No Henrik Lundqvist, no Mattias Weinhandl, no Tony Mårtensson, no Magnus Johansson, and not even Stefan Liv. But instead, a new head coach in Pär Mårts, and with that, everything is new. Mårts, who led Team Sweden to the World Junior Championship final in 2008 and 2009, and to a World U20 Championship bronze medal in 2010, has changed the way the team plays, and while doing that, he’s also bringing in a whole new generation of players onto the big stage.
Nine of the players on the preliminary roster played under Mårts in his three World U20 Championships and all in all, there are seven players born in 1990 or later on the team that has an average age of 25 – with David Petrasek, who, at 35, will be making his World Championship debut, 15 years after his last major tournament in Team Sweden sweater: the 1995 World U20 Championship.
Mårts wants to see a more active Sweden on the ice, a team that will take initiative, hold on to the puck, and when losing it, force the opponents into making mistakes by forechecking them aggressively. He also added a mental coach on his staff which only proves that Sweden will leave no stone unturned.
Rickard Wallin, who captained the team in the last Euro Hockey Tour before the World Championship, will provide some veteran leadership, thanks to his 99 games with Team Sweden. But the real stars of the team are just kids.
Mårts is counting on them being more than all right.
With both Stefan Liv and Daniel Larsson - who played in all Euro Hockey Tour tournaments - out of the picture, Mårts had to make new plans quickly. Fortunately for him, AIK’s Viktor Fasth emerged as Elitserien’s best goalie. The 28-year-old recorded the league-best save percentage in the post-season, 94.49.
However, it was Fasth’s his first Elitserien season so the starting job will most likely be Erik Ersberg’s to lose. The 29-year-old led his Salavat Yulayev Ufa to the KHL title this season, and proved in the Czech Hockey Games last week that he’s ready. Ersberg is the most experienced of the three goalies, and even he has only 16 national team games under his belt.
Three NHLers, two KHLers, and three from the Elitserien. Three born in the 1990s, four in the 1980s, and one in 1976. The Swedish defence is a mix of everything. There’s skill, there’s toughness, and there’s goal scoring potential. Potential is all they have at this point, though, as before the tournament, the highest scoring defenceman is Daniel Fernholm, who’s scored six goals in his 53 games with Team Sweden.
In the Czech Hockey Games, Carl Gunnarson was the man on the point on power play. Gunnarson, scored four in his 68 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs and has three goals in his 27 games with Team Sweden. Then again, one of them was a big one as it clinched the Swedes’ bronze medals in Berne in 2009. On power play.
The addition of Oliver Ekman-Larsson was much needed. He will bring leadership, skill, and coolness to the Swedish blueline.
David Rundblad, Elitserien’s Best Defenceman, is one of several young players looking to make their international breakthrough in Slovakia.
Loui Eriksson is - tied with Austria's Thomas Vanek - the highest-scoring NHLer in the World Championship. The 25-year-forward finished 19th in the NHL scoring with 27 goals and 76 points, a career-high by two points. In Berne, his last World Championship, Eriksson finished fourth in team scoring, behind Weinhandl, Mårtensson, and Linus Omark. This time, he is the go-to guy.
He will get a lot of help from a pair of cousins. Niklas Persson, a former World Junior Championship, played his first World Championships two years ago in Switzerland, as a 30-year-old, but is now an invaluable allround player for Mårts. Robert Nilsson, the son of Kent, and Persson’s cousin, has always been a skilled player, but is now expected to really take his game to another level.
Magnus Pääjärvi became a household name in Sweden last year, when he scored five goals and nine points in five games. Together with another speedster, Mattias Tedenby, he will make sure that the opponent’s defence will have to stay on their toes.
The offence is a question mark. Again, there is potential, but of the 13 players on the preliminary roster, Rickard Wallin is the leading goal scorer in the World Championships. He has six goals in 36 World Championship games.
The slate is clean.
Ten years ago, Pär Mårts was about to get out of hockey. Tired of the organizational mess in AIK Stockholm, he took a job as management coach at ICA, a major Swedish retail chain, while still coaching juniors in his hometown. That’s where he felt the pull of hockey again, and that’s where he met Pär Pettersson, who became first HV71’s mental coach, and when Mårts went on to coach the junior national team and now Tre Kronor, he brought Petterson with him.
Mårts is trying to change the culture of the team. No longer will Tre Kronor wait in the neutral zone and wait for the opponent’s mistakes. His Tre Kronor will forecheck hard, stay in control of the puck, and drive to the net. While his predecessor, Bengt-Åke Gustafsson, was more of a laissez-faire style coach who liked to be liked, Mårts will give his players clear directions.
For Mårts, winning really is the only thing. His oft-repeated motto is “win at any cost”. With an asterisk. He’d rather be mentally tough than physically tough.
In his six World Championships as the head coach of Tre Kronor, Bengt-Åke Gustafsson never failed to take his team to the final four, winning one gold, and two bronze medals. He also won the Olympic gold in 2006. Yet, in the end, he was chased out of town as a loser, just like his predecessor Hardy Nilsson, who took his team to medals - two silver, two bronze - in all of his four tournaments.
In Sweden, the expectations are always high. Mårts took his junior team to the final twice, and won the bronze medal game once. If he gets the kids to believe in themselves, and play to their full potential, this team can also go to the final four.