younger players.

Qualification: Group 4 winners (7W 1L)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1984)

Head Coach: Pia Sundhage

Star Player: Caroline Seger (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

Sweden’s skipper may be slowing down, as her regular presences on the bench of Lyon during the 2016-17 season indicate, but Caroline Seger is still as essential as ever for a national team she represented in over 170 occasions.

Swedish captain Caroline Seger pushes the ball forward during a match against Finland

Renowned for her positioning, stamina and passing range, the 32-year-old has commanded the ball in the Swedish midfield for many years by being frequently involved in the buildup and successively engaged in 50-50 disputes. Moreover, her ball distribution skills eventually lead to perfectly timed runs to the box, where she regularly meets crosses or balls whipped in from set pieces to spread the panic on opposing defences.

As a rare, natural midfield general, Seger will be dearly missed, but maybe this last-ditch effort can land an elusive piece of silverware 12 years in the making.

Player to watch: Fridolina Rolfö (Bayern Munich, GER)

The 23-year-old traded Swedish Champions Linköpings FC for Bayern Munich at the beginning of the year and ended up failing to find the back of the net for the rest of the campaign, however there’s still a lot to like about the young striker and the role she can play for Sweden in the near future.

Tall and elegant in the mould of Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, Rolfö possesses a left foot that thumps the ball and makes an effort to meander outside the box, yet she’s clearly not comfortable getting open to combine with teammates and exploring the space between and behind defenders at this stage of her development.

The rangy forward can’t reproduce Lotta Schelin’s clever movement off the ball nor the brute strength of Stina Blackstenius, and that should cost her a starting spot, but don’t discount the impact Rolfö could have off the bench.

Fridolina Rolfö impressed at the 2016 Olympic tournament and once again will be at the disposal of Sweden’s manager.

Probable Lineup (4x3x3): H. Lindahl; J. Samuelsson – N. Fischer – L. Sembrant – J. Andersson; L. Dahlkvist, C. Seger (C) – E. Rubensson; K. Asllani – S. Blackstenius – L. Schelin

Pia Sundhage has given the 4x4x2 extensive practice, prodding two out-and-out wingers serving a pair of strikers, but at the tournament she should reverse back into the battle-tested 4x3x3, which eases the burden on veteran midfielders Lisa Dahlkvist and Caroline Seger but in opposition pulls Lotta Schelin away from the net and onto the flank.

This is precisely where the injury to Montpellier’s Sofia Jakobsson would hurt were it not for the existence of a wildcard in Olivia Schough, a masterful set piece taker that lends options tactically. The 26-year-old can seize one of the wings, benching Blackstenius (or Schelin) in the process, or roll as a playmaker, potentially shunning Elin Rubensson.

Italy

Despite tying Norway for the record-number of appearances at the European Championships, it’s telling that the two-time Finalists arrive in the Netherlands under a shroud of doubts about their ability to keep alive their 32-year streak of last eight finishes at the event.

Soundly toppled by Switzerland in qualifying, Italy’s hopes were seriously jeopardized when playmaker Alice Parisi broke her leg during a friendly match in England, and therefore few contemplate more than a lone victory over Russia in the opening confront of Group B.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 6 (6 W, 2L), 6 pts behind Switzerland

Appearances: Eleventh

Best Performance: Finalists (1993, 1997)

Head Coach: Antonio Cabrini

Star Player: Ilaria Mauro (Fiorentina FC)

An imposing striker that seems custom made for Italy’s style of play by being able to hold the ball while their block moves up, turn towards the goal or associate with teammates, Ilaria Mauro will play a central role for her country at the Euro 2017.

Italy’s Ilaria Mauro battles with Sweden’s Nilla Fischer during a group stage match at the Euro 2013. The pair will clash again in matchday 3.

Before returning to the Women’s Serie A, where she tallied 16 times on Fiorentina’s maiden title campaign, Mauro spent three seasons in Germany and she might want to tap on those memories for self-motivation, since the markswoman isn’t bound to enjoy many opportunities to shine in the Netherlands. Still, the 29-year-old forward and partner Cristiana Girelli combined for 11 goals during the qualification round, and hitting a mere fraction of that total could make a big difference at this tournament.

Player to watch: Manuela Giugliano (AGSM Verona)

The 19-year-old Giugliano is the most dynamic young player in Italy and the natural successor to Melania Gabbiadini, the legendary 33-year-old veteran forward that should represent the Azzure for the final time in the Netherlands.

A “trequartista” with pace and boundless skill, Giugliano scored 15 goals and terrorized defenders as a teenager for Verona in 2016-17, yet that shouldn’t be enough to guarantee a position amongst Antonio Cabrini’s first options. Her time to shine will come one day though, and a few glimpses of raw potential may already be discerned if she touches the field at the Euro 2017.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): L. Giuliani; S. Gama – C. Salvai – E. Linari – E. Bartoli; A. Guagni – D. Stracchi – M. Rosucci – B. Bonansea; C. Girelli – I. Mauro

Significantly less dangerous than their male counterparts but equally disciplined tactically, don’t expect the Azzurre to deviate from their rigid 4x4x2 edifice, with Mauro and Girelli battling up front to forge something out of nothing and two banks of four holding the forth.

Defensive midfielder Daniela Stracchi is an indispensable part of Italy’s lineup

The 25-year-old Martina Rosucci, who recently returned from a long-term injury spell, should slot into the starting eleven to cover for Parisi’s absence, while Melania Gabbiadini and Daniela Sabatini will regularly come off the bench to replace Mauro and Girelli as soon as they give away signs of fatigue.

Russia

Russia hasn’t gone past the group stage on their four appearances at the European Championships, and they face an uphill battle to change course with the quality of competition in Group B. Particularly since Elena Fomina sponsored a dramatic roster shakeup over the last few months, relegating many veterans that have carried the water for years, and tossing youngsters with limited international experience to the wolves.

Members of Russia’s women’s national team will try to avoid the outcome of every previous appearance at the European Championships: an early exit.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 5 (4 W, 2 D, 2L), 10 points behind Germany

Finals Appearances: Fifth

Best Performance: Quarter-finals (1993, 1995)

Head Coach: Elena Fomina

Star Player: Elena Danilova (FK VDV Ryazan)

Leading figure in the 2005 Under-19 National team that brought Russia its first European title at any level of women’s football, Elena Danilova’s development didn’t unfold as expected with several bouts of injuries and inconsistent performances stalling a career entirely spent in the domestic leagues.

At age 30, the gifted forward gets back into the spotlight as the most talented and unpredictable player in the squad that will attack the Euro 2017, and if she remains engaged and mentally prepared to withstand large periods of time without feeling the ball, Danilova’s flair and proficiency in front of the goal could eventually power Russia past the most positive forecasts.

Player to watch: Margarita Chernomyrdina (FC Chertanovo)

The 21-year-old midfielder promises to assume an important role for Russia as the main link between a packed midfield sector and lone forward Elena Danilova.

Adroit with both feet, Chernomyrdina is capable of carrying the ball up the field and reach the edge of the box in good conditions to threaten the goal, yet she impresses the most for her intensity and predisposition to press opponents. Such urgency sometimes turns into recklessness when she gets too aggressive and concedes free kicks in dangerous positions, nevertheless that’s nothing that can’t get sorted out with time.

Russia’s Margarita Chernomyrdina (#20) fights for possession of the ball during an international friendly match against the USA.

Probable Lineup (4x4x1x1): T. Shcherbak ; T. Sheikina – E. Morozova – A. Kozhnikova – E. Ziyastinova; ; N. Smirnova – D. Makarenko – A. Cholovyaga – E. Sochneva; M. Chernomyrdina; E. Danilova

With so many players dropping out over the last few months, including goaltender Elvira Todua, right back Ekaterina Dmitrenko, center back Ksenia Tsybutovich and former captain Elena Terekhova, predicting the exact Russian lineup is a gamble, yet the overarching tactical approach shouldn’t vary, with nine field players (4+4+1) invested in defensive duties and the lone forward ostracized until the ball is recovered.

