Team Sweden took a couple of big hits over the weekend, losing three significant players from their World Junior roster: Karl Henriksson, William Eklund, and William Wallinder. Reports out of Sweden indicate that both players had positive COVID-19 tests that prevented them from making the trip to Canada.
That’s tough news both for the players and for Sweden. Henriksson, the New York Rangers’ second-round pick from 2019, was expected to centre the team’s top line between the “Terror Twins,” 2020 picks Alex Holtz and Lucas Raymond. Eklund, meanwhile, is a top prospect for the 2021 draft that can play on both the wing and at centre. He’s been excellent in the SHL this season with 12 points in 16 games as an 18 year old and could have skated on the wing on the second line or potentially filled in at centre for Henriksson.
That leaves a large gap at centre for Sweden, which opens up a big opportunity for Arvid Costmar, a seventh-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2019.
Wallinder, a second-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings, was expected to be on the team’s third pairing for the upcoming tournament. His SHL team, MODO, recently had a COVID-19 outbreak, so his positive test isn’t entirely surprising.
That potentially opens up a spot for Canucks prospect Viktor Persson to make the team, but Sweden is still waiting for test results for Persson and two of his teammates from Brynäs, who just had a positive test result on their roster. Like Costmar, Persson is a seventh-round pick looking to buck the odds to make the NHL.
Before either Costmar and Persson can shine on the World Junior stage, however, they have to get to the tournament.
Hockey Canada's strict COVID-19 protocols
According to Eklund, he received his positive COVID-19 report “one day late,” preventing him from quarantining for the appropriate length of time to travel to the World Junior tournament according to the Canadian protocols. An inquiry with Hockey Canada over the specific protocols for this year’s tournament has yet to receive a response, but the restrictions are evidently significant.
The stringent regulations are understandable given that teams will be travelling to Canada from nine different countries to enter a quarantined bubble in Edmonton similar to that of the NHL during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. One player, coach, or staff member carrying COVID-19 could cause an outbreak, putting the tournament in jeopardy, not to mention the health of everyone involved.
Sweden’s approach to handling the COVID-19 pandemic — avoiding lockdowns, accepting death tolls, and hoping for the development of “herd immunity” — has largely been a disaster, with a high rate of both infection and death, particularly in comparison to their Nordic neighbours. It isn’t surprising that these infection rates have led to problems for Sweden’s World Junior team.
They’re certainly not alone, however. Two weeks ago, Team Canada had two positive COVID-19 tests of their own and entered a 14-day quarantine. That quarantine is ending this week, however, and the team can get back to training, hopefully with stricter adhesion to protocols to prevent further positive tests.
For Sweden, however, they’ve already lost some top players and will head to Edmonton with a roster that doesn’t represent the best they have to offer.
What that means for Costmar and Persson, however, is an opportunity to show the Canucks that they were right to take a gamble on them in the final round of the draft.
Opportunities for two Canucks seventh-round picks
Costmar was likely to centre the second line before Henriksson’s positive COVID-19 test and now could find himself centring two of the best players in the tournament: Raymond and Holtz, aka. Captain Raymond Holt, aka. Velvet Thunder. That’s a major opportunity to prove he has legitimate upside to go with his high motor and strong two-way play.
At the junior level in Sweden, Costmar is dominant, but has just one goal in 16 SHL games while playing in a fourth-line role. With Team Sweden’s lack of centre depth, Costmar won’t be on the fourth line at the World Juniors and will have the chance to make a statement.
Persson, meanwhile, has never played for Sweden on the international stage, which is likely why he flew under the radar and was available for the Canucks in the seventh round. The smooth-skating blueliner could finally get his opportunity to wear the tre kronor after a strong start to his junior season that has seen him improve his defensive play to go with his offensive playmaking.
With Wallinder off the roster, Persson’s path to making Sweden is a little more clear, though it still has its obstacles. Sweden has a strong defence with several returning players from last year’s bronze medal team and other top-end prospects. That Persson, a seventh-round pick, even has a chance to make the team shows that the Canucks might have found a diamond in the rough.
More important than the opportunity for Costmar and Persson, however, is the health and safety of all the players, coaches, and staff heading to Edmonton for the World Junior tournament. The strict measures imposed by Hockey Canada may seem draconian to the Swedish players — Eklund called them “strange rules” — but Sweden’s more laissez-faire approach to COVID-19 won’t work for a tournament that features players from ten different countries.
In fact, those strict measures might be the only reason the 2021 World Junior Championship gets played at all.