Nicklas Lidstrom and the 15 Best Swedish Players of All Time

Rob KirkCorrespondent IIJune 4, 2012

Nicklas Lidstrom and the 15 Best Swedish Players of All Time

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    Many great hockey players have hailed from Sweden. No NHL team has benefited more from the talent in Sweden like the Detroit Red Wings. Their 2008 Stanley Cup championship team featured nine players from the Tre Kronor (Three Crowns in Swedish).

    Nicklas Lidstrom was the most prominent of the nine, and his retirement last week is bittersweet for many fans.

    I had watched Nicklas Lidstrom's career in its entirety and marvelled at his ability to be such a dominant force in such a physical game, without really being physical. His positioning, vision and stick handling drew immediate comparisons to the all-time greats, most specifically Wayne Gretzky because of the similarities in size and lack of physical presence.

    Now don't get me wrong, Lidstrom didn't avoid contact and would certainly use his body as needed, but it was a very small part of what made him so effective as a hockey player. The international style of hockey is much different than the game in the NHL. There is a larger ice surface, for one, which opens up the play a bit more allowing for more space.

    There is a premium placed on puck movement, since the puck can move faster across the surface than the skaters on the ice. While there is certainly contact in the international game, the NHL and its smaller playing surface see a much more physical style of play.

    Because of this, the consensus among some North American hockey "purists" has the European and Russian players labelled as "soft." Regardless of opinion, international play, specifically Olympic play, showcases the best of each nation and put all opinions and notions to rest.

    Sweden, as one of only three nations to be two-time Olympic champions in the last 30 years, has certainly had its share of talent. Here are 15 of the greatest Swedes to ever play the game.

Tomas Holmstrom

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    I'll get my Red Wings bias out of the way early, I promise. I truly believe Holmstrom deserves mention, though, because of the unique role he has played in his career.

    No player in hockey has taken as much "legal" abuse as Holmstrom, as he has made his office space in front of the crease for deflections and screens. While he was hardly a slouch in his younger days, the wear and tear on his body over the years have rendered him fairly one-dimensional in the latter years of a great career.

Henrik Zetterberg

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    When you can go "all Forsberg" on a goalie as hot as Mike Smith this past season, you have a very special set of skills. Zetterberg ranks as one of the top two-way forwards in the NHL and the world.

    Zetterberg can shut down an opponent's best player on one end of the ice while being a constant threat to score at the other.

Niklas Kronwall

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    With Lidstrom gone in Detroit, No. 55 will pick up much of the slack and the spotlight. Kronwall has refined his game to be a more complete player largely because of Lidstrom's influence.

    It's the hits like these that bring the crowd to life, and Kronwall brings the hammer almost every night. He'll be counted on to deliver more shots with his stick than his shoulders/butt this year from the point.

Markus Naslund

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    Markus Naslund took an interesting path to this list. Traded by Pittsburgh for one-dimensional goon Alex Stojanov, to the Vancouver Canucks, he saw his career take off in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He retired from the NHL in 2009 as the Canucks' all-time leader in goals and points.

Sedin Twins

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    When their careers come to an end, the Sedin twins may end up at or near the top of this list. So far the Vancouver Canuck tandem have taken turns leading the NHL in scoring and garnering individual accolades.

    Their run to the Stanley Cup fell short by one game in last year's Stanley Cup Final. At 31, these two are still in their prime and seem more focused than ever to add to their trophy collection.

Hakan Loob

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    The owner of one of the finest names in hockey, Hakan Loob was one of the trailblazing Swedes to make a mark in the NHL. Loob became the first Swede to score 50 goals in a season for the Calgary Flames in 1988.

    The following year he helped the Flames lift their only Stanley Cup, and at age 29, he headed back to the motherland. Loob would play seven more seasons in the Swedish Elite League before retiring.

The Swedish Chef

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    Before a horrific carnival accident took his sense of smell from him, Tom Gjorngenspooner was a shifty left winger in Goteborg, Sweden. With silky mitts and a wicked wrister, Gjorngenspooner was the toast of the nation in the late 1970s before fate stepped in and altered his destiny.

    With his other four senses intact, Gjorngenspooner caught the eye of a television producer putting together a variety show. With his rugged Scandinavian good looks and infectious smile, Gjorngenspooner was a hit during the shows' cooking segment. He was a regular on the show before his embarrassing arrest for his role as a financier for a cockfighting ring.

    Sorry, I just love the Swedish chef. No list involving Sweden is complete without him.

