GROUP A: SWEDEN
Last year's finish: Fourth
Last year's round-robin record: 3-1-0-0
Yahoo! Sports has asked current Canadian Hockey League imports — some of whom are playing in the tournament — to break down their national teams.
Team Sweden has one quality going for it that cannot be measured — the hunger after missing out on a medal last season.
The Tre Kronor learned a painful lesson last season that this world junior tournament is all about peak performance. Coach Roger Ronnberg's team won its pool after upending Canada 6-5 in a shootout on New Year's Eve. But it had the tables turned on it in a come-from-ahead shootout loss to Russia, which it had beaten earlier, in the semifinal three days later and wound up fourth. The lingering memory of that and lack of a big-name star have made them a darkhorse. But they have some carryover from last year with six returning players, plus four NHL first-rounders.
"We're not the general public's No. 1 team, but I think that suits us real well," says Sudbury Wolves goalie Johan Mattsson, one of three 'tenders on Ronnberg's preliminary roster. "It's really good we have Roger again this year. He's had a couple meetings with us and he's told us that he and his staff have identified some flaws that they've tried to eliminate. The more guys that they can get who have been in that situation, the better it is."
The country will host the world junior in the southern city of Malmö in two years. But the reality the symbiotic relationship between the International Ice Hockey Federation and Hockey Canada, which is bidding to host every other year starting in 2015, dictates that North American teams are dealt their hand from a slightly stacked deck.
"When we played Canada last year in front of the big crowd [18,000-plus in Buffalo], we were able to turn it around in a positive way," says forward Rickard 'Riki' Rakell of the Plymouth Whalers, one of Sweden's six returnees. "We just have to take every minute and enjoy the time."
The easiest one-line description of Sweden is that it is led by a Minnesota Wild prospect at all three positions. Their captain, No. 1 defenceman Jonas Brodin and goaltender Johan Gustafsson, a solid 6-foot-2 goaltender from Luleå in the Elitserien, are all Minny picks. Larsson might not be the best-known 19-year-old Swede with his surname — that would be Adam Larsson of the New Jersey Devils — but he's expected to set the tone for the Swedes.
"He just plays his heart out every shift," Rakell says of Johan Larsson. He's a great leader. He's got all those qualities that a captain needs."
Ronnberg might lack a superstar but will have options up front, starting with NHL first-rounders Rakell and Mika Zibanejad. Larsson, Victor Rask of the WHL's Calgary Hitmen, Ludvig Rensfeldt of the OHL's Sarnia Sting, Frölunda's Johan Sundström and William Karlsson of Västerås in the Swedish second division are all second-rounders.
Ronnberg should have enough depth to keep him from having to overextend the draft-year trio of right wings Filip Forsberg, Pontus Aberg and Sebastian Collberg. No doubt the scouts amassing in Calgary are hopeful Ronnberg will gradually give Forsberg more rope in the hope the 17-year-old sniper becomes the Swedes' X factor.
Brodin and Edmonton Oilers first-rounder Oscar Klefbom should form a yin-and-yang defence pair. Brodin seems to be straight from the Swedish assembly line that churns out defencemen seemingly incapable of making a mistake.
"Jonas can do anything out there," Rakell says. "He's got a big-league shot, so calm with the puck. He's going to have a huge tournament. We have a great mix of guys who are big and strong ... We can't have much better defencemen than what we have."
It's the first world junior for 18-year-olds Brodin and Klefbom. But the other top pairing of Dallas Stars picks John Klingberg and Patrik Nemeth made last season's squad.
"When I played with them in Lake Placid this summer, I thought the D was outstanding," Mattsson says. "We have a good mix of the offensive and defensive defencemen. We got shutdown guys and guys who can score points from the blueline."
Sweden's only world junior gold medal came in 1981, tellingly the season before Hockey Canada launched its Program of Excellence. Many have wondered why the Scandinavian nation that turns out NHL stars and wins Olympic gold medals has had difficulty at the under-20 level. Having a much, much smaller population to draw on than Canada, never mind Russia or the U.S., mostly explains it. Another factor is attitudinal. Swedish hockey fans have long prioritized the senior world championship and Olympics. Both Mattson and Rakell note that is changing, perhaps due to the growth of a global hockey village.
"It's starting to get more viewers than the real [senior] World Cup," Rakell says. "The game is so intense and people seem to like watching the juniors."
"Right now from Christmas to New Year's Eve, you just watch hockey in the evenings," Mattsson says. "It's getting bigger. Not quite as big as Canada, but it's getting there."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Forward Johan Larsson (Brynäs, Elitserien)The Minnesota Wild, who have a fistful of their prospects in the tourney, got a steal when they took Larsson 56th overall in the 2010 draft. He will likely be their No. 1 centre and an all-around contributor.
"I'd say that he's every coach's dream player," Swedish hockey blogger Uffe Bodin told Puck Worlds. "He reminds me of Sammy Påhlsson, but with an offensive upside that is much bigger.’’
Forward Mika Zibanejad (Ottawa Senators, NHL/Djurgårdens IF, Elitserien) The NHL's No. 6 overall pick played nine games for the Sens in October before returning to his homeland for more seasoning. Zibanejad will be looked to provide some grit and chip in a bit of scoring.
Forward Rickard 'Riki' Rakell (Plymouth Whalers, OHL) Rakell was a valuable energy player as a 17-year-old last winter in Buffalo. The excellent first half he's had with Plymouth, a favourite to win the OHL title, is showing he probably only dropped to 30th overall in June because he was injured in the second half of last season. He's one of six Anaheim Ducks prospects in the tournament, along with Canadian first-line winger Devante Smith-Pelly and U.S. goalie John Gibson.
Defencemen Jonas Brodin and Oscar Klefbom (both Färjestads BK, Elitserien) Brodin, whom the Wild (who else?) took No. 10 overall in June, is already a top defender in the Elitserien. He plays the sound, patient game. The colourful Klefbom is almost like his alter ego on the ice; the Edmonton Oilers first-rounder is a 6-foot-4 offensive defenceman who will take some chances on the ice.
MUST WIN GAME: Finishing fourth often means a friendly draw the following season since two of the other three medalists are in the other pool. Sweden should be favoured in its first three games, setting up a battle for the bye on New Year's Eve night against Russia. Sweden had won the last three round-robin meetings, two via shutout, before Russia edged them in last January's semifinal.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.