STOCKHOLM – As the Swedish Elitserien kicks off this week, it seems like several teams are out to prove something. There is Frölunda, the Swedish giant from Gothenburg which has been in turmoil for a few years and is now, with the help of rookie head coach, former NHL great Ulf Dahlen, determined to get back to the top.
The team has a great new goalie in Johan Holmqvist, who returns to Sweden after a few years in the NHL. Andreas Karlsson was also added, coming from the Tampa Bay Lightning after leaving Frölunda in 2005 as the Elitserien scoring leader.
Then there’s HV71 Jönköping, which wants to prove that it can follow up on a great 2008 season. The core of the team is intact, and the club added Teemu Laine from Finland, and Kim Staal from Linköping.
There’s Skellefteå with a new coach, there’s Rögle Ängelholm, the newcomer. Brynäs Gävle saved its spot in the highest division in the same qualification series with Rögle, and Djurgården, the pride of Stockholm, wants to take it to the next level.
And then there’s Linköpings HC. The ugly duckling ten years ago, now the beautiful swan who advanced to the semi-finals in 2006, and to the finals in 2007 and 2008 – losing both times. Last year’s coach, Janne Karlsson, is back in Gothenburg as Ulf Dahlen’s assistant. His successor behind the Linköping bench is Slavomir Lener, a merited coach who - that’s right - may have something to prove in the Swedish league.
Despite his World Championship and Olympic gold medals as an assistant coach with the Czech national team, his two seasons at the helm of Luleå in Elitserien were only so-so, when the team bowed out of the playoffs in the quarterfinals, losing to Linköping both in 2005 and 2006. In Linköping, Lener has a team with hunger, experience and skill. He has familiar faces in the locker room with both Jaroslav Hlinka and Jan Hlavac filling the void that Tony Mårtensson and Mattias Weinhandl left when they joined the Russian KHL. All three won the Czech championship with Sparta Prague in the mid-1990s.
Hlinka and Hlavac together with Eric Beaudoin bring an excellent one-two-three punch to the ice, with Beaudoin often delivering the final blow. The Canadian has been a 25+ point scorer in the Swedish league in the past, but Linköping hopes that his pre-season streak - 10 points (6 goals) in the seven Nordic Trophy games - continues through to April.
The season began well, as Linköping marched on to the Nordic Trophy victory, beating Frölunda in the final, a match-up most of the other coaches publicly said they expect to see again in April.
Linköping is also one of the two Swedish teams in the inaugural Champions Hockey League.
“The Nordic Trophy consists of top teams in Sweden and Finland, and that’s exactly what a coach wants: tough games against top teams,” Lener told IIHF.com. “The Champions Hockey League is even better as we get to play against ZSC Lions Zurich and Slavia Prague even if the schedule is challenging - we play five games in eight days at one point - I try to look at it positively,” he added.
With the Nordic Trophy victory under his belt, Lener now prepares his team for the Elitserien.
“He’s a true competitor,” said Mikael Håkansson, who played on the same line with Hlinka and Hlavac in the pre-season.
“He obviously wants to win every game, and we hope that his will and drive are contagious,” he said, smiling.
Lener lost two playoffs series in a row to Linköping. Linköping, in turn, has lost two finals in a row. Maybe together, they can go all the way. Notebook:
- Six of the 12 Swedish teams have a new head coach for the season.
- Djurgården’s starting goalie, Stefan Ridderwall, is just 20 years old, and his backups Mark Owuya and Gustaf Wesslau are 19 and 23, respectively.
- The average age of the Brynäs goaltending tandem is 19. Jacob Markström, the projected starter, is 18. Anders Lindbäck is no longer a teen, at 20.
- The Elitserien opened with the HV71 vs. Frölunda Gothenburg classic on September 15. HV71's 38-year-old defenceman Per Gustafsson, who had three goals in the entire 07-08 campaign, scored as many times in the 6-2 drubbing of their regional rivals. Frölunda's Johan Holmqvist was substituted in the second period after allowing five goals, one of them from centre ice.