The Plan B, to execute in case Russia needs to catch up on the score, is also quite simple: swap one of the midfielders for a second forward (Nadezhda Karpova or Ekaterina Pantyukhina) and lean back to discover whether they can work some magic.

My crystal ball and the World Cup of hockey preliminary rosters

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey is seven and a half months away and the first names that will compete in Toronto from September, 17th to October, 1st were announced last Wednesday. Every nation (err..every Team) had to name 16 of the 23 players that would bring to the tournament, with at least two of them being goalies, and that meant that we would get to start the always entertaining game of projecting the names included, the major snubs and the potential surprises. To be clear, the subjects I consider “entertained” here are hockey nerds, hockey writers with columns to fill and people with too much time on their hands.

Anyway, in advance of the announcements, I took a couple of hours off my busy schedule to speculate on every player that would appear on the rosters’ lists (and not the ones I believed should have been selected), and then proceeded to evaluate my performance. This article describes my choices and rationales, and tries to impart into the thought-process of the management teams that actually had to do the job. I also sprinkle in a few predictions about the players that will be added until June 1st, when complete rosters have to be delivered.

A few months ago, I filed in a post about the construction of Team Europe’s roster (which you can read here and here ), so I plugged in some info from the analysis I did back then, and I am currently working on a detailed report on Team North America that will follow much of the same structure, thus refrained to share (or rehash) some ideas in this post regarding those two squads.

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey official logo

My main resource to speed up the process of compiling the potential preliminary rosters of every nation was this website , where you can sort out every NHL player that played in a season for nationality and position. It really saved up the time of scouring all NHL rosters, and I would also like to thank the European Teams for trying to restrict their players’ pool to the NHL. Especially Team Russia, who expediently announced the first 16 names would all be NHLers.

The article is naturally separated by each competing team, with each section starting with a resume of my mishaps, as OUT are players I wrongly named in my projection and IN are the ones who took their spot. I then transcribed my forecasted rosters and bolded the names I got right while expressing some ideas about every group (forwards, defenseman and goalies).

All the “real” preliminary rosters can be found here

 

Team Sweden

Out: C Carl Soderberg, G Jhonas Enroth
IN: D Niklas Kronwall (Detroit Red Wings), G Jacob Markstrom (Vancouver Canucks)

Forwards (9): Nicklas Backstrom (Washington Capitals), Daniel Sedin (Vancouver Canucks), Loui Eriksson (Boston Bruins), Alex Steen (St. Louis Blues), Henrik Sedin (Vancouver Canucks), Filip Forsberg (Nashville Predators), Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado Avalanche), Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit Red Wings), Carl Soderberg (Colorado Avalanche)

Sweden was the only team to name just eight forwards and they’re all pretty much unassailable, forming a formidable staple up front. I’m pretty confident Soderberg will be part of the final group of 13, with his versatility and experience playing both left wing and center, but the amount of great candidates for the other four spots is staggering.

Marcus Kruger may be an ideal checking pivot to slot behind Henrik Sedin, Zetterberg and Backstrom, but Mika Zibanejad and Mikael Backlund are also in the run, while on the wings they can mix and match with the tenacity of Patric Hornqvist, the skill of Gustav Nyquist and Jakob Silfverberg or the speed of Carl Hagelin, Rickard Rackell and Andre Burakovsky.

Defenseman (5): Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Arizona Coyotes), Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman (Tampa Bay Lightning), Niklas Hjalmarsson (Chicago Blackhawks)

Erik Karlsson (L) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (R) will command Team Sweden’s defence

The Tre Kronor’s blueline is once again absolutely stacked and I did hope they would leave two spots open for the wealth of options available. Niklas Kronwall’s decorated history with the national team proved too important, and moved out, for now, John Klingberg, who, for much of the first half of the NHL season, kept pace with Erik Karlsson in terms of offensive production. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the steady Anton Stralman was recognized, and should continue to be paired with Victor Hedman, a notable absence in Sochi 2014.

If Sweden makes the mistake of leaving Klingberg home, Johnny Oduya (Chicago Blackhawks) and Mattias Ekholm (Nashville Predators) should be the next in line, even if you can’t discount Alexander Edler, who, mind-bogglingly, was selected to cover for Karlsson on the top pair in 2014. Alas, let’s just hope the new coaching staff is smarter and joins the forces of Karlsson and Ekman-Larsson, creating a delightful, mouth-watering partnership.

Goalies (2): Henrik Lundqvist (NY Rangers), Jhonas Enroth (LA Kings)

If some teams opted to name three goaltenders, Sweden probably would have liked to leave it to Lundqvist, their only NHL starter. Enroth was considered the best goalie at the 2013 World Championships the Swedes won, and I thought that would give him the edge, but Markstrom and his never-truly-realized immense potential were favoured. The third slot may be decided by a coin flip between Enroth, Eddie Lack (Carolina Hurricanes), Robin Lehner (Buffalo Sabres) and even Anders Nilsson (St. Louis Blues).

Team Finland

Out: C Joonas Kempainnen, D Jyrki Jokipakka, D Sami Lepisto
IN: C Teuvo Teravainen (Chicago Blackhawks), LW Lauri Korpikovski (Edmonton Oilers), D Esa Lindell (Dallas Stars)

Forwards (9): Mikko Koivu (Minnesota Wild), Jussi Jokinen, Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers), Valteri Filppula (Tampa Bay Lightning), Jori Lehtera (St. Louis Blues), Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild), Leo Komarov (Toronto Maple Leafs) , Joonas Donskoi (San Jose Sharks), Joonas Kemppainen (Boston Bruins)

Finland never possesses the flashiest attack in senior competitions and that won’t change in the World Cup, since none of the first eight forwards above is a goal scorer. Donskoi is definitely the less known commodity but he’s had a fine debut season in the NHL and his selection was expected.

Lauri Korpikoski ‘s omission from my list was in favour of 27-year-old Kemppainen, part of last year’s World Championship squad before settling in Boston, while the below-expectations season put on by the talented Teuvo Teravainen convinced me he wouldn’t make the cut. Erik Haula, the third-year Minnesota Wild centre, is also a strong candidate to be a part of the final roster.

Scoring by commitment, always the foundation of Finland’s success internationally

Defenseman (5): Rasmus Ristolainen (Buffalo Sabres), Olli Maatta (Pittsburgh Penguins), Sami Vatanen (Anaheim Ducks), Jyrki Jokipakka (Calgary Flames), Sami Lepisto (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, KHL)

A grand total of six Finnish defensemen have suited up for NHL teams in 2015-16, and only four have played more than 10 games. Thus, this screening process wasn’t exactly difficult, even if the youth of the group is a really big concern. Ristolainen (21 years-old), Maatta (21) and Vatanen (24) are all relatively inexperienced, even if the last two were already key components in Sochi 2014, so I searched a bit to bring up the name of Lepisto, a 31-year-old former NHLer with two Olympic bronze medals in his résumé. He’s no Kimmo Timonen, but his experience will definitely be appreciated.

The offensive-minded Esa Lindell, another 21-year-old, jumped in front of Jokipakka, who just a few days ago was his teammate on the Stars organization, despite only 4 NHL appearances against more than 90 amassed by the 24-year-old.

Goalies (2): Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators), Tuukka Rask (Boston Bruins)

Rinne and Rask are studs and will battle it out for the starting spot, with Boston’s mainstay having the edge. The Dallas Stars duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi should extend their on-going confront to the national team, with the latter in advantage at this time.

Team Russia

Out: D Alexei Emelin, D Fedor Tyutin, D Evgeni Medvedev
IN: C Vladislav Namestnikov (Tampa Bay Lightning), D Dmitry Orlov (Washington Capitals), G Andrei Vasilevski (Tampa Bay Lightning)

Forwards (9): Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals), Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov (Chicago Blackhawks), Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins), Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis Blues), Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings), Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay Lightning), Nikolai Kulemin (NY Islanders)

Six of the top 25 point producers in the NHL are Russian forwards, and you just need to look at their names to confirm that they won’t lack firepower and copious amounts of offensive skill. The nine names picked up are non-brainers and Vladislav Namestnikov is a tenth no one disputes.