Henrik Lundqvist

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    King Henrik's quest for the elusive Stanley Cup ended in the Eastern Conference Semifinals this year. He was looking to add the most important piece of NHL hardware to his trophy case full of international bling.

    While Lundqvist is widely regarded as one of the top goaltenders in the world, a Stanley Cup is required for him to reach elite status.

Pelle Lindbergh

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    Pelle Lindbergh was on the top of the world before a tragic car accident took him from the world at age 26. Coming off a season where he became the first European goalie to win the Vezina trophy and a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals, Lindbergh was just scratching the surface on potential greatness.

    Here's a great article chronicling Lindbergh's brief career with the Flyers.

Mats Sundin

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    As the first European player (born and trained) ever taken with the No. 1 overall pick by the Quebec Nordiques, Mats Sundin was a can't-miss prospect. He went on to average just over a point per game in his 18-year career.

    Sundin is the all-time leading scorer for the Toronto Maple Leafs and was the longest serving European captain in NHL history. Though he never was able to lift the Stanley Cup, Sundin was a key to the 2006 Olympic gold medal team.

Mats Naslund

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    No relation to the aforementioned Markus, Mats preceded his namesake as a member of the Montreal Canadiens for eight years. Like Hakan Loob, Naslund headed back to Sweden shortly after helping the Canadiens  win the Stanley Cup in 1986.

    "Le Petit Viking," as he was called by the French-Canadian media, returned to the NHL in 1994 with the rival Boston Bruins, but he ended up retiring at age 36 at the end of the lockout-shortened season.

Daniel Alfredsson

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    If it seems like Daniel Alfredsson has been the Senators captain forever, it's because he has. Almost. Awarded the "C" after his fourth season in Ottawa, Alfredsson has become the franchise's all-time leader in every major offensive category and games played.

    The hometown fans showed their appreciation for Alfredsson, the longest serving captain in the NHL, at this year's edition of the All-Star Game. He has been a staple on the Swedish national team and was the alternate captain on the 2006 gold-medal-winning team.

Bjore Salming

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    Salming is one of the greatest defensemen of his era but had the misfortune of playing at the same time as Bobby Orr in Boston and Larry Robinson in Montreal. Salming helped pave the way for other Europeans in the NHL and dispelled the myth that the Euros lacked the toughness to compete at the rugged North American level.

    "Swedish chickens," as they were called, as much for their national uniforms as for their style of play, was an all-too-common comment.

    With a manlier nickname like "The King," Salming was a fan favorite for the Maple Leafs during his 16-year stay in Toronto. In 1996, he became the first Swedish player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Kent Nilsson

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    With a mustache that knows no international boundaries, Kent Nilsson came from Sweden to the NHL's rival WHA for the Winnipeg Jets. "The Magic Man," as he was known, played two seasons for the Jets with matching 107-point seasons before the league folded.

    He was claimed by the Atlanta Flames of the NHL and hardly missed a beat. After a 93-point effort in his "rookie" year, Nilsson dropped a career-high (and franchise record) 131-point season after the team moved to Calgary. He would continue to average over a point per game in his NHL career, which ended in Edmonton with a Stanley Cup in 1987.

    Nilsson returned to Europe after winning the cup and played ten more seasons overseas before returning to Edmonton for a six-game cameo.

Peter Forsberg

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    As much as it pains me to acknowledge, former Colorado Avalanche center Peter Forsberg is arguably the best forward to come out of Sweden. If not for debilitating foot injuries, Forsberg could have had a record-setting career. His points per game average is ninth best all time while his assists per game ratio is behind only Gretzky, Lemieux and Orr.

    Quite possibly the most complete player on this list, Forsberg was also known for having a bit of a mean streak, which characterized his physical style of play. He won two Stanley Cups with Colorado and an MVP in 2003. His 171 total playoff points are the most by a Swede.

    After several attempts to overcome his injuries, "Foppa" finally retired for good in 2011 with the Avalanche. The above picture is from a jersey retirement ceremony before the Avalanche home opener earlier this year.

Nicklas Lidstrom

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    I would give Lidstrom the nod as a retirement gift, but it's fair to say he has absolutely earned it. I'll spare the list of trophies and accomplishments, but they alone put Lidstrom in a category by himself.

    The gold standard for defensemen for almost his entire 20-year career, Lidstrom was a consistent winner. His Red Wing teams never missed the playoffs.

    I wouldn't say Lidstrom revolutionized the position—he just played it better than anyone else. His performance over the course of his career was consistent to a fault. 11 goals in season one, and 11 in his last year.

    He has been described as "the perfect human" and as the "most valuable player of his generation" by teammates and his now-former general manager.

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