High hopes for Holtz
by Lucas Aykroyd|11 DEC 2020
Sweden's Alexander Holtz scored three goals and two assists at his first World Juniors in 2020.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Alexander Holtz has played lots of games lately. And that goes beyond the 19 games the skillful winger has played for the SHL’s Djurgarden Stockholm this season, scoring six goals and seven assists.

In the Swedish World Junior team’s pre-tournament bubble in Sundsvall, Holtz, 18, has been teaming up with defenceman Philip Broberg (Skelleftea) in Fortnite and battling Broberg and Tobias Bjornfot (Djurgarden) in NHL 20. It’s both a welcome distraction and an enforced reality in this pandemic year, where less face time means more screen time. Holtz also likes to chill out with cooking shows and Swedish pop music.

The “Juniorkronorna”, like several other national U20 squads, are already facing adversity due to COVID-19. Forwards William Eklund (Djurgarden), Albin Grewe (Djurgarden), and Karl Henriksson (Frolunda) and defenceman William Wallinder (Modo) have tested positive, along with head coach Tomas Monten and other coaching staff members. Unfortunately, they will miss the World Juniors in Edmonton, where Joel Ronnmark and U18 coach Anders Eriksen will take the lead behind the bench.

“I play with Eklund in Djurgarden,” Holtz told IIHF.com. “He’s my best friend. So of course, it’s sad. I think everyone would love to go to a World Junior tournament with your best friend. But it’s the players and the staff we have right here and right now that are going to make it happen there in Edmonton. That’s the only thing we’re looking at.”

The chance to play alongside Lucas Raymond again brightens Holtz’s spirits. Raymond (Frolunda), who has five goals and 12 assists in 22 SHL games this season, was drafted fourth overall by the Detroit Red Wings in October, while Holtz went seventh overall to the New Jersey Devils. Blessed with magical chemistry, the duo has been dubbed the “Terror Twins” when they wear blue and yellow together. Holtz assisted on two of Raymond’s three goals in the final of the 2019 IIHF U18 Ice Hockey World Championship in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, where the host nation defeated Russia 4-3 in overtime to win that tournament for the first time ever.
Swedish forwards Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz celebrate a goal in the gold medal game against Russia at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.
photo: Chris Tanouye / HHOF-IIHF Images
“We are rivals during the season, but when we’re with the national team, we have played together almost all the time,” Holtz said. “It’s a lot of fun. He’s so skilled and such a good hockey player, and he’s a great guy as well. I think we can make a bigger impact than last year. I think this tournament is going to be fun.”

In his 2020 World Junior debut in the Czech Republic, Holtz – heralded for both his wrist shot and his slap shot – set a hot pace in the preliminary round. In Trinec, he got the overtime winner against Finland and two goals against Slovakia on New Year’s Eve. However, in the playoffs, where Sweden earned the bronze medal, he didn’t score. What changed?

“I think it was because my ice time went down,” said Holtz, who fell from 14:30 in the opener to 10:33 in the bronze medal game, both 3-2 wins over Finland. “But our first line was really good, so I can’t blame anyone! They were fantastic: Samuel Fagemo, Nils Hoglander, and David Gustafsson. They played a lot, and they earned it. What you want to do is this year is be the kind of line that plays those top minutes and is a top factor for your team in situations where you really need a goal. That’s the most important thing I learned from last year. You have seen it before, and now it’s your turn.”

This could well be Holtz’s last World Juniors, even though he will still be eligible to compete in the 2022 World Juniors co-hosted by Edmonton and Red Deer. The 183-cm, 82-kg forward has made strong SHL progress, logging between 17 and 19 minutes a game while flanking Djurgarden captain Jacob Josefson.

Josefson, a 29-year-old centre who owns World Junior silver (2009) and bronze (2010), can also offer Holtz special insights on New Jersey. Josefson was the Devils’ first-round pick in 2009 (20th overall) and called the Prudential Center home for seven NHL seasons.

“He told me about some of the New Jersey stuff,” Holtz said. “He has only good things to say about New Jersey. Josefson showed me some pictures of his home when he was there, and it looked amazing. I’m really looking forward to getting to play with the Devils in the future.”
Not only will he be living near the Big Apple, but he’s already gotten a big-time welcome from his future teammates, including but not limited to countrymen Jesper Bratt, Jesper Boqvist, and Fabian Zetterlund. Fellow #1 overall picks Nico Hischier (2017) and Jack Hughes sent him congratulatory texts, along with Travis Zajac and Pavel Zacha. Holtz even got a video message from P.K. Subban.

Although the Devils finished last in the Metropolitan Division in 2020, there is limitless potential for this young, flashy group. Holtz is keen to test himself against NHLers he admires, like Boston’s David Pastrnak and Nashville’s Filip Forsberg.

For now, though, Holtz is focused on what he can accomplish in one specific NHL rink: Edmonton’s Rogers Place. The state-of-the art arena also hosted the 2020 NHL playoffs bubble, as the Tampa Bay Lightning won their second Stanley Cup. Holtz had seven points at Rogers Place when Sweden marched to the final of the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup versus eventual champion Canada, and this time, he should surpass the five points he totalled at the 2020 World Juniors.
“I like the smaller ice,” Holtz said. “You can shoot from everywhere in the offensive zone. I think it’s perfect for my game. It’s a high-speed game when you play in the smaller rink. And Rogers Place is a fantastic arena with nice dressing rooms that have a lot of space.”

Soon we’ll see how all those hours Holtz has put in firing extra pucks after practice and on his shooting ramp at home pay off. Yet if the Swedes are to capture their third World Junior title of all time (1981, 2012), Holtz knows it’ll be a team effort. He points to fellow WJC returnees like starting goalie Hugo Alnefelt (HV71 Jonkoping) and top NHL defence prospects like Broberg, Bjornfot, and Victor Soderstrom (AIK Stockholm).

“The best thing we have is our goalie and our defence. I think it’s top of the tournament. I think we can have a really good power play as well. To win a gold medal, that is so important to have. We won gold in the U18 Worlds with a really good power play. As well, I think coming together as a group is so important. You can talk a lot about it, but it’s so important. We need to come together and be a strong team on the ice.”

2021 will be the first – and hopefully the only – World Juniors ever played in a bubble. Still, the excitement and emotion of winning this tournament will remain the same for the champions. You can hear it in Alexander Holtz’s voice when he talks about the dream of hoisting the World Junior trophy on 5 January. He’s got high hopes, and he can’t wait for the real games to start. Sweden opens against the Czech Republic on Boxing Day.

“It’s those moments you train for and work for every day. It’s those moments you dream of!”