The International Ice Hockey Federation is trying to pull off an international event at a time when a pandemic has the majority of the world shut down. The World Junior Championship has been reduced to a single venue with stringent quarantine protocols to try to keep everyone in the bubble safe.
It’s proving a hard thing to manage, as there have been issues just getting everyone to Edmonton to enter the pre-tournament quarantine. Sweden was forced to leave four players, as well as their head coach, Tomas Montén, and several assistants, back at home because of positive tests.
They weren’t minor pieces that had to replaced. William Eklund is one of the top prospects for the 2021 NHL Draft; Karl Henriksson played a big role as an 18-year-old at last year’s tournament; Albin Grewe is a tenacious defensive forward; and William Wallinder would have been an imposing defenceman as his 6’4” frame carried the puck through the neutral zone.
Even hitting the ground in Alberta wasn’t the end of their troubles. Another member of the staff was forced off the team when he broke quarantine to pick up some forgotten luggage at the airport. The latest report has two more members of the staff testing positive in Edmonton and needing to isolate from the rest.
The result of all the attrition is a weakened roster and a completely revamped coaching staff. The Swedish Ice Hockey Association put together one group of personnel, and now has to put faith in a makeshift ensemble of players, coaches, and trainers as the country aims for gold.
Team Sweden final roster
|#||Player||Position||League||Current team (NHL)|
|#||Player||Position||League||Current team (NHL)|
|30||Hugo Alnefelt||G||SHL||HV71 (TBL)|
|35||Calle Clang||G||HockeyAllsvenskan||Kristianstads IK (PIT)|
|1||Jesper Wallstedt||G||SHL||Luleå (2021)|
|4||Emil Andrae||D||SHL||HV71 (PHI)|
|7||Gustav Berglund||D||HockeyAllsvenskan||Västerås IK (DET)|
|3||Tobias Björnfot||D||SHL||Djurgården (LAK)|
|5||Philip Broberg||D||SHL||Skellefteå (EDM)|
|26||Alex Brännstam||D||SHL||Djurgårdens IF|
|6||Ludvig Hedström||D||J20 Nationell||Djurgårdens IF J20|
|9||Albert Johansson||D||SHL||Färjestad BK (DET)|
|8||Victor Söderström||D||HockeyAllsvenskan||AIK (ARI)|
|21||Oscar Bjerselius||F||SHL||Djurgårdens IF|
|14||Arvid Costmar||F||SHL||Linköping HC (VAN)|
|28||Noel Gunler||F||SHL||Brynäs IF (CAR)|
|13||Emil Heineman||F||SHL||Leksands IF (FLA)|
|15||Simon Holmström||F||HockeyAllsvenskan||HC Vita Hästen (NYI)|
|10||Alexandrer Holtz||F||SHL||Djurgården (NJD)|
|17||Oskar Kvist||F||SHL||Brynäs IF|
|16||Theodor Niederbach||F||SHL||Frölunda HC (DET)|
|27||Zion Nybeck||F||SHL||HV71 (CAR)|
|24||Oskar Olausson||F||HockeyAllsvenskan||HV71 (2021)|
|18||Lucas Raymond||F||SHL||Frölunda HC (DET)|
|29||Albin Sundsvik||F||SHL||Skellefteå (ANA)|
|25||Elmer Söderblom||F||SHL||Frölunda HC (DET)|
|23||Jonathan Wilkström||F||J20 Nationell||HV71 J20|
The COVID-19 news means there are fewer NHL draft picks on the roster than were originally named, but it still holds many of the top Junior-aged players in the world. Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond played important parts on the team in 2020, and they bring another season of experience to the 2021 event. The two top-seven draft picks will be counted on for a significant amount of the offence, and their play through the early stages of the SHL season suggests that is a challenge they can meet.
In goal the replacement coaching staff has its choice of the player counted on last year, Hugo Alnefelt, who finished with a .924 save percentage and came an overtime save away from getting his team to the Gold Medal Game, and Jesper Wallstedt, the next goaltender who will flirt with a top-10 NHL draft slot. At this point, the 18-year-old seems to have the upper hand based on his play in the SHL, but that’s yet to be determined.
A year ago, Sweden’s defence corps was the envy of every other team in the tournament. Loaded with future NHLers, it contained every type of player a coach could ask for. The 2021 edition still features the likes of Tobias Björnfot and Victor Söderström, but the depth has had to be filled with blue-liners from lower tiers of Swedish hockey. One injury, or yet another coronavirus infection, and there will be a player in a key position who may not able to match the level of the opposition.
The coaching staff will already be scrambling to get on the same page, with new assistants to get used to and what’s sure to be a frustrating delay in communication with some coaches who will be providing input from back home in Sweden. As if getting the most out of a group of teenagers in a 12-day tournament wasn’t hard enough, even a simple meeting among the staff will provide a challenge.
For a country that has dealt with nothing but disappointment in the past eight years, without a single gold to their name despite the quality of teams they’ve brought to the World Juniors, perhaps all of this pre-tournament upheaval will keep everyone distracted from that near decade-long struggle.
Sweden holds a mark of 51 consecutive wins in the preliminary round of the tournament since 2006. It’s an incredible statistic, but also one that gets held up whenever the nation falls short of expectation as proof of how good the team was — always is — before stumbling when the games matter most.
This year, with a mishmash of personnel all through the ranks, there should be little pressure to keep that streak alive, and focus can be on each game as it comes. No one should expect Sweden to take home gold at the end of the tournament, and those lowered demands could allow the team to play loose and pull off a bit of a surprise.