Woosh. That would be the sound of a metaphoric Elite Series hockey season zooming past. (In actual fact, it was a slow amble, although use of the fast-forward button creates the desired “woosh” effect.) It is time for playoffs and that means more than just the championship, but also the fight to avoid relegation.
ELITE SERIES QUALIFICATION TOURNAMENT
I had adopted Rögle BK as my team of choice during this year’s campaign. The Rölers, as I called them, held their own early season to initially surprised many.
Yet, here it is the Rölers who return to the Elite Series qualification tournament, this year as the losers defending their position rather than winners from the Allsvenska. The team gained promotion from the Allsvenska in dramatic fashion last spring in the final tournament match. During the off-season they made both smart and fluky acquisitions, including NHL veteran Mathias Tjärnqvist (brother of Daniel) and the anonymous Canadian twins Chris and Cam Abbott.
By mid-season, the team from Ängelholm was comfortably in the middle of the table in the 12 team league. But the trend was not the Rölers friend. Losses and injuries began to mount and it was mostly movements down in the standings as they approached March. They finished 11th and face the qualification tourney.
Joining them as relegates-to-be is Björn Bjurling’s Södertälje SK. The Edmonton Oilers drafted goalie posted okay numbers (90.93% save perc. & an average 34 shots per game) and was a lone bit of stability for SSK. The problem lay in that Södertälje managed next to no offence, registering a league low 122 goals for, which had them suckling on the bottom of the standings for most of the year.
To some degree blame could be the revolving door (literally) into the coach’s office. Södertälje fired Leif Strömberg on December 10, only to recently rehire him February 26. Södertälje, it would seem, is plagiarizing Brynäs circa 2007-08. Brynäs IF used a similar distorted management style last year firing and rehiring Leif Boork as they miraculously hung around and qualified for another year in the Elite Series. It remains to be seen if SSK can wholly emulate Brynäs and re-qualify for next year's Elite Series.
Not to be outdone, March 2, after the final regular season game, Rögle (correction: Rölers) management promptly and inexplicably fired their coaching duo Peter Johansson and Björn Hellkvist. A new skipper, Gunnar Persson, is also a former skipper (coached Rögle '04-'06) and has been entrusted to stave off the team’s relegation back to the Allsvenska.
On the topic of coaches, former Edmonton Oiler Bert Robertsson together with colleague Jonas Rönnqvist has over-exceeded all expectations in their first year with Uppsala team Almtuna IS. Head coach Rönnqvist and assistant Robertsson have brought a high-tempo, aggressive-forecheck style to a team made up primarily of worker-bees and grinders. Bert and team knocked off last year’s Elite Series relegate, Mora IK in the first playoff to the qualifying tournament.
Their success in part is coaching, but can also be due to goaltender, Mark “in da park” Owuya . He is on loan from Djurgårdens IF and has been a stellar workhorse all season. Unfortunately, his return in Almtuna next year is highly doubtful. The 19 year old, who was passed over in the 2008 NHL draft, has turned many heads with his poise between the pipes for Almtuna. A return to Djurgårdens next season is most likely yet the playoff experience is all the better for his development, confidence and I wouldn't be suprised if he would be drafted this June. His hip-hop/urban Swedish stylings, on the other hand (as seen on his website), should be retired.
Above collage: A few of the Berts I know (and one Burt)
Should little Almtuna miraculously get promoted to the Elite Series, the crummy and cold Gränby Ishall (or, as I call it, ice hole) would be quite the embarrassment to top tier hockey in Sweden. At capacity, 2562 people would make it warm and cozy, though then I think the ice surface would spontaneously melt (sarcasm).
Point is, despite a lousy arena, Almtuna is a minnow and will not achieve promotion.
At present, the Elite Series qualification tournament will be Rögle BK, Södertälje SK (11 & 12 respectively from the Elite Series) along with Leksands IF, AIK, and VIK Västerås HK (1, 2 & 3 from the Allsvenska). One final spot in the tournament goes to the winner of the best-of-3 playoff between the Växjö Lakers and the aforementioned Almtuna IS. The tournament is a 10 game round-robin format where teams play each other home and away. Teams finishing first and second qualify for the '09-'10 Elite Series.