Right now, the question is where two all-world talents like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov fit in, since someone has to backcheck and kill penalties on that group. Datsyuk, Kulemin and Anisimov won’t be enough, so I expect Alexander Burmistrov (Winnipeg Jets) to be one of the late picks, with Viktor Tikhonov (Arizona Coyotes) also expected to carve his spot. A final note for Russia’s depth down the middle, significantly improved with the emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who joins Malkin, Datsyuk, and Anisimov.

Artemi Panarin will be one of the young Russian forwards to watch at the World Cup

Defenseman (5): Andrei Markov (Montreal Canadiens), Alexei Emelin (Montreal Canadiens), Dmitri Kulikov (Florida Panthers), Fedor Tyutin (Columbus Blue Jackets), Evgeni Medvedev (Philadelphia Flyers)

Markov and Kulikov, who was left off the 2014 Olympic Games’ roster, were easy picks but Russia’s decision to ignore all the veteran blueliners caught me off guard. After all, the 31-year-old Tyutin participated in the last three Olympics, Medvedev is a regular fixture on their World Championships representations’, and Emelin’s physical style is pretty uncommon in the rest of their defensive options. No doubt the trio has seen his best years but I fully expect to see them on the final roster.

Dmitry Orlov (Capitals) has impressed with his offensive instincts this season for the Capitals and provides some much needed puck-moving ability to the group, thus the 24-year-old was always on the radar to be one of the seven rearguards on the list. Another player that has those types of qualities is Slava Voynov (SKA Saint Petersburg, KHL) but he’s persona non-grata for the NHL and NHLPA, hence the pressure to leave him at home is significant.

Goalies (2): Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche), Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets)

With Anton Khudobin buried on Anaheim’s depth chart, there were only three regular NHL goalies to choose from, so I guess they just decided to put the subject behind their back for all. The inconsistent Varlamov and a Bobrosvky coming off a nightmarish season will square off for possession of Russia’s crease, with Andrei Vasilevsky on the lookout in case both falter.

Team Czech Republic

Out: RW Jaromir Jagr, RW Radim Vrbata, RW Jiri Hudler, D Zbynek Michalek, D Marek Zidlicky
IN: LW Tomas Hertl (San Jose Sharks), RW David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins), D Andrej Sustr (Tampa Bay Lightning), D Michal Kempny (Avangard Omsk, KHL), G Ondrej Pavelec (Winnipeg Jets)

Forwards (10) : David Krejci (Boston Bruins), Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia Flyers), Tomas Plekanec (Montreal Canadiens), Jaromir Jagr, Jiri Hudler (Florida Panthers), Martin Hanzal (Arizona Coyotes), Radim Vrbata (Vancouver Canucks), Ondrej Palat (Tampa Bay Lightning Lightning), Michael Frolik (Winnipeg Jets), Vladimir Sobotka (Avangard Omsk, KHL)

Doing this prediction on a couple of hours was bound to lead to some blunders, and indicating Jagr is among those, as the 44-year-old and the team’s brass had already agreed to wait for the legend to decide on whether he wanted to represent his country one last (more?) time.

Vrbata and Hudler also fall in a similar category, as both were bizarre and glaring exclusions from the roster on the 2014 Olympics. Two years later, Vrbata is 34-years-old and going through a tough season in Vancouver, thus I can understand where they’re coming from. However, Hudler (32) is still productive, even if at a level significantly below his 2014-15 career season, and would have helped this team. Anyway, it’s not the first time the Czech take some strange decisions in terms of roster construction, and seems now clear that neither player is on their plans.

Tomas Hertl missed the 2014 Olympics due to a knee injury, but he should in Toronto come September

Nevertheless, looking at the entire group of 16, no player is older than 30, and going with the youthful exuberance and tremendous speed of Hertl and Pastrnak, two of the few exciting talents produced by the country recently, is definitely defendable. In the end, it won’t be the vital difference between failure and success.

To round out the forward group, the energetic Vladimir Sobotka is a great pickup, and I expect to see a couple more European-based players added later. Dmitri Jaskin, the 22-year-old St. Louis Blues forward, was the odd man out when I finished my preliminary group, but I believe he’ll also be part of the 23-man roster.

Defenseman (4): Zbynek Michalek (Arizona Coyotes), Roman Polak (San Jose Sharks), Radko Gudas (Philadelphia Flyers), Marek Zidlicky (NY Islanders)

My mishaps predicting the Czech roster extended to the blueline, where the unassuming Andrej Sustr, a regular on last season’s Stanley Cup finalists, was left off my roster. Although, in my defence, I can note that the 25-year-old is a bottom-pairing guy for his team and never represented his country on senior international competitions before.

The absence of Michalek is truly surprising, as the 33-year-old is an extremely reliable defensive presence boasting a long history with the national team. Meanwhile, Zidlicky is another notable omission because, despite being 39-years-old, his powerplay prowess and passing ability aren’t approached by any other Czech rearguard.

In contrary, out of nowhere came Michal Kempny, a 25-year-old undrafted defenseman that plays on the left side… and that’s all we know about him. As for Polak and Gudas, they will use all means necessary to keep the opponents in check, so their adversaries definitely hope they’re not paired together.

Goalies (2): Petr Mrazek (Detroit Red Wings), Michal Neuvirth (Philadelphia Flyers)

Just like Russia, there were only three real options to consider here, so makes sense that Pavelec’s inclusion was already taken care off. Nevertheless, at least this time, he won’t be the starter on the tournament, with the Czech hopes’ resting on the shoulders of the much more trustworthy Petr Mrazek, a star in the making.

Team Europe

Out: C Lars Eller, RW Marian Gaborik, RW Nino Niederreiter
IN: C Leon Draisatl (Edmonton Oilers), LW Tomas Vanek (Minnesota Wild), RW Jannik Hansen (Vancouver Canucks)

Forwards (9): Anze Kopitar (LA Kings, SLO), Marian Gaborik (LA Kings, SVK), Tomas Tatar (Detroit Red Wings, SVK), Marian Hossa (Chicago Blackhawks, SVK), Mikkel Boedker (Colorado Avalanche, DEN), Lars Eller (Montreal Canadiens, DEN), Mats Zuccarello (NY Rangers, NOR), Frans Nielsen (NY Islanders, DEN), Nino Niederreiter (Minnesota Wild, SUI)

Leon Draisaitl’s development can have a huge impact on Team Europe’s chances

The big standout from the initial roster is Leon Draisatl, the 20-year-old Oilers centre who took full-advantage of Connor McDavid’s injury to go on an offensive tear and seal his status as an NHL-ready middleman. With only Kopitar engraved as a high-end star pivot for Team Europe, the German may jump from the outside looking in right towards the 2nd line, pushing down the likes of Lars Eller and Zemgus Girgensons, who may be in direct competition for a lower-line role. Meanwhile, instead of Niederreiter, who I pencilled on the fourth-line’s right-wing, Team Europe’s management surprised by nominating Jannik Hansen, whose merits I defended ferociously on the aforementioned post.

Vanek and Gaborik were the skilled veterans on the downswing I mulled before my ninth forward indication. While I believed the Slovak’s familiarity with Kopitar made him a near sure thing, his knee injury, compounded with the 34 birthdays, probably scared some and contributed to Vanek’s appointment.

Defenseman (5): Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins, SVK), Roman Josi (Nashville Predators, SUI), Andrej Sekera (Edmonton Oilers, SVK), Mark Streit (Philadelphia Flyers, SUI), Dennis Seidenberg (Boston Bruins, GER)

I originally only had four defensemen on the preliminary roster, but ultimately believed that Seidenberg’s strong play as of late would erase any doubts that could exist. I was right, and now it’s up to Christian Ehrhoff to find his groove back and validate my original six. I overlooked Vancouver Canucks’ Yannick Weber before, but he’s on the race for the 6th/7th position with compatriot Luca Sbisa.

