The 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship is just around the corner, and I had the opportunity to chat with Team Sweden head coach Tomas Montén about this year’s squad.
What follows is an exclusive question and answer session with Monten, as we continue a series of Q&A articles with some of the coaches participating in the World Junior Hockey Championships later this month in Edmonton.
Julie Robenhymer: This has to have been the most interesting year for you in terms of scouting the players available to you. Can you walk me through that process?
Tomas Montén: We had had the games in February and a little camp in Upsalla in August and a game against a tier two team and a tier three team, but that was it. Fortunately, our leagues have been playing and all the national team coaches have been given access to the games. So, I’ve been able to go to games and see them in person, both in junior and in pro. But, it’s been less games because we missed out on the league playoffs in the spring and the U18s and the Hlinka and the tournaments in Plymouth and Czech Republic in the summer. So, there’s no doubt that we’ve missed a lot of opportunities to evaluate our players. The challenge now is that I haven’t had enough time. I can only be in one place at one time and can only go to so many games and some players I’ve only seen once or twice and that makes it tough to make any decisions.
I’ve been trying to make up for it by watching a lot of video and games online and staying connected with their coaches, but at the end of the day, when I pick my team, the most important thing is knowing how I’m going to use this guy. What role will he have on my team? What can I expect him to do? And that’s going to be the biggest challenge because, especially for the younger guys, I just don’t know. I haven’t worked with the 02s that much so if it comes down to an 02 and an 01, I’ll probably go with the 01 because I’m more certain of what he can do for me and how I will use him on the team.
JR: Last month, you held a camp in Malmo and had planned to play some games with Finland, but one of your players tested positive for COVID and you shut it down. What did you learn from that experience that you will do differently for this training camp?
TM: We actually had two, but one was a false positive – that’s why using the right tests is so important moving forward because some of our guys have already had the virus and still have antibodies. – but, one was enough to shut it down. The Finns didn’t want to take the risk and neither did we. So, it was the right call. We tried to do as good as we could and we learned a couple things and have put them into place for this camp.
We’ll start on the 7th. The government in Alberta has asked us to be together for seven days before we fly to Edmonton on the 13th and we have to have three negative tests before we leave.
So, we’ll get together on the 7th and we’ll test everyone and then everyone goes to their own room. We booked the entire floor of the hotel, everyone will be separate and we have our own entrance as well. So, if there is a positive result, we’ve limited any potential exposure. Then, on the 8th, we’ll get the results back and everyone who passes will be able to go to the rink and get on the ice. We’re going to have four locker rooms so everyone can spread out and, if there’s a positive result in the second or third test, we’ll have taken the protocols to limit any potential spread.
JR: How many players do you intend to bring to camp?
TM: We’re going to start with a big roster because we really don’t know how many guys are going to pass the tests – hopefully all of them will – but we need to be prepared in case some don’t. So, we’ll bring at least 30 players to camp and go through the tests and make the final decision right before we fly based on who’s healthy enough to go and who’s a fit for the team.
That’s why making sure we’re using the right tests is so important. Like I said, some guys have already had the virus. They’re not sick. They’re not contagious, but it’s still working its way out of their system and until that happens, if they take the wrong test, it could show as a false positive. So we have to be careful and make sure we’re using the right tests because one positive test and they can’t fly. There isn’t enough time to quarantine. So, even if it’s a false positive, they’re done for the tournament.
JR: They’re not messing around.
TM: No. They’re not and we understand that the restrictions and protocols are tough because they need to be tough. The Canadian government doesn’t want to take any chances and neither do we. That’s just the way it is this year and we have to cope with it.
They’ve also arranged our travel this year. Usually, we do it on our own and fly commercial, but they’re trying to limit exposure and Hockey Canada has arranged three flights from Europe. One from Zurich with Switzerland, Germany and the IIHF staff. Another from Vienna with the Czechs, Slovaks and Austrians. And, the third one from Helsinki with Sweden Finland and Russia. We all leave on the 13th so we’ve chartered our own plane from Sweden to Helsinki on the 13th and then fly to Edmonton.
JR: That could be a real interesting flight home…
TM: We’ve done it before. When the tournament was in Ufa, Sweden, Canada and the US chartered a flight from Helsinki straight to Ufa. So, it’s been done before and as competitive as things might get on the ice, it never really carries over off it. A least not now, maybe in the past, but, yeah… if one of us wins, it could be more of a challenge.
