There is an old saying in sports: “To be the champs, you have to beat the champs.” Well, the Swedish Olympic team is the defending Olympic men’s ice hockey champion, and the road to gold in Vancouver goes through the three crowns. For some, the 2006 Olympics feels like many years ago; for Swedish fans, it probably feels like it was yesterday. Not only did Sweden win Olympic gold for the first time since 1994 in Lillehammer (pre-professional hockey players at the Olympics) but Sweden captured gold by defeating their hated rivals from Finland. Can the three-crowned attack once again return home with Olympic gold? It is possible; in fact, it is very possible.
Much has been made of the Canadian Olympic team and Russian Olympic team, and for good reason. Both of those teams feature some of the greatest hockey talent ever produced on any level. Players like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Joe Thornton, and Evgeni Malkin do not grow on trees. Not only are players on these two teams good, but they are flashy. The Swedes carry some flash, but the team is more substance than style.
Appearances (Including 2010):
Total Appearances: 21
GVT: Total GVT
Henrik Lundqvist 12.7
Jonas Gustavsson 5.1
Stefan Liv 1.9
The Swedish Olympic team is a balanced group—a strong balanced group, for that matter—and that strength begins with goaltending. Henrik Lundqvist is one of the main reasons the Swedes won Olympic gold four years ago, and as Rangers fans will tell you, is one of the only reasons the Rangers continually make the playoffs. This season, Lundqvist is tied with Roberto Luongo for 13th in the NHL with a .919 save percentage and sits 14th in the NHL with a 2.44 GAA. Lundqvist also sports a .688 shootout save percentage—something that could become very important in a short Olympic tournament.
In terms of GVT, the “King” as he is known to Blueshirts fans, is ranked 13th in the entire NHL with a 2009-10 GVT of 17.7. Think for a second about the amazing season Marian Gaborik has had on Broadway, yet Lundqvist has posted a higher GVT than the Slovakian sniper.
If Lundqvist goes down to injury, the Swedes will probably turn to Stefan Liv instead of Jonas Gustavsson to man the pipes. He is the same Liv whose last stint in North America included a stint in both the ECHL and AHL with a save percentage below .900. Gustavsson is talented, but he’s far too young and not yet good enough (currently posting a -5.1 GVT for the Maple Leafs) to hold up to Olympic competition. Without Henrik Lundqvist in net, the Swedes simply cannot compete for the gold medal.
OGVT: Offensive GVT
DGVT: Defensive GVT
GVT: Total GVT
Defenseman OGVT DGVT GVT
Nicklas Lidstrom 7.7 7.1 14.8
Tobias Enstrom 5.0 3.2 8.2
Niklas Kronwall 5.2 2.7 7.9
Magnus Johansson 3.1 2.1 5.2
Johnny Oduya 0.5 4.2 4.7
Henrik Tallinder 0.2 3.3 3.5
Mattias Ohlund 0.4 3.1 3.5
Douglas Murray -0.7 3.1 2.4
Balance is the important theme surrounding this team, as there is strength in all three player categories. This team is led on the back end by Nicklas Lidstrom. Sure Lidstrom is 39 years old and “only” has 33 points in 59 games this season but, let’s be honest, he’d headline any defensive corps in this tournament. The veteran is the best defenseman of his generation and has posted a 10.9 GVT so far this season. He will quarterback the power play, play all the tough even strength minutes and man the top penalty killing unit.
Accompanying Lidstrom on the blue line is his Red Wings teammate Niklas Kronwall. Kronwall brings some of the attributes Lidstrom brings to the table: He has adept puck-moving skills and a power shot, but he also brings a physical element to the back end. In fact, Kronwall is one of the most feared defensemen for opposing forwards in open ice.
Lidstrom is a big, positionally sound defenseman, but youngster Tobias Enstrom embodies many of the qualities that the Swedish legend does. While he isn’t of the same stature, Enstrom is also positionally sound and makes a very sound first pass. Playing in Atlanta sometimes hides Enstrom’s overall value, but the Olympic stage should serve his game well.
Kronwall is a feared open-ice hitter, but he isn’t the only physical player on the Swedes’ defense. Douglas Murray of the Sharks is a punishing defensive defenseman who plays 20 minutes per game for San Jose. You won’t be seeing Murray on the power play, but that is not where Team Sweden needs him. The Swedes need Murray to play against the big tough opposition, players like Jarome Iginla and Olli Jokinen.
Alongside Murray will be long-time Canucks defenseman and current Lightning team member Mattias Ohlund. Ohlund is not the same player he once was (he has probably lost half a step), but he is tough, strong, and smart. With Lidstrom and company controlling the man advantage, Ohlund will be counted on to play against one of the top two lines of the opposition and kill penalties. He may not be in his prime, but the wily veteran is still not easy to play against.
Rounding out the eight-man group is the recently-traded Johnny Oduya, the rejuvenated Henrik Tallinder, and Swedish league defender Magnus Johansson.
Overall, the Swedes may not be as strong as Canada on the back end, but they are probably just as good, if not better, than every other defense corps in the tournament.