Goalies (2): Frederik Andersen (Anaheim Ducks, DEN), Jaroslav Halak (NY Islanders, SVK)

Andersen and Halak were absolute locks, but the terrible season of Calgary’s Jonas Hiller blew the door wide open for Thomas Greiss to step in, which will be a mere formality if he can maintain his lead amongst NHL goalies in Sv%.

Team North America

Out: C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, LW Boone Jenner
IN: RW JT Miller (NY Rangers), G Matt Murray (Pittsburgh Penguins)

Forwards (10): Brandon Saad (Columbus Blue Jackets, USA), Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers, CAN), Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche, CAN), Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames, USA), Sean Monahan (Calgary Flames, CAN), Sean Couturier (Philadelphia Flyers, CAN), Boone Jenner (Columbus Blue Jackets, CAN), Ryan Nugent – Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers, CAN), Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings, CAN), Jake Eichel (Buffalo Sabres, USA)

I don’t want to spoil my incoming article, but I’m also still unsure where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins fits in the lineup for this team. However, Peter Chiarelli, the Oilers GM, co-picked the roster and it is still complicated to see him discard one of his guys. RNH is currently nursing an injury, which muffles the subject, but Edmonton’s media will create a uproar if the snub is repeated in June.

Like Hansen on Team Europe, I’m a passionate supporter of Boone Jenner’s possible contributions to this squad, yet his name was forgotten this week in favour of JT Miller, who appeared on the radar with a breakthrough season for the Rangers but no one expected to see nominated so early. Although there was definitely a need for a right-winger with speed and decent size on the top nine, my preference went for a more polished offensive player.

Chiarelli and Stan Bowman cautioned for the necessity to watch closely the ups-and-downs experienced by rookie players, hence I was reluctant to include Eichel and Larkin on the initial roster, but, in the end, their pedigree and impeccable track record representing the USA at International tournaments pointed me in the right direction.

Defenseman (4): Ryan Murray (Columbus Blue Jackets, CAN), Seth Jones (Columbus Blue Jackets, USA), Aaron Ekblad (Florida Panthers, CAN), Morgan Rielly (Toronto Maple Leafs, CAN)

Ryan Murra (L) and Seth Jones are forging a partnership in Columbus that should extend to Team North America.

Ekblad, Jones and Reilly comprise the trio of blueliners that will be asked to anchor the Young Guns’ defence, and Murray’s dependability, coupled with a flourishing chemistry with his Columbus’ partner, turned him into a favourite to land on the top 4. Nailing down the last three men will prove more difficult, but I’ll take my crack soon…

Goalies (2): John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks, USA), Connor Hellebuyck (Winnipeg Jets, USA)

Team North America’s prospects on goal look way more promising now than last summer because all three men selected have exceled this season. Gibson was invited to the NHL All-Star game, and both Hellebuyck and Matt Murray got some games under their belt against the best in the World. The Jets goaltender string more than two dozen starts, and thus held the advantage to be the second name announced, but Murray’s first four presences were so impressive that no more scouting and evaluation was deemed necessary.

Team Canada

Out: RW Corey Perry, LW Brad Marchand, D Alex Pietrangelo
IN: C Tyler Seguin (Dallas Stars), D Marc-Edouard Vlasic (San Jose Sharks), G Corey Crawford (Chicago Blackhawks)

Forwards (10): Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks), Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning), Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars), Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks), Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand (Boston Bruins), John Tavares (NY Islanders), Jeff Carter (LA Kings)

Tyler Seguin will wear Canada’s colours for the first time on a best-on-best tournament.

Canada’s embarrassment of riches up front produces enough headaches just to trim down the group to 13 forwards, so imagine trying to pick only nine. I saw Crosby, Toews, Benn and Bergeron as locks, and Stamkos and Tavares were right behind alongside Perry, whose duo with Getzlaf is seldom broken. With so many centres in the mix and Perry’s slow start on the rear-view, his absence is head-scratching, but should be corrected in June. Getzlaf’s high standard of play over almost a decade was taken into account, while Jeff Carter was a hunch I was reasonably comfortable with. The LA Kings forward performed strongly at the 2014 Olympics on a depth role, and his speed, versatility, two-way ability and experience have always been greatly appreciated by every Canadian management group.

Tyler Seguin was overlooked in 2014 and, despite his outstanding offensive array, I thought they would overthink his selection and leave the decision for later, much in the same way it will happen with Claude Giroux. As for Marchand, his evolution from pest to one of the elite left wingers in the game has been so surprising that I wagered things would just keep going his way “off the ice”. It wasn’t meant to be and he’ll have to keep his hot streak going, because I believe he’s in direct competition with Taylor Hall for a spot.

Defenseman (4): Drew Doughty (LA Kings), Duncan Keith (Chicago Blackhawks), Shea Weber (Nashville Predators), Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis Blues)

Doughty, Keith and Weber were seen as untouchables on Canada’s defence entering the 2014 Olympics and their importance stands, even if Weber’s slow decline has been well documented and he may no longer be an NHL top pairing D. Pietrangelo carried Jay Bouwmeester, his St. Louis Blues’ partner, to Sochi, and I thought that gave him an inside path, but it seems that Vlasic’s steadfast style caught more admires there. The Shark being a left defenseman, which balances the group of four, was also important on this equation.

Riskier options, like PK Subban, Kris Letang and Brent Burns, all righties, will have to wait a few months, while a third left-handed blueliner should be added, with Calgary’s duo of TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano in the mix.

Goalies (2): Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens), Braden Holtby (Washington Capitals)

The lack of details regarding Price’s mysterious injury are concerning, but at the end of the day he’s still the best goaltender in the planet, and nothing indicates there’s a chance he won’t be fully prepared to play in September. Holtby is the odds-on Vezina front-runner and the best man to backup the Canadiens’ reigning MVP, while Corey Crawford forced his way into the conversation with a stellar campaign for the Stanley Cup Champions. Even if Roberto Luongo wills the Florida Panthers to an unlikely Championship run, it won’t matter, since the Blackhawks’ goaltender convinced Team Canada’s management that he’s as essential as the other two.

Team USA

Out: C David Backes, C Brandon Dubinsky
IN: LW Justin Abdelkader (Detroit Red Wings), C Derek Stepan (NY Rangers)

Forwards (9): Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), Joe Pavelski (San Jose Sharks), Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg Jets), Zach Parise (Minnesota Wild), Ryan Kesler (Anaheim Ducks), Max Pacioretty (Montreal Canadiens), David Backes (St. Louis Blues), Brandon Dubinsky (Columbus Blue Jackets), TJ Oshie (Washington Capitals)

Team USA’s attack also encompassed a few slam-dunks (Kane, Pavelski, Parise) and others almost no one would contemplate to leave out, namely Pacioretty, in spite of being in the middle of a frustrating season in Montreal, and Kesler, whose effectiveness has slipped slightly over the last couple of years. Wheeler, one of the NHL’s most underappreciated offensive dynamos, belongs in that group, and his rise as the second best American right-wing pressed Phil Kessel into a corner where his pure goal-scoring prowess may be left at home, a foolish cogitation not too long ago.

Will “Little Joe” Pavelski also be named Team USA’s captain?

Backes and Dubinsky are just the type of rugged, physical two-way players John Tortorella loves, but I have to disclose that their inclusion on my list had less to do with that, as I didn’t remembered who the coach was, and more with the USA’s usual fascination with that kind of players. Just remember Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan’s presence in Sochi and the unexpected call up of Justin Abdelkader, whose experience complementing top players in Detroit was brought up as a basis for the selection.

I was unsure about Oshie’s early inclusion until I realized the shootouts will be there once again, while Derek Stepan is a safe choice to provide some centre depth that can chip in regular offense, something the American’s don’t have in spades. To fill out the group, some tough decisions will be made on the wings, where, besides Kessel, stand out the candidacies of James Van Riemsdyk (who may not play another game this season), Bobby Ryan, Kyle Okposo and Chris Kreider.

