Sweden will enter the 2014 Winter Olympics with a chip on its shoulder after a disappointing bronze medal defeat three years ago in Vancouver.
The Swedes were the defending gold medalists in 2010, but they became the fourth team from the Scandinavian country to not medal since 1980 (nine Olympics).
Since the 2010 Olympics, Sweden has developed some of the finest young players in the world, especially on the blue line. Many of these stars will play important roles in the team's success in Sochi, where the Swedes will attempt to win their third ice hockey gold medal since the 1990s, which would be the most of any nation (Canada also has two).
Let's take a look at a roster projection for Sweden, predict the best lines/pairings and determine where it will finish in Sochi.
Here's the Olympic camp roster for Sweden, per Swehockey.se:
- Goaltenders: Henrik Lundqvist, Viktor Fasth, Robin Lehner, Jhonas Enroth
- Defensemen: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niklas Kronwall, Victor Hedman, Johnny Oduya, Jonas Brodin, Alexander Edler, Jonathan Ericsson, Nicklas Grossmann, Erik Gustafsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Douglas Murray, Henrik Tallinder
- Forwards: Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Nicklas Bäckström, Loui Eriksson, Johan Franzén, Gabriel Landeskog Carl Hagelin, Patric Hörnqvist, Marcus Johansson, Marcus Krüger, Oscar Lindberg, Joel Lundqvist, Gustav Nyquist, Niklas Persson, Alexander Steen, Henrik Zetterberg, Patrik Berglund, Jimmie Ericsson
Much like the United States and Canada, there are a lot of quality players who will be forced to stay at home instead of travel to Sochi and respresent Sweden. There's a lot of competition to make this roster, especially on the blue line, where the Swedes have more depth than almost every other nation.
Here are three players who barely missed my final 25-man roster.
Douglas Murray, Defenseman
Murray is one of the toughest defenseman at the Sweden Olympic camp and provides incredible size (6'3" and 245 pounds) on the blue line, but his lack of mobility would make the team's defense vulnerable to speedy forwards on an Olympic-sized sheet of ice.
The 33-year-old veteran's skill set (lack of quickness, limited offensive talent) would not be a good fit for Sweden, especially since there are so many exciting young defenseman who need international experience (including Brodin, Ekman-Larsson and Karlsson).
Nicklas Grossmann, Defenseman
Grossmann would provide the Sweden blue line with valuable physical play, penalty-killing ability and experience, but his lack of durability and limited offensive skills make him a poor fit for this roster. He's missed a combined 49 games over the past three seasons and doesn't have the speed or quickness to excel on an Olympic-sized sheet of ice.
The 28-year-old veteran also wouldn't make much of a scoring impact for Sweden. He's tallied only 51 points over his seven-year NHL career.
Oscar Lindberg, Center
Leaving Lindberg off the roster was difficult because Sweden doesn't have tremendous depth at center. With that said, he doesn't offer as much penalty-killing ability, toughness or Stanley Cup experience as Kruger does. Sweden won't be lacking offense in Sochi, which makes a forward with little defensive skill such as Lindberg a poor choice for the bottom two lines.
Here's my projected 25-man roster for Sweden at the 2014 Winter Olympics:
- Goaltenders: Henrik Lundqvist, Viktor Fasth, Robin Lehner
- Defensemen: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niklas Kronwall, Victor Hedman, Johnny Oduya, Jonas Brodin, Alexander Edler, Niklas Hjalmarsson
- Forwards: Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Nicklas Bäckström, Loui Eriksson, Johan Franzén, Gabriel Landeskog Carl Hagelin, Patric Hörnqvist, Marcus Johansson, Marcus Krüger, Gustav Nyquist, Alexander Steen, Henrik Zetterberg, Patrik Berglund
Projected Starter: Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers)
Lundqvist is arguably the best goaltender in the world and was the starter in net for Sweden during its gold medal triumph back in 2006. He has a 7-2 record and a 1.85 GAA over the last two Olympics, which gives him more experience on this stage than almost every other starting goaltender expected to compete in Sochi.