OGVT: Offensive GVT
DGVT: Defensive GVT
GVT: Total GVT
Forward OGVT DGVT GVT
Henrik Sedin 17.7 5.4 23.1
Nicklas Backstrom 17.7 3.9 21.7
Daniel Sedin 15.3 4.9 20.2
Loui Eriksson 11.2 5.4 16.7
Daniel Alfredsson 10.9 5.4 16.3
Henrik Zetterberg 11.6 4.6 16.2
Patric Hornqvist 5.9 2.4 8.3
Tomas Holmstrom 4.7 3.1 7.8
Mattias Weinhandl 3.9 1.1 5.1
Fredrik Modin 0.9 1.3 2.2
Peter Forsberg 0.3 0.3 0.6
Samuel Pahlsson -2.5 1.6 -0.9
How do these top four centers sound? Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg, and Peter Forsberg?
Pretty good isn’t it?
In Backstrom, the Swedes have one of the best passers in the National Hockey League. Not only can he pass like Peter Forsberg (48 assists in 59 games this season), but he can also score; he has 25 goals in 59 games this season. Sure, he plays with Alexander Ovechkin, but make no mistake, Backstrom is the real deal on his own. The 22-year-old has posted an impressive 17.8 GVT this season and could make the Olympics his own coming out party.
Henrik Sedin is arguably the NHL MVP this season. He has the third-highest GVT of any skater this season, behind only Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. He was always a passer, but this season he is finding the back of the net. Combine those qualities with his amazing puck protection skills, his chemistry with his brother Daniel, and the fact that he is playing in his home rink of General Motors Place, and Henrik Sedin may be one of the five most-feared NHL forwards in this year’s Olympics.
It is amazing to think that Henrik Zetterberg can be considered the third center on this squad. Zetterberg is 29 years old and posted six points in eight games in the 2006 Olympic gold medal year. Additionally, the strong two-way forward has always been a tremendous playoff producer—76 points in 85 games. He leads the Wings in even-strength offense per 60 minutes (2.16) and is just as good on defense as he is on offense. Moreover, he has the ability to also play the wing. With so much depth down the middle, that ability should not be overlooked.
Now is the time where people get to talk about Peter Forsberg and wonder if he is healthy enough to play at the level he once did. First, let’s be clear that Forsberg isn’t the same Peter Forsberg as the world saw in 1996, but if he plays anything like he did in his last stint in the NHL, he will still be one of the best passers in the world. Think about it: The Swedes can play Forsberg as a fourth line center, a second line left winger, or just a power play specialist. Considering his upside; what’s wrong with that?
Before closing out the center corps, we cannot forget the rugged checking center that is Samuel Pahlsson. He isn’t the fastest player, but he is strong, physical, and is willing to go into the dirty areas of the ice and play against the team’s best players. The problem with Pahlsson in a tournament like this is that the opposing teams have more than one top offensive center. So, as a result, his strengths may be limited by his lack of scoring punch.
On the wings, the Swedes are led by the heart and soul leader of the Senators, Daniel Alfredsson. The right winger has a cannon of a shot, has produced at a 2.16 points per 60 even strength minutes level this season and has posted the Senators’ highest Corsi rating relative to quality of competition for a forward. What is more, the veteran winger can quarterback the power play and has experience on the big stage—in the NHL and internationally.
Of course, we cannot talk about Henrik Sedin (above) without talking about his brother, Daniel. For all that has been said about Henrik this season, Daniel has been tremendous as well. He currently has 52 points in 40 games, which would obviously put him on pace for a 100-point season had he not been injured earlier this season. As we mentioned above with his brother, Sedin will be playing at home at General Motors Place and alongside his brother, where he is most comfortable. Opposition defenses will have difficulty containing the Sedin’s cycle game, especially with the likes of Daniel Alfredsson or Loui Eriksson riding shotgun (no disrespect to Alexandre Burrows).
Speaking of Eriksson, he still flies under the radar of many NHL hockey fans, but he really shouldn’t. Last season, he posted 36 goals and 63 points in 82 games for the Stars. This season, Eriksson is on pace to pass both of those totals, as he currently sits with 22 goals and 31 assists in 58 games. Eriksson can skate, but the most dangerous aspect of his game may be his lethal shot. With so many talented forwards on this squad, it is scary to think what a player like Eriksson could do with a center like Backstrom or Sedin drawing so much attention.
Rounding out the team’s forward group is the likes of the trusty and physical Tomas Holmstrom, the big shot of Fredrik Modin, the newest breakout Swedish up-and-coming star Patric Hornqvist, and former Islanders winger Mattias Wienhandl.
According to the GVT projections, Puck Prospectus has predicted a bronze medal for the Swedish Olympic team. That is probably a safe bet, but it would not be surprising in the least to see the triple-crown in the gold medal game once again. Let’s put it this way: The Swedes have a better chance of finishing above the third place prediction than below it.
Schedule: Germany, February 17 at 4:30 PM (PST); Belarus, February 19 at 12:00 PM (PST); Finland, February 21 at 9:00 PM (PST). Secondary round (except for byes) for all teams on February 23.
Richard Pollock is Editor for the hockey website Illegal Curve.