Meanwhile, Brandon Saad and Johnny Gaudreau would have been shoe-ins on this roster, but will have to settle for Team North America.

Defenseman (4): Ryan Suter (Minnesota Wild), John Carlson (Washington Capitals), Ryan McDonagh (NY Rangers), Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg Jets)

Suter, Carlson and McDonagh formed the backbone of the American defence in Sochi and their place was never in doubt. Byfuglien’s impact every time he steps over the boards is so remarkable at both ends of the ice, that he just bullied his way to a spot and no one bat an eye. He’s not yet someone Tortorella will fully trust to defend a lead late, but his cannon shot and strength cannot be ignored like happened in Sochi, when the USA could have used a catalyst of change during the showdown with Canada.

There’s also a balance between lefties and righties on this top four, and, if five blueliners were appointed, Justin Faulk (Carolina Hurricanes) was the next man up. I’m confident the veteran Paul Martin, still playing top-line minutes in San Jose, won’t be neglected, with the seventh spot turning into a bloodbath for a plethora of names, including Kevin Shattenkirk, Cam Fowler, Erik Johnson, Matt Niskanen, Jake Gardiner, Keith Yandle..

Goalies (3): Cory Schneider (New Jersey Devils), Jonathan Quick (LA Kings), Ben Bishop (Tampa Bay Lightning)

With so many teams naming three goalies, at least it wasn’t the only one I thought would do it to buck the trend. Quick and Schneider, two goalies that interpret the position in entirely different ways, will continue to push the envelopes for their teams in hopes of securing the starting spot, while Bishop, despite being in the middle of a career-season, departs a step below. Quick, a third-string goalie in Vancouver 2010 and the leading man in Sochi 2014, may get the nod, but Schneider’s numbers are better across the board since he was elevated to top status in New Jersey.

Final Record: 105/128 ≈ 82%

Rescaling the NHL outdoor fun in five European destinations

The frenzy of competitive outdoor ice hockey games established since the turn of the century started in 2003, with the first NHL regular season game held outside, at Edmonton, in front of 57,167 spectators, and the idea quickly caught fire through the hockey world, extending to all levels of the sport in North America and most of the professional leagues in Europe.
However, the novelty has passed and today, moving beyond the local fanfare they bring, North-American audiences have become progressively tired of the concept. From the NHL’s point of view, the lack of public interest exhibited for the Stadium Series game played earlier this year at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara – the first to happen in Northern California- has to be a warning signal that something has to change and it’s time to experiment with new concepts.
While it’s undoubtedly accurate that there are still major markets (St. Louis, Minnesota, Denver, Dallas?) on the waiting line to host a “Winter Classic” type event, the concept can and should be expanded to capture new audiences and further expose the NHL brand. Therefore, isn’t it obvious? Get across the Atlantic and partner a great idea with the fans that haven’t yet been jaded by it.

Despite the big crowds at the stadiums, the outdoor ice hockey game concept has stalled in North America

Hockey’s popularity in some regions of Europe is well documented and the NHL has tried to explore it before, mainly with the NHL Premiere events, which from 2007 to 2011 brought several of the league’s premier franchises and players to dispute regular season matches on the continent at the beginning of the season. But with the next two Winter Olympic Games set to be held in Asia (Pyeongchang, 2018, Beijing/Astana, 2022) and the newly reborn World Cup scheduled for Toronto in 2016, the best players in the world won’t set foot in Europe for a long period of time.
To remedy this less than ideal situation, it’s time for the NHL to reward the dedicated fans that keep sacrificing hours of sleep day after day through 9 months to follow his favourite teams, and the return should be made in style, with a bunch of outdoors games held in the middle of the season, preferably in January or February…of 2018 or 2019.
Why this timing? The 2016-17 season is already going to start later due to World Cup and the NHL is definitely prepared to pull out of the 2018 Olympics, a decision that would certainly incite criticism and disappoint audiences worldwide. Then, is there a better way to apologize to its international fans than provide a taste of authentic, up-and-running NHL hockey (not “we’re still in pre-season hockey”) just weeks before the Olympic tournament, or, in alternative, a year later? If there is, I haven’t grasped it yet.

So, I’ve come up with five European countries to host the games, with the practical aspects sketched along these lines:

– All teams selected should leave North America, at most, mid –week in order to arrive in time to fight off jet-lag and play either Saturday or Sunday.
– The games would not coincide, with three of them scheduled for Saturday, starting at 15:00, 18:00 and 21:00 (GMT), and two more on Sunday (16:00, 19:00), thus managing to begin late enough to viewers back in North America, especially on the East Coast.
– In the case of conference matchups, the “home team” should be the one that hosted less matches between the pair in the previous season, getting the game back on the following year, and in intra-conference matchups the home side would be the Western outfit, with this team receiving both encounters on the following season.

How would the countries, hosting cities and stadiums be selected? Well, outdoor games only make sense, particularly in this scenario, if you significantly improve the number of tickets available in relation to a regular indoor game, thus facilities with a capacity for at least 30.000 were designated. That narrowed the list down in a hurry, since several relevant countries couldn’t comply with this, the most important being the Czech Republic. Also, ideally, you would like to get away from the capital cities, where the entertainment competition is enormous on the weekend, and focus on towns with a strongly built ice hockey interest, places that can properly announce the festivities and gather the local attention necessary to avoid empty seats.
Moreover, to increase the stadium experience and engage the audiences, some native talent or highly popular team/rivalry needs to be involved, with this being a decisive ingredient towards determining the teams clashing in each event. However, cautions need to be taken in order to avoid the appointment of unreasonable matchups, since some games, namely rivalries and traditional battles between division and conference foes, are too important on an economical and competitive level to believe the visited teams would support its relocation.
Preamble closed, let’s speculate.

SEL Outdoor Classic at the Ullevi in 2009

Sweden (Ullevi, Gothenburg)

One of the most important European markets can’t possibly stay out of this hockey smorgasbord. Since the NHL sent the Washington Capitals and the late Minnesota North Stars to participate in the NHL-Sweden tournament of 1980, the country has welcomed NHL teams regularly, at first for friendly matches and tournaments against local teams, and after 2008 to face counterparts in regular season games. All of the latter matches took place at Stockholm’s Globe Arena, and the Swedish capital certainly has a new state-of-the-art facility, the Friends Arena, ready to receive outdoor games. The 50,000 seats would be tough to fill, but this isn’t the reason why I selected another venue for the Swedish classic.
History has shown that if we add another layer of intrigue to these events, mainly an iconic, beloved, antique facility, there’s an extra component added and because of this I would nudge towards the 43,000 Ullevi in Gothenburg, which incidentally will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2018. In addition, the stadium has already hosted an event of this nature in 2009, when hometown Frölunda beat Färjestad at the inaugural edition of the Swedish Elite League Outdoor Classic, in front of more than 31.000. Need another reason? The proximity to a pair of rapidly improving neighbours, Denmark and Norway.

Teams: The Detroit Red Wings, that have had strong Swedish connections since Nicklas Lidström debuted in the NHL at the 1990´s, and the New York Rangers of Henrik Lundqvist, which started his professional career at Frölunda, are probably the most popular NHL teams on the country, but both franchises would be too reluctant to sacrifice an home date against a fellow “Original 6” opponent to make it work. So, why not go with the Rangers and the home fans against Erik Karlsson and the Ottawa Senators? Both teams have already played ”real games” in Sweden, the Rangers against the Kings and Ducks in 2011, and the Senators in 2009 against the Penguins, but that shouldn’t be a problem for most.
Other options to consider include the Vancouver Canucks, that have always maintained a little Swedish colony since the Sedin twins joined Mats Naslund in the early 2000’s, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the former stronghold of Mats Sundin and a team which by 2018-19 should already be under the William Nylander mania.