Sweden will, once again, be a top gold medal contender because it has an elite goaltender anchoring an ultra-talented blue line. Lundqvist is a big-game goalie who makes the clutch saves late in matchups when there's no room for error.
Projected Backups: Viktor Fasth (Anaheim Ducks), Robin Lehner (Ottawa Senators)
The Swedes won't have a lot of experience behind Lundqvist in Sochi. Fasth and Lehner have no Olympic experience and a combined 50 games of NHL experience.
Fasth proved that he could be a quality No. 1 goaltender on a contending team last season when the 30-year-old started out 7-0 and gave veteran Jonas Hiller stiff competition for the starting job. He's calm and composed in net and doesn't let mistakes negatively impact his performance. This is why he's the best choice to backup Lundqvist.
As for Lehner, he is the future in net for Sweden. He's the nation's best option to take over as the starter when Lundqvist's international career ends. The 22-year-old has been impressive at the NHL level with a 9-9-4 record and a .925 save percentage over the last three years in Ottawa.
Projected Defensive Pairings
|1||Oliver Ekman-Larsson||Niklas Kronwall|
|2||Erik Karlsson||Jonas Brodin|
|3||Johnny Oduya||Niklas Hjalmarsson|
The Swedish blue line will be one of the deepest and most talented groups of defensemen at the Sochi Olympics. There is an incredible amount of offensive skill, headlined by smooth-skating, high-scoring defensemen such as Karlsson, Ekman-Larsson, Oduya and Brodin.
The top pairing should be Ekman-Larsson and Kronwall. These two players are phenomenal defensively because of their high hockey IQ, responsible positioning, willingness to block shots and experience playing against opposing teams' best forwards. This duo would make up Sweden's best possible shutdown pairing in Sochi.
A second pairing of Karlsson and Brodin would be able to dominate on an Olympic-sized sheet of ice because these players are two of the best skating defenseman in the NHL. They have tremendous speed and the ability to skate out of trouble to avoid the forecheck. Karlsson and Brodin should also feature on the power play because of their puck-moving and playmaking skills.
The third pairing could look familiar to Blackhawks fans. Oduya and Hjalmarsson were one of the finest pairings in the 2013 playoffs for Chicago and played a critical role in the team's Stanley Cup run. Hjalmarsson is a top-tier two-way defenseman who's complimented perfectly by the offensive skills and mobility of Oduya.
This blue line has very few weaknesses and will make Sweden one of the most difficult teams to score on in Sochi.
Projected Forward Lines
|1||Daniel Sedin||Henrik Sedin||Loui Eriksson|
|2||Henrik Zetterberg||Nicklas Backstrom||Johan Franzen|
|3||Gabriel Landeskog||Patrik Berglund||Carl Hagelin|
|4||Alexander Steen||Marcus Kruger||Patric Hörnqvist|
The Swedes have a lot of Olympic and NHL experience at forward, headlined by veterans from the 2006 gold medal team including Zetterberg and the Sedin twins. There's a lot of offensive skill in this group, but above all else, the two-way abilities of these forwards is what's most impressive.
Zetterberg, Eriksson, Franzen, Berglund, Kruger and Landeskog will provide responsible defense, consistent back checking and fight for loose pucks in all three zones. This is a disciplined group of forwards who understand what it takes to win important games.
As for specific line combinations, don't be surprised if the Detroit Red Wings (Zetterberg and Franzen) and Vancouver Canucks (Sedin twins) teammates are together for chemistry reasons. Kriger, Steen and Hörnqvist would also make a solid checking line and a trio that could be trusted in defensive zone situations.
Sweden has a well-rounded collection of forwards that will provide experience (Zetterberg, Franzen and Sedins), speed (Hagelin), skill (Sedins and Backstrom), defense (Eriksson) and youth (Landeskog).
Niklas Kronwall, Defenseman
Sweden doesn't have as much toughness and penalty-killing skill on the back-end as some of the other top gold medal contenders, including the United States and Canada.
As one of the most physical defensemen in the NHL, Kronwall's ability to shut down opposing teams' best forwards, clear traffic from the front of the net, block shots and kill penalties makes him Sweden's most valuable blueliner.
