Despite having many elite players in the National Hockey League over the years, World Junior gold has eluded Team Sweden many times. Over the tournament’s 45-year history, they have experienced the bittersweet taste of the silver medal 11 times. The 2020 version will again have a deep team of talented forwards and defencemen, capable of winning it all. Will this finally be the year they break the curse?
After a fifth-place finish in the 2019 World Junior Championships, Sweden will be looking to get back onto the podium once again. If they manage to win gold, it will be the first time since 2012, nearly eight years ago. Since then they have gotten close three times. Will the fourth time be a charm?
In order for that to happen, they will have to get past their long-time rivals and 2019 gold medalists, the Finns to get there. Not to mention perennial contenders Russia, Canada, and the United States. It definitely won’t be an easy road, but as you will soon find out, they definitely have the talent to do it.
Team Sweden will have a new goaltending tandem protecting the cage in the 2020 WJC. Both Adam Ahman and Samuel Ersson were not on the preliminary roster released by the team earlier this week. Instead, 2019 IIHF U18 World Hockey Championship standout Hugo Alnefelt and 6-foot-6 giant Erik Portillo will probably be tasked with the duties this year.
Portillo is peaking at the right time too, which bodes well for his chances at snagging the starting job. After being drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the fourth round of the 2019 NHL Draft, his career in North America couldn’t have started any better. In his freshman season for the Dubuque Fighting Saints, he currently sports a 12-2-1 record to go along with a stingy 2.05 goals against average (GAA) and a .912 save percentage (SV%). If he can continue that into the tournament, Sweden won’t have to worry a second about their goaltending.
Portillo may have the inside track, but that’s not to say Tampa Bay Lightning 2019 third-round draft pick Alnefelt doesn’t have a chance at taking the job too. He may actually do it too, especially after his performance at the U18s where he won gold. He also is having a great season with HV71 of the Swedish Hockey League where he has a 1.95 GAA to go along with a .920 SV%. The competition will be fierce between these two, that’s for sure.
Detroit Red Wings’ 2019 third-round pick Jesper Eliasson was invited to selection camp too, but barring poor performances by Portillo and Alnefelt, expect him to be the third goaltender on this team.
Sweden’s defence core will once again be the envy of the tournament boasting a solid group of mobile and two-way defencemen capable of defending and scoring goals as well. Leading the way will be first-round picks Rasmus Sandin and Adam Boqvist. Despite being left off the preliminary roster, I would expect the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks to release them in time to participate in the tournament unless they are desperately needed by their respective teams.
Team Sweden brass purposely left two holes in the roster in order to have space to eventually include the two returning blueliners. Both Sandin and Boqvist have played in the NHL already this season, but have spent most of their time in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies and Rockford IceHogs respectively.
Sandin and Boqvist are just the beginning of the talent Sweden possesses on the blueline. They also have the luxury of having another three first-round picks in Philip Broberg (EDM), Nils Lundkvist (NYR), and Tobias Bjornfoot (LAK) potentially joining the roster. Mattias Norlinder (MTL) and Adam Ginning (PHI) are also no slouches having been drafted just a little later in the second and third rounds.
All of them, except for Norlinder and Bjornfoot are also returning from last year’s fifth-place squad. So I’m sure they will be out to avenge that finish and get back on the podium. One thing is certain, defence will not be a problem for Sweden.
Sweden boasts a plethora of potential NHL talent with eight NHL draft picks and two high-end 2020 draft-eligible players. As a result, they should have no problem scoring in this tournament. Their fourth line will even be a threat, that’s how much offensive depth this team has. But as we saw last year, scoring doesn’t guarantee you a championship. Despite leading their group in goals, they still lost to Switzerland in the quarterfinals.
Like the defence, Sweden’s forward group has a lot of NHL draft pick flavour to it. This includes the Los Angeles Kings’ Fagemo, Montreal Canadiens’ Olofsson, Vancouver Canucks’ Nils Höglander, Dallas Stars’ Oskar Bäck, and Albin Eriksson, New Jersey Devils’ Nikola Pasic, Detroit Red Wings’ Jonatan Berggren, and New York Rangers’ Karl Henriksson.
Sweden also left another spot open on their preliminary roster presumably for David Gustafsson of the Winnipeg Jets. But it is still unclear if they will release him to play in the tournament.
This year’s iteration will also feature a pair of 2020 draft-eligible players in Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz. Both are projected to go high in the first round in the 2020 NHL Draft. THW’s own Josh Bell ranked them third and fifth respectively in his November rankings. THW’s Larry Fisher even has Raymond vying for the top spot with Quinton Byfield and Alexis Lafreniere. So, if that happens, we could be seeing the future first overall pick wearing the Tre kroner in this tournament.
This could be Raymond’s coming out party as he’s projected to be a superstar in the NHL. Reading his scouting report, he reminds me of current Canucks standout Elias Pettersson. Both have great edges and high hockey IQ to go along with elite playmaking, and goal-scoring abilities. We should, however, temper our expectations, and remember that he is only 17-years-old playing against 19 and 20-year-olds.
One thing is certain, there must be something in the water in Sweden that allows it to churn out so many NHL draft picks. For a small country, they sure know how to create a lot of elite hockey players.
The Bottom Line
Team Sweden will be trying to exorcise their playoff demons of the past and make it into the medal round for just the second time in six years. The last time they medaled was in 2018 when they lost to Canada in the championship game. Before that, they endured a string of three straight fourth-place finishes. Last year’s fifth-place finish was their worst since 2006. So sufficed to say, they will be motivated to put an end to the playoff futility and make it back to the gold medal game once again.
Sweden will be looking to their veteran, high octane defence to put them over the top this year. Their forward group boasts a lot of skill and depth, but lack an elite first line capable of dominating an opponent. Raymond and Holtz will definitely be wild cards though, as they both have the potential to be game-breakers. The question will be, can they do it at the young age of 17? That will be a story to watch in this year’s tournament for sure.
Another player that could surprise is Höglander, who turned heads earlier this season with a jaw-dropping lacrosse style goal. If he can translate that type of game to the tournament, Sweden could have a secret weapon in their arsenal.
The bottom line is, Sweden has a really good chance at making some noise in the 2020 World Junior Championships. They have the offensive depth and goaltending that should allow them to hang with the big dogs. But if they are going to win gold, their defence has to be the difference. If not, they may be left on the outside looking in yet again.
Here is THW’s prediction as to who makes the final 23-man roster for Sweden:
Goaltenders: Erik Portello, Hugo Alnefelt, Jesper Eliasson
Defence: Adam Boqvist, Rasmus Sandin, Tobias Björnfot, Philip Broberg, Adam Ginning, Nils Lundkvist, Mattias Norlinder
Forwards: Lucas Raymond, Nils Höglander, Samuel Fagemo, Alexander Holtz, Jacob Olofsson, Jonatan Berggren, Oskar Bäck, Albin Eriksson, Nikola Pasic, Karl Henriksson, Linus Nässén, Linus Öberg, David Gustafsson