GROUP A: SWEDEN
2012 finish: Gold medal, won 1-0 in overtime over Russia in final
2012 round-robin record: 2-2-0-0, 26 GF/11 GA
Yahoo! Canada Sports has asked North American-based players, some of whom are playing in the world junior championship, to break down their national teams.
Sweden is at a point where it expects to medal even if circumstances deny them their top players. That certitude did not come on with last January's gold-medal triumph in Calgary, since there was a burgeoning belief going into the tournament that it might be their time.
Missing bound-to-Binghamton Mika Zibanejad and woulda-been defensive pillars Jonas Brodin and Oscar Klefbom hurts, but the defending IIHF world U20 champions still have what it takes to be a tough out in Ufa, Russia. Sweden has medalled at the WJC in 4-of-5 seasons (and came within minutes of playing for gold in Buffalo in 2011). The so-called Swedish super model that keeps stamping out top draft prospects — hello there, Elias Lindholm — also keeps championship coach Roger Ronnberg with the U20 team. Ronnberg's steady hand should be a guide for a team which might need to overachieve.
"I think the Sweden team should always have expectations to win," says Florida Panthers prospect Rasmus Bengtsson, the Muskegon Lumberjacks defenceman who is one of the four 19-year-old rearguards on Ronnberg's roster. "That should be the culture of the organization, to win every game and championship we can, to go for the gold.
"Having Roger, I think that's important," says Bengtsson, who will likely be a minutes-muncher on the blueline along with Anaheim Ducks No. 6 overall pick Hampus Lindholm. "He's done a really good job getting the team to work together in every tournament."
The Ottawa Senators' refusal to release Zibanejad was no doubt a kick in the pants. Brodin and Klefbom going down with injuries probably dropped Tre Kronor from strong gold-medal threat to darkhorse/spoiler. That being said, one hallmark of Sweden's improved fortunes at the U20 and U18 levels has been its scoring punch.
Washington Capitals No. 11 overall pick Filip Forsberg, the team captain, will be counted on to make a great leap forward after putting up nearly a point per game for Leksands in Sweden's second-tier pro league. Returning attackers Rickard Rakell (Forsberg's linemate during a 3-2 exhibition loss to the U.S. on Thursday), Sebastian Collberg, Victor Rask and William Karlsson all went between 30th and 53rd overall in the 2011 draft.
Collberg and Forsberg are the most established of the lot. Lindholm is a wild card as an 18-year-old. Karlsson, an Anaheim Ducks second-rounder, could be labelled as Most Likely To Break Out after shining during exhibition games in November.
"Always with the national team, those guys seem to score goals," Bengstsson says of Collberg and Forsberg. "I think they like the environment and the team we play with in Sweden so I think they'll have a great world championship."
Beyond Hampus Lindholm, the defence corps probably looks like a no-name gang to North American fans. Bengtsson is the only other top-60 draft choice (59th to Florida in 2011). Among the 1993-born cohort, Ottawa Senators seventh-rounder Mikael Wikstrand possesses some power-play capability while Toronto Maple Leafs fourth-rounder Tom Nilsson is a headsy stay-at-home type. Their main challenge in Group A will be handling sizable skilled forwards such as the Czech Republic's Tomas Hertl or Finland's Joel Armia, both mid-first round NHL picks.
"All the Ds who are on the roster are a mixture of skilled players," Bengtsson says. "We can all move the puck up to the forwards so they can do their jobs."
Bengtsson also notes that Sweden is trying to guard against the notion it can sail through Group A. Ronnberg's crew faced neither Canada, the U.S. or rival Finland in pool play last season, but it was still extended to a shootout by Switzerland.
"We have to play Czech Republic... Finland. It's always a tough game for us Swedes to play the Finns. Hopefully we can win that one and keep rolling."
There could be two St. Louis Blues goaltending prospects matching up at least in Saturday's Canada-Sweden tune-up (9 a.m. ET/6 a.m. PT, TSN/RDS). Nineteen-year-old Niklas Lundström from AIK was chosen by the Blues in 2011 two rounds after they snapped up Team Canada's Jordan Binnington.
Lundström and fellow 19-year-old Joel Lassinantti, just based off experience, would seem like a favourites to be Sweden's guys in goals. Columbus Blue Jackets high second-rounder Oscar Dansk has a higher North American profile since he was drafted earlier and plays for the OHL's Erie Otters. It it tough to argue against playing the older goalies who are in the Elitserien.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Forward Filip Forsberg (Leksands IF, Allsvenskan).:The first Swedish forward drafted in June, Forsberg is scorer with size who can get to the net.
Forward Sebastian Collberg (Frölunda HC, Elitserien).: Montreal Canadiens second-rounder leads a strong coterie of returning forwards and can distribute the puck to his linemates.
Forward Elias Lindholm (Brynäs IF, Elitserien):: Along with Canada's Jonathan Drouin-Nathan MacKinnon combo, Finland's Aleksander Barkov and Rasmus Ristolainen and the U.S.'s Seth Jones, Lindholm is another potential top-10 talent for the next draft.
Forward William Karlsson (HV71, Elitserien): Ducks second-rounder has scored eight goals in his last nine games with the U20 squad and has the upside to be a top-3 forward. Three Anaheim picks should be prominent for Sweden; 2011 late first-rounder Rakell is playing in his third world junior and is expected to be a team leader.
Defenceman Hampus Lindholm (Norfolk Admirals, AHL): Like Canada with Morgan Rielly, the jury is out on whether an 18-year-old can be the blueline linchpin. Going to the AHL this fall — an option the Toronto Maple Leafs did not have with Rielly — ought to have helped Lindholm fine-tune his game. Of note, Lindholm used to play in Helsingborg, less than a hour from Malmo, so the 2014 WJC will be his homecoming. That is, if he's not in The Show.
Defenceman Michal Wikstrand (Mora IK, Allsvenskan), AHL):: The Senators took a flier on him with its final pick last summer. There probably is no replacing Brodin and Klefbom at the points on power plays but Wikstrand might have to suffice. He is Ottawa's only prospect in the tournament.
MUST WIN GAME: Finland (Dec. 31, 7 a.m.)
Thanks, Tips. Provided all goes according to form, each team could be 3-0-0-0 going into the final day of the round-robin. They had an epic shootout-required semifinal on Jan. 3 in Calgary. The neighbouring nations are collaborating on hosting the senior world championship, but the piety will be cast aside for this matchup.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.