He's also the most experienced defenseman expected to make the final roster based on his participation at the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics.
Henrik Lundqvist, Goaltender
Lundqvist has the ability to win an international tournament almost by himself as a goaltender who rises to the occasion in high-pressure moments, evidenced by his brilliant performances for Sweden on its gold medal run seven years ago.
As the team's best player, it's no secret that Lundqvist's play in net is going to have the biggest impact of anyone on the team.
This is why a poor performance from the 31-year-old would ruin any chance that the Swedes have of returning to the medal stand. His likely backups, Fasth and Lehner, have never played in Olympic competition. If Lundqvist was unable to play in Sochi due to injury, Sweden would be in trouble because it lacks the ideal amount of goaltending depth.
Henrik Zetterberg, Left Wing
As the best candidate to captain the squad, Henrik Zetterberg's leadership is going to play a huge part in the success of this team. He's the only forward invited to the Olympic camp with a Stanley Cup ring and a gold medal.
In addition to his excellent leadership, Zetterberg is also the best two-way player on the team as a shutdown forward capable of defending the opponent's top scorer for 20-plus minutes each game. The Red Wings star also scores clutch playoff goals and will also contribute to special teams as a valuable member of the power-play and penalty-kill units.
Goaltending: Sweden has a gold-medal-winning goaltender in the prime of his career starting in net, which gives it a tremendous advantage over other top contenders, such as Canada and Russia, that have inexperienced or unreliable netminders.
Lundqvist has only been defeated twice in nine career Olympic games. He's fully capable of handling the pressure and expectations that come with being the No. 1 goalie on a gold medal contender that's trying to make up for a disappointing fourth-place finish from 2010.
Incredible Depth and Talent on Blue Line: Sweden has one of the deepest blue lines of all 12 nations that will compete at next year's Olympics. Best of all, it's a group of defensemen with the perfect amount of mobility, speed and awareness to excel on the Olympic-sized sheet of ice that will be used in Sochi.
With so many offensive defensemen expected to make the final roster, including Ekman-Larrson, Brodin, Oduya and Karlsson, Sweden should get plenty of scoring production from the blue line, especially on the power play. There's an abundance of puck-moving and playmaking skill on the back end.
Stars With No Olympic Experience: Even though there are some returning veterans who were part of the 2006 gold medal squad, many of the most important players have zero Olympic experience.
Landeskog, Kruger, Steen, Berglund, Ekman-Larsson, Karlsson, Brodin, Hjalmarsson and Edler have never competed at the Olympics. Asking them to play key roles on the team without any experience in this type of competition is a risk, but it's one that Sweden has to take because many of these talented young players represent the future of this nation's hockey program.
Lack of Physical Defenseman: Kronwall is the only hard-hitting defenseman on the Swedish blue line, and this could be an issue if this team faces a gritty opponent, such as the United States, in one of the final rounds of the tournament.
None of the defensemen on Sweden's Olympic camp roster finished in the top 40 of hits and Hjalmarsson was the only player to rank in the top 25 of blocked shots last season.
Sweden normally goes into the Olympics as one of the underrated contenders despite its impressive amount of depth and talent throughout the roster. Luckily for the Swedes, this team should be much-improved from the 2010 roster that lost the bronze medal game to Finland.
The blue line is also a lot better than it was three years ago. The loss of Nicklas Lidstrom is tough, but the additions of Ekman-Larsson, Karlsson and Brodin give Sweden the best group of young defensemen in the world.
In addition to the young players who will be eager to make their mark on the game's biggest international stage, the presence of experienced veterans such as Zetterberg and the Sedin twins will ensure that Sweden doesn't falter when the pressure mounts.
Bovada currently gives Sweden the third-best odds to win the gold medal at 4-1, which is a fair estimation of its chances in Sochi. If Lundqvist plays well and the young stars shine under the Olympic spotlight, expect to see Sweden back on the medal stand in February.
Olympic Prediction: 5-1 record, bronze medal winners