JR: What happens when you get to Edmonton?
TM: We’ll land and the equipment will go straight tot he rink and we’ll go straight to the hotel, get tested and go to our rooms and we’ll be in lock down for the first four days. No teams will be able to practice or gather as a group until the 18th. We’ll all be in our own rooms and we’ll have four meals a day delivered to the door.
That might be tough for the coaches. The guys will have some conditioning sessions on video conference and we might have to join them so we don’t gain too much weight those first four days just sitting in our hotel rooms. We might have to bring a bigger suit! But then when everyone is cleared, we can double up in the rooms and we can move around the hotel and the rink, but each team will have their own floor and we’ll have our own areas too for team meals and meetings and a player lounge with video games and ping pong and that sort of thing.
JR: That means no team meetings, no team meals, no using the hotel gym, no nothing. You are literally in your rooms by yourselves for four days?
TM: Yes. We’re going to have team meetings, but we’re going to do them online, just like the conditioning sessions. Each player will get a packet with some small equipment like bands and balls and things. It won’t be what they’re used to, but we’re going to do our best to make the most of it and not just sit around for four days. Then, on the 18th we can have practices twice and day and get ready for the exhibitions.
But listen, these aren’t Hockey Canada’s rules. These aren’t the IIHF’s rules. It’s the government of Canada and the government of Alberta setting these rules and whatever they want us to do, we’ll do it if means we can play this tournament. I mean, it’s over 200 people from nine different countries coming to Alberta and there’s a lot of risk, so I totally understand and I’m just buying into whatever they want us to do.
This is a tough tournament and it’s always a battle on and off the ice and there are always these conspiracy theories with middle of the night phone calls and fire alarms and busses being late and, this year, I think everyone just needs to focus on what’s happening in the world outside of the rink and realize that every protocol they’re putting in place is to keep us all healthy and safe, not to give one team an advantage over another.
JR: So let’s talk about your team. What is the identity you want this team to have this year?
TM: Our hope is to build a fast team. We learned last year that, if we want to be a contender, we need to play fast – with our feet and our minds. I also think this year with the players we have, we will need to play a good team game. I don’t think we’re going to be the flashiest team or the team that dominates our games as much. So, if we don’t have the puck and we can’t play fast, we need to play smart, especially defensively. So, we need to focus on our team game to be able to defend against the top teams in the tournament to have a chance to be successful.
JR: What can you share about your goalies?
TM: This year, we have the biggest selection of goalies that play pro level hockey. So, we’ve used five goalies since February and two of them play in the SHL and two play in Allsvenskan and the fifth one plays in junior and a lot of them get a lot of minutes and tough games. This year is going to be one of the toughest decisions I’ve probably ever made about a goalie because the options are really good.
JR: Hugo Alnefelt
was your starter last year and he’s eligible again this year. Would he be considered the frontrunner as your starter?
TM: I’d say he’s the frontrunner, but things happen and we need to support that competition in case we need someone else to step in for whatever reason. If Hugo’s not in his super form, we definitely have some great options with the other guys.
JR: Let’s chat about your defensemen because I feel like your blue line is very young – or at least inexperienced at this level – this year.
We have three returning players – if they’re available – and they’re important players for us. Victor Söderström
, Philip Broberg
and Tobias Björnfot
. All of them are playing in Sweden right now, which is great, and hopefully we’ll have all three guys back because it will mean a lot for us. Without them, we’ll have some options including the ’02s that could make a good blue line for us.
JR: Any of those 02s stand out for you?
Yeah. Helge Grans
has been in a tough spot in Malmö. They signed a couple guys and he’s actually been out of the lineup a bit, but he’s a really skilled D, a puck-moving defenceman and he can work the blue line and play a really offensive part because he has that special weapon playing with the puck.
And, Emil Andrae
started the season really good. Unfortunately, his team has gone down a little bit and lost a couple games and they’ve actually been in lockdown for a few games because they had some COVID cases, but as the team has started to lose more, his ice time has gone down, but I think he’s a mobile defenceman who can play a two-way game. He reminds me of Rasmus Sandin
. I’m not saying he’s Rasmus because Rasmus was tremendous for us the last two years, but I think he’s comparable because he can play offence and defence as well.
