WJC: Nylander, Davidsson playing important roles for Sweden

December 30, 2017

Sweden is always one of the top nations when it comes to any international hockey event, but the IIHF Under-20 World Junior Championship is one that they always seem to dominate.

In the preliminary round of the tournament, the Swedes are dominant. They have not lost a game in the preliminary round since the 2007 tournament, and they have now won 21 consecutive games in regulation during the opening round of the World Juniors. However, they have been in a slump since winning the gold medal in 2012. Since then, Sweden has won the silver medal in 2013 and 2014, but have finished fourth in the last three tournaments.

This Swedish team is hoping that the 2018 tournament in Buffalo will help turn the tide for their program, and they hope to get back to the medal stand with the hopes of winning gold once more.

The Buffalo Sabres have two prominent prospects playing for the 2018 Swedish squad. They are 2016 first round pick Alexander Nylander, and 2017 second round pick Marcus Davidsson.

Nylander is taking part in his third consecutive World Junior tournament, and has had a great amount of success playing with Sweden. In 14 combined games over the first two years, Nylander scored nine goals and registered 21 points. At the 2017 tournament in Canada, Nylander finished tied for first in points with 12, but his team lost in the bronze medal game to the Russians.

This season did not get off the right start for Nylander. He suffered a lower-body injury in September during the Prospects Challenge at HarborCenter, and missed two full months of action. Upon his return to the Rochester Americans in the American Hockey League, Nylander has struggled to get his feet under him with just two goals and six points in 15 games. If there was anything that could get him back up to speed with his game, the World Juniors may very well do the trick.

"This [tournament] obviously helps along with the games in Rochester, and I'm trying to get into my top form here," Nylander said after Thursday's 3-1 win over the Czech Republic at KeyBank Center. "It's helping me a lot, and it's good for my development. I just feel like I'm getting better and better every game."

"I think he's looked good," Swedish head coach Tomas Monten said of his play since joining the roster. "I know he's had a rough [start to the] season before the World Juniors this year than last year. Last year he came in pretty hot, and this year he said, 'I don't really know, but I played regular minutes and everything feels good.' I don't think we felt that he's come up short in any situation so far."

So far through three games at the 2018 World Juniors, Nylander has a goal and four assists, and his five points is one point behind teammates Elias Pettersson (Vancouver Canucks), Rasmus Dahlin (2018 NHL Draft eligible), and fellow Sabres prospect Casey Mittelstadt for the tournament lead in scoring. Nylander was also honored as the Player of the Game on Thursday for his two-point effort (1G, 1A) against the Czechs.

Davidsson has even been blown away with how his teammate has played this year up to this point, and has not noticed anything that is slowing Nylander down.

"I know he's been injured this season for a couple months, so I think it's really impressive to see how strong he is right now. I can't see that he's been injured at all. I think he's playing good, and he's the type of player who controls the powerplay, and does other offensive things to surprise his opponents. He's a fun player to watch."

The Sabres loaned Nylander to the Swedish national team back on December 20th, just before the tournament started on Tuesday. Before joining the roster, the Swedish team had been practicing and working together in some exhibition matchups leading up to the tournament in Buffalo. Nylander was never worried about chemistry issues with his teammates leading up to the World Juniors, and it has shown on the ice.

"I don't think that's an issue," Nylander said. "I [joined the team late] last year, and it went well anyway. I'm just focusing on this tournament, and we're all just focusing on the tournament, winning games and doing our best."

Nylander played an important role in last year's team as a top-six offensive threat who can score and be relied upon to make some big plays. Nylander is looked upon a similar way this year, but his role on the team has expanded as one of the veterans and leaders of the group.

"As I told Buffalo, Alex is going to be a go-to guy for us in all situations," Monten said of the 19-year old. "On the powerplay, on the penalty kill, on last minutes shifts, things like that. He can take faceoffs, he play center, he can play on the wing. This is his third World Juniors, he has tons of experience and he can help out our younger guys."

Nylander is, once again, helping Sweden to being one of the top offensive juggernauts in the tournament. Through three games, Sweden already leads the tournament with 16 goals for, and is the most efficient team at getting their shots on goal into the net.

The Swedes are also one of the top powerplay teams in the tournament, converting on 31.25-percent of their chances with the man-advantage. Nylander is part of the top powerplay unit, which features a plethora of talent such as Pettersson, Dahlin, Lias Andersson (New York Rangers), and Fabian Zetterlund (New Jersey Devils). Nylander is the second point man along with Dahlin, and has been a guy who can direct traffic as well as make a play to set up a scoring opportunity.