Switzerland (Stade de Suisse, Bern)

The first professional ice hockey game held outside in Europe, on the new century, happened in Switzerland in 2007, the 100th edition of the Bern derby played at the Stade de Suisse in front of 30,000. Since that time, the NLA, the Swiss top tier hockey league, has continued to grow hand in hand with the emergence of the national team, becoming over the last few years the most attended league in Europe. Actually, SC Bern leads all Europe in average attendance, with more than 16,000 fans flocking to the arena per game, and during the last NHL lockout, several stars (John Tavares, Rick Nash, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchene, Patrice Bergeron…) kept in shape playing in the league, leaving a trail of admirers eager to watch more from them. Despite of this, even if teams like the New York Rangers have visited local clubs for a number of times, the NHL has never hosted a regular-season game in the country, and such mistake should be quickly corrected.

The Tatze-Derby (SCL Tigers-SC Bern) at the Stade de Suisse Wankdorf in 2007

Hence, from the three 30,000-plus stadiums existent in Switzerland, it’s a matter of deciding between Bern and Geneva, two of the three cities with the highest attendance rates. The previous experience with this type of events, the location inside the German part of the country, more hockey-appreciative, and the proven existing fan base lean the decision toward the Swiss capital and the Stade de Suisse.

Teams: The Nashville Predators of Roman Josi, probably the best player ever produced in the nation, are an obvious choice to appear in this event, and that turns into a complete slam-dunk if we add that the defenseman is an SC Bern home-grown- talent and a native of the Swiss capital. Plus, the Predators have already waiting on the wings another promising Swiss prospect, forward Kevin Fiala, the 11th pick of the 2014 NHL draft who might be an explosive scorer for the team by this time. On the other side of the ice, what about the San Jose Sharks, a team which is just starting to explore the defensive acumen of Mirco Mueller, the 18th pick of the 2013 NHL draft, and the franchise that employs Joe Thornton and Logan Couture, both former NLA performers.

Germany (RheinEnergieStadion, Cologne)

It took some time and a lot of testing in preseason games from its constituents, but the NHL finally embraced Germany as a hockey market in 2011, holding the first regular–season game in Berlin to close the last NHL Premiere. Since then, the game has continued to make strides in the most populous nation in Eastern Europe and the Deustche Eishockey Liga is today one of the main receivers of North-American players who decide to emigrate. Moreover, to attest its recent prosperity, the German League has already organized two outdoor games and those were resounding successes.
First, on the 5th of January, 2013, the Frankenstadion in Nuremberg welcomed a crowd of 50,000, a number that would be surpassed two years later, at Düsseldorf, when the North-Rhine-Westphalia derby between Düsseldorfer EG and Kölner Haie was watched by 51,125 enthusiastic fans. In fact, most of League’s 14 squads are located on the south and eastern part of the country, so those are really the regions where an event of this magnitude should take place.
The Bavarian region is represented by four teams but hosting a game at the 75,000-seats Allianz Arena in Munich seems a bit too optimistic, consequently we must change sights for the backup plan, the highly industrialized and densely populated Rhine region, which contributes with 4 DEL teams. The Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen would be a place to contemplate, since it held the inaugural match of the 2010 World Championships in front of an European-record 77,803 fans, but we should probably set our hopes on one of the big cities with DEL teams, either Dusseldorf or Cologne. Since the former has had his chance nationally, we’ll settle for the RheinEnergyStadion, located in the fourth largest city in Germany and capable of holding 50,000 since it was renovated for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

More than 77,000 atended the 2010 IIHF World Championships Opening Game at the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen

Teams: Can Leon Draisaitl, the highest drafted German player of all-time, make a name for himself in the NHL until 2018? The Edmonton Oilers certainly aren’t one of the premier franchises in the NHL and their name won’t wow the German fans poised to attend such event, but if the big, skilled center can be a recognizable figure by then, a possible match on his hometown can be a money-maker. To balance the international-appeal, I would throw in as opponents the Boston Bruins, current team of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and the franchise where Marco Sturm, the top-German scorer in NHL history, played the longest.

Great Britain (London Olympic Stadium, London)

The first visit by NHL teams to the British Islands dates back to April 1959, as part of a European exhibition tour for the NY Rangers and the Boston Bruins, and since then the League has visited London three more times, the last one in 2007, when the Anaheim Ducks and the LA Kings played the first two NHL regular-season games ever held in Europe. However, the sport’s growth on the United Kingdom has been slow, with the chronic problems experienced by the local league (Elite Ice Hockey League) exemplifying that perfectly (disbandment and rebuilds, failed expansions, franchises folding).
An average attendance of less than 2,000 spectators coupled with the lack of presence on the largest English cities (London, Manchester, Newcastle) has penalized the championship and the sport at the national level, but those kind of problems weren’t impediments for recent successful ventures by the NBA and the NFL on a British sports landscape that is in constant evolution as the population changes.

Ducks and Kings faced off in 2007 at the London O2 Arena

Even if most of the EIHL teams are situated on the centre of England and in Scotland, the attraction of London is too much to consider any other town suitable to host this event. Matching the more than 80,000 fans that every year congregate at Wembley to watch NFL games it’s a lot to ask, but the NHL would certainly be happy if the locals and the several thousand expats living and working on the metropolitan area can fill the 54,000 seats available at the London Olympic Stadium, scheduled to re-open in 2016.

Teams: There are no clear-cut picks here, so the league would probably have to go with star power and/or tradition. If you select the first, wouldn’t this be a great way of introducing Connor McDavid to international stardom? Make it the “McDavid team” versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, a battle of the most recent “Next Great One’s”. If you prefer tradition, may I suggest reuniting a “lost rivalry”? London would certainly appreciate a Chicago Blackhawks-Detroit Red Wings matchup.

Austria (Wörthersee Stadion, Klagenfurt)

With the Helsinki Olympic Stadium set to close for renovations from 2016 to 2019, and few quality options available in more traditional countries like Czech Republic and Slovakia, Austria stumbles on this list as a hub for central Europe capable of attracting fans from various neighbouring countries.

The landscape surrounding the Wörthersee Stadion in Klagenfurt

Even though the sport takes a backseat nationally for other winter activities like skiing, the Austrian ice hockey League has a history that dates back to 1923, and, since 2005, the competition innovated towards providing access to clubs from nearby nations. In fact, teams from Slovenia, Italy, Hungary and the Czech Republic compete today in the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL), making it kind of a poor parented KHL. Likewise, during the first few decades, the sport was dominated in Austria by the teams from Vienna and Klagenfurt, but steadily the landscape has changed, emerging new powers from cities like Linz and Salzburg.
However, it is still on the capital of the Carinthia region that the record-holder for most championships is located and the city of Klagenfurt hasn’t left their credits in other hands, taking on the task of organizing the only two outdoor ice hockey games ever held in Austria. The modern Wörthersee Stadion received 30,000 spectators for the 2010 and 2015 Winter Classics, gathering hometown EC KAC and rivals Villacher SC, and its geographical location, right at the border with Italy and Slovenia – and close to Hungary and Slovakia- makes it ideal to host an event of this kind and benefit from the influx of visiting fans. Thus, the town of Klagenfurt trumps the sexier and riskier option, Vienna, which would host the event at the 50,000-seats Ernst-Happel Stadium.

Teams: Well, there’s a superstar center from nearby Slovenia excelling for the twice champions LA Kings, and that would be a good place to start. Moreover, Anze Kopitar deserves the recognition, his compatriots would flock to the city, and an event like these provides an international exposure that would further set his profile has a model of perseverance for aspiring youngsters from no-traditional ice hockey nations. However, for all his qualities, he’s not an Austrian, and the country lacks a true poster-boy now that Thomas Vanek has taken a step back as he enters his 30’s. Yet, not banking upon a new Austrian face emerging, Vanek’s Minnesota Wild wouldn’t be a bad opponent, especially since the lack of an event in Finland would take the team from the State of Hockey out of its favoured destination.

After the first five, could the NHL get even bolder? What about a game at the Rome Coliseum (…)? A battle between the NHL and KHL Champions at Moscow’s Red Square? Shifting gears, can Rio de Janeiro and Copacabana beach be more than a pipe dream? Will the league turn its efforts to Asia first (Japan, South Korea, China)?