SWEDISH ELITE SERIES PLAY-OFF
The playoffs in the tier I Elite Series began earlier tonight. Notable is that, unlike the NHL, the top 4 teams get to choose their opponents.
- Perennial superpower Färjestads BK (1) choose to face Brynäs IF (7),
- 2008 runner-up Linköpings HC (2) meet Skellefteå AIK (6),
- defending champs HV71 (4) go up against late-season surging Timrå IK (8), and
- Gothenburg team Frölunda HC (3) surprisingly chose to face Linus Omark’s Luleå HF (5).
Luleå HF forward and Edmonton Oilers 2007 draft pick Linus Omark has not only had a break-out season, finishing third in league scoring (23 G, 32 A = 55pts), but he also stole the show in game 1. Together with linemate Johan Harju, Omark's "magic" set up 3 goals, in a 5-1 rout of Frölunda.
A successful playoff seems apparent and bodes well in advance of his first NHL training camp (he attended the Oilers' June 2008 prospect camp). His prowess for scoring points, stick-handling wizardry and the Oilers' heightened interest in the little guy from Overtorneå made for newsprint foder both in Sweden and North America. It remains to be seen where in the Oilers’ depth chart, amid the logjam of small-guy-scorer-types, he might fit.
My expectations of him were far exceeded, especially after this blog entry from preseason camp.
Färjestads BK has had a comeback year, of sorts. Long time General Manager Håkan Loob has managed to keep continuity in the organization and always fields a contender in Karlstad. Yet it was last year's embarrasing exit in the playoffs and turmoil among coaches and team that were the scars heading into this season. After a bit of retooling, it was ironically their strong team ethic (and solid goaltending) season long that won them first place in the standings.
Oilers' 2008 draft Johan Motin’s had a stable sophomore campaign for Färjestads. He appeared in 52 of 55 matches, racking up 11:09 minutes per match while registering 3 assists and 28 minutes in penalties. They are hardly exciting statistics, although they are typical numbers for a young yet dependable stay-at-home defenseman. Färjestads will likely have a much stronger playoff performance this spring and Motin will be in that mix.
OTHER OILERS PROSPECTS
Allsvenska player William Quist is about to get the boot from the Edmonton Oilers wagon. I saw the 2007 draft pick play in Uppsala in October (video below). His team, the Nybro Vikings were lousy with a capital L. William's play that day was half-hearted. In fact, that would be a good description of what I’ve read of William’s travels in his young hockey career. His junior career, try-outs with the national junior teams, and even his time in Oilers rookie camp have all been a bit lacking in that je ne sais quoi. For every spark of life or creativity in a shift, there are 4 shifts of not-so-much. Quist did not find a strong role on his team, which happens to be approximately the same story last season.
The Nybro Vikings were not a good club this year and they will have to re-qualify to stay in the tier II Allsvenska. For Quist, he can forget the NHL in the short term and focus on keeping his team in Sweden’s second highest league. Those that claim he's young (only 19) and he needs time to find his bearings, should re-read Almtuna's Mark Owuya story.
With spring in the air, I feel it necessary to finish off with a Soccer (hereafter known as Football) note, and womens football at that. A trio of Canadian women will lace up their boots for Piteå IF in the coming season of the Women’s Allsvenska (damallsvenska). This will mark the return of Canadians to Swedish women's football after a bit of a hiatus.
The W-League (and now the new WPS) is often a destination of choice for Canadians wanting to play professional. Work visas and connections often limit Canadians opportunities in European football but I get the sense that opportunities do abound. Personally, I am pleased to see Canadian women getting recruited and choosing to play in Europe, and especially Sweden. It is a high quality league and the training opportunities and competition add new experience and technique to a player's game (and therein also to the competitiveness at the national team level).
Speaking of new experience and technique, the CSA has (finally) made a smart move hiring an Italian to coach the Women's National Team (WNT). After 6 years under the guidance of Norwegian Even Pellerud, Carolina Morace took over the WNT February 5.
Those who care about the development of football in Canada can only hope that this will spell the end to the ugly dump-and-chase style employed by Pellerud during his WNT tenure. Goodbye to deep bombs and hello to ball control. Il ritorno di bello gioco di calcio!