"It's just nice to always be on the powerplay and be in that position to help out the team as much as possible when you're out there on the ice and doing good on the powerplay. It means a lot, and just have to keep working hard and playing good on the powerplay."

The Sabres are certainly hoping that the 2018 World Juniors can help Nylander turn things around for his game, and give him some confidence in his game as the second half of the season is about to begin. For someone like Nylander, who is playing in his third World Juniors, the team hopes he can keep up his dominance against other players of his own age group.

"Of course they want me to show what I can do in this tournament, using my skill and to get my game going here," Nylander said of the team's message to him "It will be a good development for me."

As for Davidsson, his role is a bit different from Nylander's. Where Nylander is an offensive weapon for the Swedes, Davidsson is the exact opposite as a shut-down, two-way center on the team's fourth line. It is a role that Davidsson is gladly accepting on this year's roster.

"It's an honor and it means a lot to me," Davidsson said. "I just try to do my best once I step on the ice...

"I think I've played good for the role I should have on this team. I'm not the guy who's going to score all the goals and make all the points. I leave that to our first and second line. We're in the face of our opponents, we skate a lot to make them tired, we're also physical to create scoring chances."

Davidsson is currently playing on a line with his teammate in Sweden Axel Jonsson Fjallby (Washington Capitals), and Zetterlund. This line brings a little bit of everything to this Swedish roster: speed, size, strength, adequate offensive skill and a strong defensive presence in all three zones.

"I think they're a spark line for us for sure," Monten said of his fourth line. "They helped us the other day, and they helped us today. They're important shifts, they play a big role on our penalty kill, and they work really hard. They move the puck to the offensive zone every shift, and they lead to offensive zone faceoffs."

This season has gotten off to a slow on for Davidsson in the Swedish Hockey League with Djurgårdens IF. Through the first 23 games, Davidsson has two goals and nine points. However, his head coach started to see his game come around before joining the Swedish roster.

"Marcus had a rough start with this club team as well," Monten said. "He didn't get regular minutes with the pro team, then he played some junior games and really battled through. Then when he got the chance to play with his club team, he was really good. I think he leads that line with that team, which has maybe been their best line, and he has [Axel Jonsson] Fjallby with him here and we try to build off that chemistry."

Through three games in Buffalo, Davidsson has a goal to go along with seven total shots on goal.

Davidsson scored his goal on Thursday against the Czech Republic, but perhaps played his best game on Saturday afternoon against Switzerland at HarborCenter. Davidsson finished the game with five shots on goal and generated a lot of good offensive scoring chances for his line. Davidsson also played very solid defensively, making a couple of nice stick checks in his own zone while being a factor in the success of the penalty kill.

"The puck maybe didn't go in, but I created a lot of scoring chances," Davidsson said. "I think the whole team also played great in the third period."

"I think he's grown from every day we've been here," Monten added. "He gets more settled in and handling everything around him, and I think he looked really good. I'm really satisfied with him."

One question that always seems to come up when talking about European drafted players is their development path, and when is the right time is to leave and join their NHL club in North America.

Davidsson is certainly one player who is willing to take his time in Sweden before making his move to join the Sabres back in Buffalo.

"I think I will play another year in Sweden to be honest," Davidsson said. "I want to develop some skills, maybe some goal scoring ability, and then I hope I'd be ready to come over here and compete. I don't want to come here too soon. I think it's better to leave home when you're really good and you know that you're going to really help the team [in North America]."

This tournament has been a tremendous experience for Davidsson, and the Swedes are certainly hoping that he keeps up his strong play to help them get back into the medal rounds come next Thursday. Davidsson has also enjoyed the fact that this year's tournament is being held in the city that drafted him, and the city that he may call home in the future.

"I think it's amazing, couldn't be a better city for me," Davidsson said. "It's nice to see all the Buffalo fans watching the games. It's very nice."

Up next for Sweden is a matchup with Russia to wrap up Group B play on Sunday night at KeyBank Center. A Sweden win gives them the top spot in Group B heading into the quarterfinal round, and a matchup with the fourth-ranked team from Group A. The Russians will be Sweden's toughest test yet in this tournament, and they will need to be well rested and roaring to go if they wish to end preliminary play on a high note.

"We play late tomorrow, so I guess that's a good thing," Davidsson said. "We'll get some more sleep, and just restore energy for tomorrow."