An NHL European Division may be a scenario never achievable, but there’s so much to explore and to experiment in order to grow the game at other latitudes that the powerful NHL needs to lead the pack towards innovation.

European Tour of Sports – Sweden

The Basics


Population: 9.7 M
Area: 450 290 km2
Capital: Stockholm
Summer Olympic Medals: 483 (143 G-164 S-176 B)
Winter Olympic Medals: 144 (50 G-40 S-54 B)
Popular sports
“Välkommen till Sverige”, a land of less than ten million people that seats on the top ten in medals conquered at both the Summer and Winter Olympics, a country that sees half of its population engaged in sports clubs, and in which one in every five persons actively participates in sports activities.
I’m repeating myself over every article of this series, but you wouldn’t be surprised to know that football is right at the top of the Swede’s preferences, with the national team being a regular participant in the biggest international competitions after qualifying a total of 16 times for the World Cup and the European Championships. Although the country’s best results have come on home soil, mainly the second position at the 1958 World Cup, lost at the Räsunda Stadium against Pele’s Brazil, and the semi-final appearance at the Euro 1992, the Swedish national team is always regarded as a team to watch, as the third place finishes at the 1950 and 1994 World Cup reflect the amount of talent the Swedes have been able to produce over the years. Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordhal and Nils Liedholm, members of the team that won Gold at the 1948 Olympics, were probably the first big stars of the sport in the country, enjoying a formidable partnership over the 50’s for AC Milan and the “Blågult” (ENG: The Blue-Yellow), but later names like goaltender Thomas Ravelli and forwards Tomas Brolin and Henrik Larsson also left their mark on European football.

Tomas Brolin celebrates a goal for Sweden on the Euro 92

At the club level, despite today’s obscurity on the European scale, the fans of IFK Göteborg had the chance to celebrate two UEFA Cup wins on the 80’s, while Mälmo FF lost a European Cup final in 1979. A look over Swedish football wouldn’t be complete without a reference to the most successful Swedish coach of all-time, Mr. Sven-Göran Eriksson, who collected 17 trophies during managing stints in 9 different countries, including league-and-cup doubles for IFK Göteborg, a team that he coached to the 1982 UEFA Cup success, SL Benfica and SS Lazio.
On the women’s side, Sweden is definitely one of the continent’s main rulers, with the national team succeeding at the first edition of the European Championships, in 1984, and the best result at the World Cup happening in 2003, a loss in the final against hosts USA. However, over the last few years, they have successively fallen just short of glory, beaten on the semi or quarter-final stages of every major competition since 2007. The 1-0 loss to Germany in the semi-final of the 2013 European Championships the country organized is a perfect example of that. Meanwhile, Sweden’s Dammallsvenskan is hailed as one of the top domestic leagues in the World, with Umeå IK vaunting 2 Women’s Champions League trophies and three runner-up finishes.

Peter Forsberg on the victory lap after the Tre Kronor defeated Finland at the 2006 Turim Olympics Final

Sharing the spotlight with football on the leading sports coverage in Sweden is ice hockey, a sport where the national team, nicknamed “Tre Kronor” (ENG: Three Crowns), currently leads the World Rankings and boasts an impressive résumé. Nine World Championships, the most recent in 2013, and nine Olympic medals, including two golds, in 1994 and 2006, fill the nation’s trophy cabinet, but the Swede’s should also be proud of the amount of talent they have nurtured. Nicklas Lidström, Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Börge Salming, Håkan Loob and Mats Näslund were all players that achieved great success both at home and at the NHL level, and their level of play ranks them among the best of all-time. Furthermore, the Swedish Hockey League is considered the third best in the world and even the second tier competition, the HockeyAllsvenskan, welcomes excellent attendances.
Handball is other team sport that receives plenty of attention in the country, as the Swedes can take pride on the four gold medals at the European Championships, a record, the four titles and eleven podium finishes at the World Championships, and the four silver medals gathered at the Olympic Games. The most successful period of the Swedish handball team came between 1996 and 2002, when the country reached eight consecutive major finals (Euro, World, Olympic) due to the “Bengan Boys”, that, coached by Bengt Johansson, thoroughly dominated the sport fielding star players like Staffan Olson, Magnus Wislander and Stefan Lövgren. However, since 2003, the squad has struggled to reach the same heights, with Sweden failing to get to podium positions, except for a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, and occasionally not qualifying at all.
Niche team sports such as curling, bandy (a mixture of ice hockey, field hockey and football played outdoors) and floorball are also quite popular in Sweden while the national basketball team sometimes appears at the European Championships. Still, the sport has never really take off in the country even with the recent presence of two players in the NBA (Jonas Jerebko, Jeffery Taylor).

Ingemar Stenmark, the men’s Alpine Skiing World Cup record-holder with 86 wins

With an abundance of snow, Sweden as always produced great athletes in winter sports, specially skiing events. In the alpine disciplines, names like Ingemar Stenmark, the best GS and slalom racer of all-time, Pernille Wiberg and Anja Pärsson are living legends, whereas Sixten Jernberg and Gunde Svan do the same for cross-country skiing, a sport where the country has amassed 74 Olympic medals, second only to Norway. And although ski jumping has never been the most triumphant discipline for the Swedes, another winter speciality, the biathlon, had his moments over time, particularly Magdalena Forsberg’s impressive run on the turn of the century, with six consecutive World Cup titles amassed between 1997 and 2002, and six golds won in World Championships.
With a total of 81 medals collected over the years on Olympic games, Athletics has a long tradition on the country, ranging from Ernst Fast’s third place on the men’s marathon of the 1900 Paris Olympics (Sweden’s first Olympic medal) to the triple Gold success of Athens more than one hundred years later. Actually, in that 2004 edition, Christian Olson took the spoils in the triple jump and Stefan Holm confirmed the Swedish tradition on the high jump, following the footsteps of names like Patrick Sjöberg and Kajsa Bergqvist. For the ladies, the gilt light shone on Carolina Klüft, the athlete that dominated the women’s heptathlon (and pentathlon) during the first decade of the new century, conquering an unmatched three consecutive world titles and posting the second highest point total of all-time (7032 points).

Björn Borg with one of the five consecutive Wimbledon trophies he captured

From the tracks to the courts, Swedish excellence provided three former tennis number one’s, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, and Björn Borg, with the latter, a eleven-time Grand Slam Champion and a five-times ATP Player of the year, standing as one of the most recognizable figures in the history of the sport and probably the most popular Swedish sportsman of all-time. And we could go on, with other worldwide sports where Swedes have excelled internationally including swimming (Therese Alshammar, Emma Ingelström), golf (Hall-of-Famer Annika Sörenstam), sailing, table tennis (World and Olympic Champion Jan-Ove Waldner), canoeing (eight-times Olympic Champion Gert Fredriksson), speed skating (triple Olympic gold medallist Tomas Gustafson), horse riding and cycling (Gösta Pettersson, 1971 Giro Winner).
Yet, none of those sports can claim the lead in number of Olympic medals brought to the country, since that achievement belongs to….wrestling, with 84, the last two added at the London Olympics.
Star Athletes
Zlatan Ibrahimović (Football)
From just another tall kid of Bosnian and Croatian origins to the top of the list of most identifiable Swedes, the life of the Mälmo-born striker is worthy of a best-seller book. Growing up on a city brimming with foreign-background inhabitants, Zlatan learned to stand up by himself since his early years as a black belt in taekwondo and those lessons stayed with him over a brilliant if controversial football career. Undeniably, a stunning total of 11 national titles in 13 seasons playing for six of the biggest clubs in Europe (well, 5 plus PSG) and four top scorer awards attest the proficiency of one of the best players of his generation and an unique forward with skills and swiftness rare for a 1,95m man. Moreover, in Sweden, Ibrahimović is revered for his exploits with a national team he captains today after more than 100 games, 51 goals and appearances in two World Cups (2002, 20006) and three European Championships (2004, 2008, 2012).
Always a distinctive figure, the 33-year-old, considered nine times the best Swedish footballer of the year, was recently named the second-best sportsperson of all-time in the country and famously retorted that he should have occupied the first five positions, perfectly displaying the character and personality that has motivated several confrontations with colleagues, coaches and adversaries over the years. When his career ends, his charismatic behaviour will define his legacy in the sport as much as the fantastic executions he’s capable on the pitch (), but Zlatan wouldn’t like it any other way.

