- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

MONTREAL | The past few years have been a fantastic era in the history of Swedish hockey, and Friday night should bring another stirring achievement.

Last summer, the dominant storyline at the NHL draft was a deep and talented crop of defensemen, and in the two years before that it was the rise of the Americans. The 2009 draft at Bell Centre could be remembered for the parade of Swedes to the stage.

“This year may be the Year of the Swede,” said E.J. McGuire, director of the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau.

Added Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom: “I think it is great when we have Swedish players [drafted] because we’re not a big country. We’re only 9 million people, and we’re still able to produce top players and top draft picks and players that are able to play over here in the NHL. That is something we take a lot of pride in.”

There have not been more than six Swedish players drafted in the first two rounds of a draft this decade, and no more than three in the first round. Both of those numbers could be easily surpassed by what might be the greatest crop of draft-eligible players in the country’s history.

NHL Central Scouting breaks up its rankings by continent; the top eight European forwards and the top goaltender are from Sweden. International Scouting Service has those eight Swedish forwards ranked among the top 50 skaters overall.

The Hockey News has 10 Swedes in the top 52 of its annual ranking, including five in the top 15. That’s one more in the top 52 than the United States has, and three more than the rest of Europe combined.

Such a large number in one draft year is likely an anomaly, but there is enough talent here to fill two years’ worth of selections. The Caps certainly have not shied away from selecting Swedish players, tabbing one with their first pick in two of the past three years: Nicklas Backstrom in 2006 and Anton Gustafsson last summer.

The 2009 group is led by 6-foot-6 defenseman Victor Hedman, who is challenging Canadian wunderkind John Tavares to be taken at No. 1, a pick held by the New York Islanders. But this group is far more than just Hedman. ISS rates Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson as the second-best forward. After Hedman, there could be as many as three other Swedish defensemen drafted in the first round.

“It just happens that they have a real good pool of players this year, and good for them,” Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said. “Some years it is a good year for goaltenders or Russians, some years center ice is deep and this year it is Swedes. It is probably cyclical. I don’t know if they’ve done anything at the grass-roots level in Sweden. They weren’t doing much for a while. I don’t know what has created this.”

McGuire said he thinks the Swedish development system has a lot to do with the number of high-end prospects the country has produced. While other small European countries, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Finland, have not produced many elite young players in recent years, Sweden has consistently churned out such players as Backstrom, Detroit’s Johan Franzen and St. Louis’ Patrick Berglund.

That talent has translated at the junior level. Canada continues to dominate the world junior championships, but the Swedes have lost to the Canadians in the gold medal game each of the past two years.

“I think the mentality has changed the past couple of years. I think in past years we were just satisfied with just making the [medal round], but now gold is everything,” Hedman said. “In the younger [age groups], we are starting to develop better coaches, better players and better tactics. It is starting to pay off now.”

Added McGuire: “Their club system is about developing skills - much less emphasis on high number of games. If I can be self-critical of both North American [countries], we have to adjust our way of thinking away from games, games, games with an occasional practice for the young guys. Fun practices, too - practice shouldn’t be confused with [skating] back and forth across the boards and conditioning.”

Sweden’s success extends beyond the junior level. When the teams convene in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics and what is being hailed as potentially one of the greatest hockey tournaments of all time, the team known as Tre Kronor - or “three crowns,” a reference to its logo - returns as the defending champion after winning gold four years ago in Italy.

The Swedes also won the world championships that summer, becoming the first country to pull off the double in the same year. Combine these factors, and Sweden can stake its claim to being the No. 2 hockey-playing country in the world.

“They certainly have, much to the chagrin of the proud Czechs and the Russians and the Americans,” McGuire said. “Ask a Swede: It is not the No. 1 sport in Sweden. Soccer is, so that is even more complimentary for a country that size, and I assert it is because of their development system. It is not a coincidence that the Swedish development model is one both the U.S. and Canada look hard at to see what they are doing to borrow from and stay competitive.”

Added Hedman: “Sweden is on its way up. There is great talent coming up right now. I think Sweden’s hockey future is very bright.”

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