JR: Anyone else you want to mention?
I try not to give out too many names, but one that I can’t not mention is Albert Johansson
playing with Färjestad, who’s a Detroit draft pick, because he’s been really good. He played really good when he was with us and he’s been playing really good with Farjestad. He started the season just playing 5-on-5 and now he’s playing penalty kill and power play. He was with us last year before the world juniors, but we didn’t feel he was big or strong enough, but that changed a lot this summer and he’s been really good.
JR: Let’s move up front. I’m assuming Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz will be driving your attack, but what else can we expect out of your offensive weapons in this tournament?
Obviously, those two will be important, and together with Karl Henriksson
at centre, that’s a line that has played together the past two years, both at the U18 and the U20s. So we hope they can be a leading line for us. We’ll see how that goes and if we even keep them together. We have some thoughts of maybe playing them on two different lines just to get some thing more dynamic out of it, but we know they can play together and be a force for us, for sure.
Our biggest question marks for this team are at forward. We have a lot to choose from, but we don’t really know how certain we are on them just because we haven’t been able to see them as much as we would like. These three are the only forwards that were with us last year and I’d say they are locks, but outside that, it’s pretty open.
JR: William Eklund is currently tearing it up on a line with Holtz in Djurgården. Is that leading the thought of potentially splitting up Holtz and Raymond?
TM: He’s been taking huge steps. He was with us in August and he played on the fourth line and some PK. He’s a hard worker and he’s pretty gritty as well, but now he’s playing on the top line in Djurgården and is on the power play and some PK and is playing much bigger minutes. I think he grew into the league. He’s really quick and strong on the puck and really good at getting out of corners and creating offence from down low. He’s a guy that stepped forward for us and gives us more options. That’s for sure.
JR: What about some guys that just missed last year, but have shown enough improvement to potentially make this year’s team?
TM: Noel Gunler
has had an up and down season so far and there was a lot of hype around him for the draft and, I think, once that got settled, that was the best for him and he could just leave that behind and focus on playing his game and getting better. He just changed teams because he felt like he got stuck on the fourth line in Luleå and couldn’t work his game. We’ll see how he does with Brynäs, but he is a skilled forward and, if he plays for us, that’s the role he will fill. He can create offence and we’ve used him on our second line and on our second power play, in the past, as well.
is another guy. I saw him quite a bit last year and he’s always been good with the puck, great hands, great vision, but when hen I saw him this year, I think his speed has caught up to his game. He’s a lot quicker, he skates more and he works all over the ice. He didn’t do that before. He wasn’t on our original roster to Malmö, but we had a couple injures and he got an invite and he played good. The problem is that he’s a skilled guy and he needs to play in an offensive role on your team. He’s not a a guy you put on your fourth line and tell him to kill penalties. If you want him, you should have him with skilled players and use him in offensive situations. If you don’t have room for him in that role, unfortunately, you shouldn’t bring him.
I also think Albin Grewe
has shown a lot of improvement. He was supposed to go over and play in the OHL this year and that didn’t happen because of the pandemic, so he started off with Djurgården’s junior team and he battled to the pro team and he’s been taking steps. He’s always been a player that creates offence and is strong on the puck. I think what changed is that he’s a lot better without the puck in his defensive game now. He makes better decisions and better reads. He plays a little more PK than power play and I think that’s the kind of player he will be and the kind of player that Detroit wants him to be and I think he’s done a good job with it.
JR: Anyone else we should keep our eyes on?
Not right now. We have some other players that we are obviously interested in and keeping track of, like Simon Robertsson
and Oskar Olausson
who are eligible in the next NHL Draft, but we really just don’t know how they could fit into the team. So, we’ll see how things go at the camp and if we can find a spot for them.
JR: Finally, what are your expectations for this team?
TM: Every tournament we go to, we try to win. Whether that happens on or not, we will see. We don’t have as much depth offensively as we usually do, but we think we’re strong in goal and on defence right now and if we can play a strong team game…we’ll see what happens.
Team Sweden has announced their preliminary 34-man roster
that they will narrow to 25 before leaving for the WJC bubble on December 13th and they have two exhibition games scheduled for the 21st and 22nd against Canada and Switzerland. The defending bronze medalists play their first game of the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship against Czech Republic on December 26th.