An acrobatic move by Zlatan Ibrahimović that resulted on a stunning goal against England in 2013

Henrik Lundqvist (Ice Hockey)
The man many in New York call “King Henrik” was born on a city, Åre, primarily renowned for the alpine skiing facilities. However, Henrik and his twin brother, Joel, always preferred hockey, and it wasn’t long until they got to play for their favourite team, Göteborg-based Frölunda HC. Seven years and two league titles later (2003, 2005), their paths eventually separated and, with nothing else to prove at home, the goaltender moved on to face the best game after game.
Representing the New York Rangers since 2005, after the team selected him at the 2000 NHL draft, Henrik Lundqvist has been a mainstay for the honoured franchise since his rookie season and is undoubtedly one of the best in the world on his position, boasting a Vezina Trophy (awarded to the best NHL goalie in 2012) and four other nominations. To this day, he’s still pursuing the chance to return the Stanley Cup to the Big Apple and he keeps improving his legacy and club-records as the best goalkeeper in the “blueshirts” history.
The 32-year-old has also consistently embodied his country’s efforts on the world scale since the youth levels, with his biggest accomplishment coming at the 2006 Torino Olympics where he backstopped the Swedes to the gold medal. Since the retirement of legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidström, in 2012, Lundqvist inherited the role of Sweden’s prominent ice hockey player and he led his country to a silver medal on the 2014 Olympic tournament. His performances in Sochi further increased his popularity amongst the compatriots, but he has always been a fan favourite everywhere by way of his various community and charity enterprises coupled with a calm and friendly presence on and off the ice.
Charlotte Kalla (cross-country skiing)

Charlotte Kalla during a race at the Sochi Olympic Games

Sweden’s role on cross-country’s history has always been that of party crashers, the nation that craves to surprise the successful neighbours that have historically dominated the sport. Charlotte Kalla personifies that spirit perfectly and the native of Tärendö, a small village on the far north of Sweden, has thereby managed to build an impressive career during the era of two legends of the sport, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk and Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, the most medalled female athlete in Winter Olympics’ history. The 27-year-old skier has almost 30 World Cup podiums since his debut in 2006 and a total of 5 World Championships medals, all of them gathered in team events. In fact, along with teammates Ida Ingemarsdotter, Emma Wikén and Anna Hagg, Kalla broke a fifty-four year gold medal drought for Sweden on the Women’s 4 x 5km relay event, with the team taking top honours on the competition of the 2014 Olympics through a performance that won the prize for most significant Swedish sports achievement of the year.
However, collective success aside, it was Kalla’s individual excellence that fuelled the most important results of her career, namely the gold medal in the 10km freestyle race of the 2010 Olympics, and the silver medals in the 15 km skiathlon and 10km classic races of the 2014 Sochi Games. The overall triumph at the 2007-2008 edition of the Tour de Ski, on her debut edition, is another important mark on Kalla’s résumé and, with the main rivals nearing retirement, her best years may still ahead.
Others: Lotta Schelin (Women’s Football), Jonas Jerebko (Basketball), Henrik Zetterberg (Ice Hockey), Frida Hansdotter (Alpine Skiing), Sarah Sjöström (Swimming) Johan Olsson, Marcus Hellner (cross-country skiing), Fredrik Lööf (Sailing), Lisa Nordén (Triathlon), Henrik Stenson (Golf)
Venues
Since the Stockholm Olympic Games, held in 1912, Sweden’s track record hosting top international events (European and World Championships) is truly remarkable, with the wealth spread across dozens of disciplines. Without surprise, this organizational expertise has been translated into the development of a sheer amount of modern, state-of-the-art sporting facilities that enable the populations an easy and comfortable access to high-level sport competitions year-round and country-wide.

The Ullevi during the opening ceremony of the Gothia Cup

To start, obvious emphasis on the Friends Arena, located on the municipality of Solna (Stockholm’s urban region). The new national stadium, which substituted the nearby Räsunda, host of the 1958 World Cup final, can hold up to 50,000 and has a retractable roof that can turn it into the biggest indoor venue in the Nordic countries. Opened in 2012, the arena, beyond the matches of the national football team, sees the home games of AIK, concerts and has welcomed the final of the 2013 UEFA Women’s European Championship.
The second biggest stadium in the country is the 43,000-seats Ullevi, in Gothenburg, built for the 1958 World Cup and a place that has hosted multiple football European finals as well as the European and World Athletic Championships. Nonetheless, the women’s national team and the city’s football clubs play at the 2009’ Gamla Ullevi, which was raised on the grounds of the old facility by the same name, and has 15,000 seats. Recent constructions are also the Tele2 Arena (2013), in Stockholm, the home of Djurgårdens IF and Hammarby IF with a capacity for 33,000, and the Swedbandk Stadium (2009), in Mälmo, a facility that holds 24,000.
In terms of (truly) indoor venues, the most important is the unmistakable Stockholm Globe Arena, the largest hemispherical building in the World, and a facility with up to 13,500 seats for ice hockey games. Several World Championships and other international ice hockey games have taken place at the Globe since 1989, but the Handball, Volleyball and Basketball European Championships were also held there. However, the capital’s ice hockey teams (Djurgårdens IF and AIK) usually play their home games at the adjacent Hovet, a 9,000 capacity arena. The 2008-opened Mälmo Arena comes in second-place by capacity (15,000 seats) in the country and is the home of the Mälmo Redhawks, the city’s ice hockey team.

The Stockholm Globe Arena iluminated at night

The Scandinavium, in Gothenburg, completes the podium, as the 14,000 seats venue, opened in 1972, has received over the years swimming, ice skating and athletics events, for example, while turning into the place Frölunda HC calls home. Moreover, the country’s ice hockey significance defines the existence of nine other indoor venues with over 7,000 seats, almost all built during the 2000’s. Thus, towns like Linköping, Lund, Norrköping, Kalmar, Halmstad, Helsingborg, Gävle and Karlstad commonly share the burden of hosting international events with Sweden’s three main city centres.
In respect to winter sports, the main hubs are Falun, Östersund and Åre, all situated in central Sweden. The first two cities regularly welcome World Cup events of the Nordic ski sports (cross-country, ski jumping, nordic vombined) and biathlon, respectively, and have organized the discipline’s World Championships several times over the years, while Åre takes part in the Alpine Skiing World Cup frequently.
Yearly Events
There’s no shortage of sporting events staged yearly on Sweden. Elite sport leagues like football’s Allsvenskan, running from late March to the beginning of November, and hockey’s SEL (season from September to April) provide excitement all over the country, from Mälmo, in the southeast coast, to Lulea, almost on the Arctic Circle, but there’s also the chance to attend a game of bandy (October-March) or handball (September-May). Others events to note are:
Vikingarännet, traditional long-distance ice skating race
Uppsala-Stockholm, January

The Vikingarännet, a 80 km ice skating race on the frozen Lake Mälaren linking Uppsala and Stockholm

Rally Sweden, World Rally Championships
Värmland region, February
World Cup event, Cross-Country skiing
Östersund, February
Vasaloppet, traditional long- distance (90km) cross-country ski race
Dalarna, March
World Cup event, Alpine Skiing
Åre, March
Scandinavian Masters, Golf
Mälmo, June
Stockholm Marathon, Athletics
Stockholm, June

A view of the tennis Swedish Open’s main court, in Båstad

Speedway Grand Prix of Sweden, motorcycle speedway
Målilla (Kalmar), June
Gothia Cup, youth football
Gothenburg, July
Swedish Open, Tennis
Båstad, July
Speedway Grand Prix of Scandinavia, motorcycle speedway
Solna (Friends Arena), September