Sweden enters the 2022 World Junior Championship with one thing on its mind – retribution. Last year they brought one of the most exciting rosters to the tournament, hungry to improve on their bronze-medal finish in 2020, and they had the roster to do it. Their defense featured three returnees in Victor Soderstrom, Tobias Bjornfot, and Philip Broberg, plus two of the deadliest prospects in the world in Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz. But the experienced group could not handle the Russians or Americans, then gave up a two-goal lead against Finland in the first round of the playoffs and lost 3-2. Several stars failed to show up when it counted; Noel Gunler, their top scorer, finished with just five points.
This year, the Swedes will seek to make things right and return home with a medal. They will be without William Eklund, who decided to skip the 2022 World Junior Championships to prepare for the San Jose Sharks training camp. However, Sweden’s forward group is still strong with five first-round picks from the 2022 NHL Draft in Isak Rosen (14th overall, Buffalo Sabres), Jonathan Lekkerimaki (15th overall, Vancouver Canucks), Liam Ohgren (19th overall, Minnesota Wild), Lysell (21st overall, Boston Bruins), and Olausson (28th overall, Colorado Avalanche). If 2021 taught Sweden anything, it’s that they can bring all the talent they want, but they need their best players to carry their team. Here are three players who will have the biggest impact on the team’s success in Red Deer and Edmonton this year.
It was somewhat surprising when the Detroit Red Wings called Simon Edvinsson’s name sixth overall at the 2021 NHL Draft, making him the third defender off the board. It wasn’t that he wasn’t talented; he’d been compared to fellow Swedish blueliner Victor Hedman, who went second overall in 2009 for most of the year, and the two had plenty of similarities. But with top-ranked European Eklund still on the board paired with the fact that Edvinsson was seen as a project, some saw the pick as a bit of a risk.
Fast forward a year, and those criticisms have faded into barely a whisper. Edvinsson has emerged as not only one of the best young defensemen in Sweden but one of the best U20 players. He posted two goals and 19 points in 44 games in the 2021-22 season with Frolunda HC in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). He has great speed and offensive instincts, and he can use his size and strength to simply go through opponents while keeping the puck on his stick. But he’s also defensively aware, using his frame and long reach to cut off passing lanes.
With only Emil Andrae returning to Sweden’s defense, they’ll need others to step up and take on a bigger role. Edvinsson is the most capable of doing that after excelling at the Four Nations Tournament this season and possesses one of the most dynamic tool kits of any defender of the 2021 Draft class. If he catches fire at the tournament, Sweden will be incredibly difficult to handle.
Liam Ohgren & Jonathan Lekkerimaki
With Eklund out for Sweden, his replacement Ohgren, as well as Lekkerimaki, will have to step up for Sweden in the offensive end. Ohgren played 25 games in the SHL with Djurgardens IF, scoring one goal and posting two points. However, he’s been great Internationally while playing for Sweden. At the U18 WJC, he scored three goals and posted nine points in six games, while posting seven goals and 16 points in 11 games at U18 level in international play. Additionally, he had one goal and three points in three games for Sweden at the postponed U20 WJC in December.
Meanwhile, Canucks first-round draft pick Lekkerimaki is also primed to have a productive tournament. He played 26 games with Djugardes IF, scoring seven goals and posting nine points. Similar to Ohgren, Lekkerimaki has impressed internationally. He scored five goals and posted 15 points in six games at the U18 WJC, as well as 11 goals and 21 points in 12 games in U18 International play. He scored one goal in three games for Sweden at the postponed U20 WJC in December. Ohgren and Lekkerimaki will play a big role in Sweden’s success during the WJC tournament, and their production will be needed if the team wins a medal this month.
Russia’s Yaroslav Askarov has held the title of top goalie prospect for several years now, going back to his first World Junior appearance in 2020. But he may have a challenger on his heels in Wallstedt, who will be getting his first chance to start at the U20 level this year. The 6-foot-3 Swede has dominated the international circuit since 2017 at the U16s but has rarely been Sweden’s top option due to his age. In 2022, however, the crease is all his, and the whole world will be watching to see how good he truly is.
North American fans have a rough idea of Wallstedt’s talent after being selected 20th overall in the 2021 NHL Draft. After all, few goalies are chosen in the first round unless they’re bona fide all-stars. But they may not know just how good a player the Wild ended up with. He made his first SHL appearance with Luleå HF as a 16-year-old, playing a single game where he ended up with a 1.55 goals-against average (GAA) and a 0.944 save percentage (SV%), the best numbers in both categories of the entire league that season. He was named the team’s starter and had the fifth-lowest GAA as a sophomore. In his third season with the team, he had a 1.98 GAA and a 0.918 SV%.
However, like Askarov, Wallstedt has faltered under the spotlight. After starting 22 games in the 2020-21 season, he lost his job in the playoffs after two rough outings that left him with a 3.36 GAA and a 0.871 SV%. He also hasn’t been his regular lights-out self internationally this season, taking a backseat to Calle Clang, who will join him at the World Juniors. When Wallstedt is on, there is no one better, but if he gets off to a slow start, the Swedes will likely not hesitate to go with their second option.
Sweden has the potential to be the most exciting team at the 2022 World Junior Championship. Oskar Olausson, Helge Grans, Andrae, and Lysell are just a few players on the roster that can produce for the team. If they get rolling, this team will be nearly impossible to contain. But whether Sweden wins a medal will largely come down to how Edvinsson, Ohgren, Lekkerimaki and Wallstedt perform.
While it’s unfair to pin the success of a team on just a few players, Sweden won’t have the same level of skill as years previous. Especially with Eklund out, and the team’s defense has far fewer recognizable names. That means much of the heavy lifting will fall to the four players mentioned above, and more so than anyone else, they’ll need to be at their best at all times. Otherwise, Sweden’s dreams of ending their gold-medal drought will have to wait at least another year.
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Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.