Olympic Countdown: Missing Sundin
Since the 1998 Winter Olympics, when NHL players were first made available to represent their country, there have been two constants for Sweden down the middle -- Mats Sundin and Jorgen Jonsson. The former is the third-leading European-born and trained scoring leader in NHL history, the latter a legend in his country who had a cup of coffee -- mostly with the Islanders -- in the NHL.|
But the 2010 Games will bring change for Tre Kronor after Sundin's announcement earlier this week that he is skipping the tournament in Vancouver. "There will be no Olympics in Vancouver for me next year," Sundin was quoted on the website of Swedish newspaper Expressen. "I will not change my mind. I think it's time that the next generation takes over. We have many good players."
It was quite a blockbuster from Sundin, who captained Sweden to the gold medal in Italy in 2006 and will turn 39 days before the tournament in Vancouver begins. But remember, he actually first declared his intention to sit out 2010 after defeating Finland in the 2006 gold-medal game. This week he just confirmed his decision.
"It was the perfect ending of a long career for Sweden, to lead the Swedish team against the best in the world and win Olympic gold for the first time when all teams had their stars playing," Sundin added. "I could not have dreamed of a better scenario for my last game."
Sundin played 41 games for the Canucks last season and didn't play his first game until Jan. 7 after shopping his services as a free agent and briefly contemplating retirement. Sundin will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and would not rule out returning to the Canucks, which would be an ideal situation for playing in the 2010 Games. But he said he will no longer don the blue and yellow.
As Sundin alluded to, Sweden has the talent to fill his roster spot, but truly replacing Sundin is nearly impossible. The 6-5, 231-pound native of Bromma is the perfect blend of scoring and leadership, and a pioneer for Europeans in the world of North American hockey (the 2010 Games will be played on NHL-sized rinks).
Sweden's current depth chart at center for Vancouver has two slam-dunk candidates in Washington's Nicklas Backstrom and Vancouver's Henrik Sedin. Both are coming off seasons of 20-plus goals and 80-plus points. The 21-year-old Backstrom has represented Sweden at two World Junior Championships and once at the World Championships. He has 157 points in 164 career NHL games. The 28-year-old Sedin is an eight-year NHL veteran who won gold in the 2006 Games, scoring 3-1-4 in eight games.
"Backstrom was an 18-year-old rookie in the 2006 World Championships when Sweden took the historic gold to go with the Olympic victory. Fast forward to today, and he may just be the first-line center in Vancouver," said NHL.com correspondent and featured blogger Risto Pakarinen, a Finn living in Stockholm who covers European hockey. "The Sedins (twins Henrik and Daniel) will be the core of another excellent offensive line and with Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg as the world's best two-way forward, Sweden head coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson -- a former NHL center himself -- won't lose any sleep over his first three lines."
The Red Wings, perhaps the biggest employer of Swedes outside of Scandinavia, offer two versatile options in Zetterberg and Johan Franzen. On Detroit's official website, they are listed as left wing and right wing, respectively. However, on the roster distributed to media before Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against Pittsburgh, Zetterberg was listed as a center. The Red Wings roster on the NHL's official media website has Franzen at center. Franzen has the game of a prototypical power forward, so it may be a stretch to have him down the middle, but Zetterberg is a good skater and two-way player who can make the adjustment. Even though he was assigned to shadow Sidney Crosby in the Cup Final, Zetterberg still managed 2 goals and 4 assists in the seven-game series.
"As for the centers, Gustafsson will probably find his four favorites," Pakarinen said, "and with the likes of Franzen and Zetterberg, he can even mix it up a little and enter the tournament with even five centermen."
Youngster Patrik Berglund of St. Louis could be called upon by Tre Kronor for his first Olympic Games. The 21-year-old has World Junior Championships experience and scored 21 goals and 47 points for the Blues as a rookie last season. "Berglund was on the World Championships roster in Switzerland in May, but didn't seem to gel with the Swedish system at that time," Pakarinen noted. Berglund managed one assist in seven games.
Chicago veteran and 2006 gold-medalist Samuel Pahlsson may also grab a roster spot but would fill a defensive role. Michael Nylander is now 36, last played in the Olympics in 2002 and is coming off two unproductive seasons with Washington.
"For Turin, Gustafsson chose good old P.J. Axelsson as a safety. In Vancouver, that role may go to Samuel Pahlsson or Dallas' Joel Lundqvist, the brother of goaltender Henrik," Pakarinen said. "Joel Lundqvist is about to return to Sweden as a free agent, but playing in the Elitserien is fine with coach Gustafsson."
Youngsters Oscar Moller and Mikael Backlund of Los Angeles and Calgary, respectively, are talented but perhaps not quite ready for the high-stakes tournament.
Of course, not all of Sweden's options are in the NHL. The Elitserien boasts some of the best talent outside North America. The top scorer among Swede's in the league in 2008-09 was Fredrik Bremberg, who went 17-40-57 in 53 games for Djurgarden, but he's a right wing. The leading scorer among centers was veteran Niklas Sundstrom (49 games, 18-35-53), who played on the 1998 and 2002 Olympic teams but was listed as a right wing on those squads. Johan Davidsson (55 games, 13-37-50) has been a productive scorer for a number of seasons with club team HV 71.
"Tony Martensson, who spent last year with AK Bars Kazan in Russia, and won the KHL championship, is also close to making the Olympic roster," notes Pakarinen. The former Mighty Duck (2003-04) scored 12 goals and 47 points in 55 games.
The biggest wild card of all is Peter Forsberg, and the former NHL star is a three-time Olympian and two-time gold medal winner. He last played an NHL game on April 29, 2008 and has since been battling a variety of groin and foot injuries. Forsberg, who turns 36 next month, would come closest to replacing Sundin's star power and leadership. In 2008-09, he appeared in only three Elitserien games with MODO Ornskoldsvik, scoring a goal and 2 assists, before his troublesome foot ailments forced him off the ice.
"Forsberg's career is way up in the air," Pakarinen said, "and even Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, while a finalist for the Norris Trophy this season, is reportedly mulling over his decision to play in 2010 over the summer."
Swedish scorers in the NHL in 2008-09
20 goals -- Daniel Alfredsson (24), Nicklas Backstrom (22), Patrik Berglund (21), Kristian Huselius (21), Markus Naslund (24, since retired), Henrik Sedin (22)
30 goals -- Loui Eriksson (36), Johan Franzen (34), Daniel Sedin (31), Henrik Zetterberg (31)
50 points -- Eriksson (63), Franzen (59), Huselius (56), Niklas Kronwall (51), Nicklas Lidstrom (59)
70 points -- Alfredsson (74), Backstrom (88), Henrik Sedin (82), Daniel Sedin (82), Zetterberg (73)
Risto Pakarinen, a former hockey player, has been published in The Hockey News and on ESPN.com, and this past May he covered the World Championships for the International Ice Hockey Federation's website (IIHF.com). To learn more about Risto and read his work, visit www.RistoPakarinen.com. You can view his NHL Connect blog page here.